Marching Through Georgia, November 30, 1864: Selecting routes for the next leg of the march

When reflecting on the March to the Sea, veterans of the Right Wing could claim, with some merit, the Left Wing had it easy.  The Left Wing had some pauses during the march (such as at Milledgeville).  Meanwhile, the Right Wing marched along the roads almost non-stop.  Such was the case on November 30, 1864 as most of the Left Wing remained at Louisville while the Right Wing advanced. But Major-General William T. Sherman ordered the pause for a valid military reason.  He was selecting the routes for the next leg of the march toward Savannah.

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Of the two corps in the Left Wing, only three divisions made significant movements on the 30th… and only one of those was advancing.  The previous day, First and Second Divisions of the Twentieth Corps advanced on the south side of the Ogeechee River as they destroyed track of the Georgia Central Railroad.  With the bridges at that point destroyed by Confederate cavalry, and the line of march in that sector already in use by the Seventeenth Corps, those two divisions backtracked to Louisville to rejoin the Corps.

First Division, Fourteenth Corps advanced southeast so Sebastopol in an attempt to secure a crossing point over the Ogeechee from the east end.  Although leading elements of the division arrived there in the afternoon, the move was redundant, as the Right Wing crossed downstream.

But those units remaining around Louisville did not have a quiet day.  Confederate cavalry harassed the Federals at several points.  Foragers ran into patrols that in turn resulted in running fights.  In at least one case an entire team of foragers were later found dead with head wounds, leading some to conclude they’d been executed.  Such incidents fueled discussions about execution of prisoners captured by Confederates.  Reporting on the outcome of his raid, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick requested to retain a group of Confederate officers as hostages.

Several of my men have been killed after [being] taken prisoners; others have been found with their bodies mutilated, throats cut, &c. I wish permission to send communication to General Wheeler, who is now in my immediate front, informing him of these facts, that I have prisoners of rank who I intend to retain as hostages, and will retaliate.

Sherman would respond to this request the next day.  So we’ll take up this issue again tomorrow.

Sherman, himself and staff, departed Louisville and joined the Seventeenth Corps line of march on the 30th.  To the Right Wing’s commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, Sherman explained the reasons for moving these forces on the south side of the Ogeechee.  Sherman related:

… your order of movement for [the 30th] is all right, except that he does not wish the Fifteenth Corps to cross the Ogeechee until he learns positively where the enemy propose to resist us. We find her that a brigade of the Twentieth Corps is in possession of the Ogeechee railroad bridge, having broken the railroad all the way up from Station 15. He has also learned that Kilpatrick was engaged in fighting the enemy yesterday north and east of Louisville, and rumors of intention to offer us battle about Millen reach us. To-morrow the Seventeenth Corps will cross at [Station] 9.5; and as soon as the commanding general can learn definitely the state of affairs north and east of the Ogeechee, he will give more definite orders concerning the Fifteenth Corps. In the meantime, he wishes that corps to be kept well in hand, ready to move rapidly to turn the position at Millen by crossing at Paramore’s Hill.

Recall when we looked at the rivers and topography along the march, the Ogeechee’s watershed contained several places where a defensive line could run directly across the line of advance.  But the advancing force could flank those positions from the opposite side of the Ogeechee.  In short, Sherman hedged his bets with the orders for the Fifteenth Corps.  And to set that up, the Right Wing was in motion while the Left Wing rested.

Major-General Peter Osterhaus, of the Fifteenth  Corps, described the terrain his command traversed that day:

The country here is almost a perfect wilderness–long-leaved pines cover the poor sandy soil but sparely, and exclude all other vegetation except where an occasional creek or marsh, lined with narrow skirts of shrub-like undergrowth, breaks this monotony; but what makes the soil almost worthless for agricultural purposes rendered it favorable to our operations. An energetic corps of axmen to corduroy roads across the creeks and marshes opens in a short time enough space for any number of columns.

To speed the movement forward, Osterhaus split the corps into two columns – the Second and Third Divisions on a road leading to Statesboro, well south of the Ogeechee; the First and Forth Divisions on the Old Savannah Road, closer to the river.  The Corps would maintain those separate columns practically to the end of the march.

The Seventeenth Corps continued their march along the Ogeechee to a point opposite Barton (Sometimes called Burton or  Station 9.5 in wartime correspondence, but today Midville).  Using repaired bridges and a 60-yard pontoon span, Major-General Frank Blair, Jr.’s Corps effected a crossing.  Soon Sherman and Staff joined them in crossing.  That evening, Major George W. Nichols, one of the staff officers, recorded the scene:

This evening I walked down to the river, where a striking and novel spectacle was visible.  The fires of pitch pine were flaring up into the mist and darkness; figures of men and horses loomed out of the dense shadows in gigantic proportions; torch-lights were blinking and flashing away off in the forests; and the still air echoed and re-echoed with the cries of teamsters and the wild shouts of the soldiers.  A long line of the troops marched across the foot-bridge, each soldier bearing a torch, and, as the column marched, the vivid light was reflected in quivering lines in the swift running stream.

Soon the fog, which here settles like a blanket over the swamps and forests of the river-bottoms, shut down upon the scene, and so dense and dark was it that torches were of but little use, and our men were directed here and there by the voice.

“Jim, are you there?” shouted one.

“Yes, I am here,” was the impatient answer.

“Well, then, go straight ahead.”

“Straight ahead!  Where in thunder is ‘straight ahead?’ ”

And so the troops shuffled upon and over each other, and finally blundered into their quarters for the night.

By faulty maps, on swampy roads, and through the fog, Sherman’s men were making their way through Georgia.

Following by markers for the march of November 30, 1864, the state system only has one entry for us today – Midville, which was formerly Burton/Barton.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 84, 572, 585-6; George W. Nichols, The Story of the Great March, from the Diary of a Staff Officer, New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1865, pages 73-4.)

 

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