Marching Through Georgia, December 2, 1864: A “battle” of telegraphers

On December 2, 1864, for the tenth straight day, Major-General William T. Sherman’s men marched in dry weather.  Temperatures remained in the 50’s for the most part.  Perhaps the most favorable marching weather possible that time of year.  For the day, the Federals continued the advance along the Ogeechee River, reaching for Savannah.  Millen was the primary objective that day, though other elements of the army were reaching for the Augusta & Waynesboro Railroad.  Along that path, Buck Head Creek seemed the common barrier.


On the far left of the advance, Brigadier-Generals Absalom Baird and H. Judson Kilpatrick continued their combined effort to deal with Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry.  Across Buck Head Creek (again) the Federals pushed the Confederate pickets. A saber charge by a battalion from the 5th Ohio Cavalry cleared the way.  Reaching Rock Creeky, Kilpatrick’s cavalry gave way for the infantry.  Baird extended his lines, then found a crossing point.  With the 74th Indiana across the creek, Wheeler withdrew towards Waynesboro.  Once across the creek, Baird turned the column southeast towards Thomas Station.  For the second time, Wheeler boasted that he’d “turned” a Federal column threatening Augusta.

Further south, the rest of the Fifteenth Corps advanced to Buck Head Creek on the Birdsville-Waynesboro Road.  While lead elements got across, much of the corps, particularly Brigadier-General William Carlin’s division, camped on the south side of the creek that evening.

On their right, the Twentieth Corps also reached Buck Head Creek, but in the vicinity of Buck Head Church, where the cavalry fought on November 28.  Brigadier-General John Geary’s Second Division led the way:

The roads traveled were excellent, following the course of a low dividing ridge. Passed but a few plantations; among those was that of Doctor Jones, about five miles west of Buck Head Creek, one of the finest in this part of Georgia.  Upon approaching the creek, I found a number of rail defenses, which had been erected a few days previous during a fight between the cavalry of Kilpatrick and Wheeler.

Geary’s vanguard drove off Confederate pickets but found the bridge destroyed (or at least not repaired since the previous fighting).  The 1st Michigan Engineeers came up and repaired the bridge.  By 3 p.m., Geary was across the bridge and clearing a camp near Buck Head Church.

Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing continued its advance astride the Ogeechee River.  The Seventeenth Corps continued to work over the Georgia Central Railroad.  Brigadier-General Manning Force, commanding First Brigade, Third Division, of that corps, reported his men wrecked much of the line between Station 9 (Herndon) and the mouth of Buck Head Creek.  “I never saw men work more honestly; they toiled zealously on the track ten hours, with one short respite for coffee.”

But one serious concern, voiced by Major-General Frank Blair, Jr., was the needless expenditure of ammunition.  In the orders for the day, he instructed:

The practice of indiscriminate firing must be stopped.  Our supply of ammunition is limited and cannot be renewed until we reach a new base of supplies.  Before that time all that we have may be needed…. An alarm is, or should be, given by the discharge of firearms, but the indiscriminate firing renders this mode useless, so that the safety of the army is endangered.

Blair figured the foragers were most guilty of the discharges. So he announced punitive measures:

The cartridge-boxes of forage parties will be inspected on their return from duty each day, and the men will be charged 50 cents for each cartridge missing that cannot be satisfactorily accounted for.

Further down the command, Brigadier-General Mortimer Leggett echoed Howard’s orders of the previous day in regard to horses and mules:

The number (twelve) of pack-animals allowed to each regiment will still be permitted, provided neither enlisted man nor negro be allowed to ride the same; they are for packing purposes, and must not be used for any other. No enlisted man will be permitted to ride, except those already mounted under existing orders. “Bummers” are entitled to a position in the ranks, and must be provided with it.  No foragers will leave camp mounted, excepting the officers in charge.

The use of the word “bummers” to describe foragers during Sherman’s March is said to have started during the delays crossing the Oconee.  By the first days of December, the word was accepted enough to appear in official orders.

The Fifteenth Corps continued to advance on the south side of the Ogeechee River in two columns.  As part of the inner most column, closer to the river, Federals drove a large heard of cattle, representing beef on the hoof for the army… and an ever growing stock at that.

The progress of the wing was so rapid the meager Confederate forces in the area were caught off guard.  The lead division of Seventeenth Corps reached Millen that day, nearly capturing a train as they entered.  Entering the telegraph office, they found the line to Augusta still active.  Though the Augusta operator soon figured the Federals were on the line.  However he exchanged chatter, “as operators often do, about various subjects.”  The Confederate operator boasted of more troops than had ever been seen in Augusta including some from Virginia.  But this information was passed up the command with the caveat, “Our operator thinks now they knew what’s up, and are trying to stuff him; and I think he is right in his opinion.”

A little more successful “wire tapping” was accomplished in Scarboro, further down the Georgia Central Railroad, that day.  To pitch in their contribution to the railroad wrecking, Brigadier-General John Corse’s Division of the Fifteenth Corps crossed the Ogeechee at Scarboro on a pontoon bridge.  Too late to catch the same train missed by the Seventeenth Corps at Millen, Corse’s men also found a “hot” telegraph line.  Jonathan Lonergran, a civilian telegraph operator accompanying the Right Wing, setup his equipment on the line:

I have the honor to report that I tapped the Confederate telegraph line at Station No. 7, communicating with Savannah.  I listened for about fifteen minutes to the rebel telegraph operators asking each other questions, none of which are important enough to quote.  Hearing the signal “9” given repeatedly, I ventured to answer to that call, and succeeded well in deceiving the operator at Savannah, he thinking that I was the proper person.

From there the two exchanged some information before the Savannah operator became suspicious.  But the line remained open long enough for the operators to exchange some volleys by way of words:

Knowing that I was discovered, and, at the suggestion of Captain Taggart, sent a message to the commanding officer at Savannah giving the compliments of General Howard and staff, signing Capt. S. L. Taggart’s name; also, the compliments of General Howard to the mayor of Savannah, hoping to meet him soon, &c. Having been informed by a citizen who had left Savannah this day that Bragg was expected there with 10,000 men, I asked if he had arrived; to which the rebel operator replied, “Yes, and will soon give you all the information you desire;” to which I replied, “We will be happy to see him and ascertain, as we did at Missionary Ridge.”

Though little came from these SIGINT sources, the Federals gleaned a lot from captured newspapers and prisoners.  Howard passed along word of 10,000 to 15,000 re-enforcements from Wilmington under command of Bragg and 3,000 under Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor (likely referring to those under Major-General Gustavus Smith).  The papers also mentioned action outside Port Royal “resulting in the repulse of the Federals.”

All of this factored into Sherman’s plan for the last leg of the march.  In orders to Howard that day, he instructed, “The next movement will be on Savannah….” Sherman wanted the Fifteenth Corps to remain south of the Ogeechee while the Seventeenth continued along the railroad.  Geography dictated that the Left Wing would need to make an outside pivot, with longer marches, in order to catch up.  But the Right Wing’s dispositions allowed them to counter any lines of resistance put up astride the river. Sherman closed with a suggestion:

If at any time during your progress you judge it feasible, you might dispatch a small and bold party of scouts down toward Hinesville, to burn some culverts and tear up some track and cut the telegraph wire in several places on the Savannah and Gulf Railroad, over which the city of Savannah is now chiefly supplied. The fewer the men and the sooner such a party starts the better. The country is very sparsely settled, and very favorable for such an expedition.

Howard would wait several days before putting that option in motion. But the order does show us that Sherman was already thinking several moves ahead, even with less than clear intelligence.

There is but one marker for me to reference today, discussing Sherman’s stay at Millen.  Perhaps more are in order?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 274, 596, 597, 604, 606, and 608.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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