On the first day of December 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman pushed his armies on the next leg of the march toward Savannah. Millen was the next major waypoint. The previous day he’d sent orders to the Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, instructing the Fifteenth Corps to remain on the south side of the Ogeechee as a precaution should the Confederates mount a defense. But he also feared the forces gathering at Augusta, particularly Major-General Joseph Wheeler, might move on his left or rear. Guarding against that, Sherman put in motion a combined infantry-cavalry column which would cover the main armies from Wheeler. Specifically, Sherman told Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, “if Wheeler gave him the opportunity, to indulge him with all the fighting he wanted.”
Kilpatrick’s cavalry division paired with Brigadier-General Absalom Baird’s Third Division of Fourteenth Corps for this important mission. Marching out from Louisville that morning, the two divisions took the road northeast toward Waynesboro. Although Wheeler’s main body remained in position behind Rocky Creek, several of his detachments contested the advance. Baird recorded “During the day considerable skirmishing with the enemy’s cavalry, with a loss on our side of 3 men killed and 10 wounded.” On the other hand, Kilpatrick rated the day’s march as “without a severe skirmish.” Wheeler reported the Federals were “making for Augusta.”
The rest of Fourteenth Corps had the line of march easterly towards Buckhead Creek. Brigadier-General William Carlin’s First Division had to move up from Sebastapol in order to get back to the corps. This took them across the Twentieth Corps’s line, which was on the road to Birdsville. Confederate cavalry sparred with the Federals along the way. Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Briant, 88th Indiana Infantry, in Carlin’s Division, reported one of his foraging party were attacked, but managed to return without loss and their gathered supplies intact.
To the south, the Seventeenth Corps continued destroying the Georgia Central Railroad before making their march. Major-General Frank Blair Jr. sent Brigadier-General Giles Smith’s Fourth Division west from Barton to destroying four miles of railroad. Major-General Joseph Mower an equal distance east on the same mission. Brigadier-General Mortimer Leggett and Third Division escorted the baggage train on the road to Millen. In his orders for the day, Blair drew attention to the task of railroad busting: “In destroying the road, every tie and sleeper must be burned and every rail heated and warped.”
Sherman himself rode along with the Seventeenth Corps, offering his input as to the best ways to ensure railroad destruction. He would camp at the Jones Plantation that evening (see marker below).
Fifteenth Corps progressed in split columns on the south side of the Ogeechee. Divisions of Brigadier-Generals William Hazen and John Smith moved on a road furthest from the river. On a parallel road closer to the river were the divisions of Brigadier-Generals Charles Woods and John Corse. Major-General Peter Osterhaus kept these two columns within mutual support range at all times and “used a portion of the Twenty-ninth Missouri (mounted) to keep up communication and explore the intermediate ground between the columns.” Osterhaus also kept a section of the pontoon train handy, should a crossing of the Ogeechee be required.
Aside from the movements, the orders passed down to the troops of the Right Wing included words with regard to foraging practices. Howard called attention to “irregularities existing in foraging, and the manner in which this privilege is often abused.” In particular, the commander cited the number of troops straggling from the ranks and not part of organized forage parties. “It is by such men the greater part of the pillaging is done and depredations committed, of which there is so much complaint.” Howard also complained of the growing number of unauthorized mounted men in the columns. To remedy these ills, Howard re-iterated that all foraging parties must be authorized, organized, and led by an officer. Furthermore, “The number of mounted foragers to each brigade should be limited and regulated….”
Far in advance of the Right Wing, scouts reported back from Millen. Howard relayed the information back to Sherman on December 1, indicating they “find no force there except a small number of the enemy’s cavalry.” Although a train had arrived in Millen that day, it proceeded “with great caution” and went back to Savannah. While the news indicated Sherman’s precautions were unnecessary, the dispositions remained as ordered.
Another issue that Sherman himself took time to address was that of retaliation for prisoner abuses. There had been reports almost from the start of the march of foragers and cavalrymen executed by Confederates. Sherman had not addressed the issue directly, as not enough evidence came forward on which to direct a complaint towards Confederate authorities. In response to Kilpatrick’s request of the previous day to hold hostages, Sherman provided a response to the cavalry commander:
As regards retaliation, you must be very careful as to the correctness of any information you may receive about the enemy murdering or mutilating our men. You may keep the prisoners you have, or turn any portion of them over to General Slocum’s infantry to guard, and keep such as you may wish to retain for your object. You may communicate with Wheeler by flag of truce, and notify him of the conduct of his command towards our men, and that you will retaliate, which you may do until you feel satisfied. When our men are found, and you are fully convinced the enemy have killed them after surrender in fair battle, or have mutilated their bodies after being killed in fair battle, you may hang and mutilate man for man without regard for rank.
Not quite a “raise the black flag” response. But Sherman’s attitude on the prisoner issue matched his response to Confederate “scorched earth” actions in front of the march. I think it is important in context that Wheeler received an order on the same day urging him:
The bridges, causeways, & c., on all creeks should be destroyed; forest trees should be felled at every point where they will obstruct the march; fences may be pulled down and used – indeed every expedient in which ingenuity may suggest should be adopted to retard the enemy’s movements. To enable you successfully to carry out these orders you are authorized to impress, for temporary use, all the laborers and tools necessary, and to use the means of the people in the country, as far as they may be of advantage. Supplies of all kinds useful to the enemy and not required for your use must be destroyed….
Wheeler was to make war on the trees, in the biblical sense. The people of Georgia would suffer deprivations from both sides.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 9, 172, 204, 364, 579, 581, 593, and 916.)