Throughout 1864, Federal soldiers, from the top ranks down, expressed their disgust in reaction to stories about the prison camps of the south. On December 3, 1864, a major element of Major-General William T. Sherman’s march reached Camp Lawton and saw first hand what one of those camps looked like… of course, without the prisoners who had already been evacuated. But even abandoned, the camp had great impact on the actions that day and left an indelible impression on many.
Major-General Henry Slocum received a note from Sherman early in the day which had the impression of admonishment. “No communications have been received from you for two or more days, and the general is not advised of your progress.” By 10 a.m. Slocum had provided a full update, to include the directions of the Left Wing marching that day. The northern-most column, consisting of Brigadier-General Absalom Baird’s infantry division and Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry, marched toward Thomas’ Station on the Augusta and Waynesboro Railroad. This left Confederate cavalry under Major-General Joseph Wheeler, to setup a defensive position around Waynesboro and potentially threaten the rear of the Left Wing.
In the middle of the Left Wing, the main body of the Fourteenth Corps cut a path cross-country to avoid the traffic from nearby Twentieth Corps. Leading elements reached Lumkin’s Station on the railroad and proceeded to wreck a section. As the trail of the column crossed Buck Head Creek, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis ordered the pontoons promptly removed. The intent was to shed the column of the many newly-freed slaves who were at the rear of the trains. The journal of Second Division, Fourteenth Corps simply recorded, “negroes stopped, near 500.” While those following easily waded the creek, a pattern was set which would have dire consequences later in the march.
Further south along the railroad, Twentieth Corps turned south towards Millen. Along the way, many of the units passed Camp Lawton. Brigadier-General John Geary left his impression in his official report:
About five miles north of Millen, and not far from the railroad, there is a prison-pen or stockade in which had until recently been confined some 3,000 of our soldiers. The stockade was about 800 feet square, and inclosed nearly fifteen acres. It was made of heavy pine logs, rising from twelve to fifteen feet above the ground; on the top of these logs, at intervals of some eighty yards were placed sentry boxes. Inside of the stockade, running parallel to it at a distance from it of thirty feet, was a fence of light scantling, supported on short posts.
This was the “dead line.” About one-third of the area, on the western side, was occupied with a crowd of irregular earthen huts, evidently made by the prisoners. In these were lying unburied three of our dead soldiers, who were buried by us. Through the eastern part of the pen ran a ravine with a stream of good water. The atmosphere in the inclosure was foul and fetid. A short distance outside the stockade was a long trench, at the head of which was a board, bearing the inscription, “650 buried here.” On rising ground a short distance southeast of the prison were two forts not yet completed; southwest of this stockade was a smaller one in process of construction. This prison, if indeed it can be designated as such, afforded convincing proofs that the worst accounts of the sufferings of our prisoners at Andersonville, at Americus, and Millen were by no means exaggerated.
We should pause here to think about how the scene at Camp Lawton must have looked to the soldiers on the march. They were passing through an area which was almost, if not quite, the “land of milk and honey.” They were collecting plenty of foodstuffs, so much in fact to displace their army rations. Yet, they see the prison camps with evidence of starvation and suffering. Often heard today in regard to Andersonville and other southern prisons is that the Confederacy simply allocated the supplies that were available. It would be hard to make that point stand when debating a veteran of Sherman’s march. So we might understand why the men would seek some revenge at Millen, where so many of their fellow soldiers had transited on their way to and from the prisons.
Though Sherman himself did not visit the prison, the descriptions came to him that day. And he intended to do something in response. The previous day, Seventeenth Corps had arrived at Millen. Initially, the march order for Major-General Frank Blair’s corps had it moving on Station No. 7 at Scarboro. But those were countermanded before the first steps were taken that morning. Sherman issued orders directly:
The general-in-chief does not expect you to move more than five miles [on the 3rd], to the vicinity of Paramore’s Hill; but wishes you to make the most complete and perfect possible break of the railroad about Millen. Let it be more devilish than can be dreamed of. (Emphasis mine.)
With that, the men of the Seventeenth Corps went to work.
On the other side of the Ogeechee, the Fifteenth Corps had an easier day’s work. Because the corps was so far in advance of the others, marches were limited to a few miles. This allowed the trains to draw up and the men to finally tend to some hygiene. Detachments crossed over the Ogeechee again to destroy some of the railroad line. Scouts combed both sides of the river down to Station No. 5 (well off the map above).
The Confederate reaction to the movements this day was somewhat fleeting. All the way back at Station No. 4½, many miles from the Federal advance (and again, well off the map above), Major-General Henry Wayne had organized a line of defense, just as Sherman had predicted. However, around mid morning, he
… learned that the Fifteenth Corps, on the other side of the Ogeechee, was moving for No. 2, as I had supposed. As this march, if not anticipated, would cut my rear, determined, on consultation with Colonel [Robert] Toombs, to fall back to that point, or only dependence being upon the railroad, having no wagons nor other means of transportation, and no cavalry to cover our movements, three columns of the enemy being also in our front on the railroad and on our right.
Though he felt this withdraw would be seen as prudent, Wayne soon received orders to go back up the line to Station No. 4½. By 7 p.m. he was back on station, awaiting reinforcements. (I’ll detail why this position was such a favorable one, and why the Confederates later abandoned it, in a future post.)
To the north of the Federal column, Wheeler received inquiries from Lieutenant-General William Hardee in Augusta, critiquing his dispositions:
Your force, in his opinion, is too much scattered; it should be gathered up; and the enemy’s cavalry being pushed back, unremitting effort should be made to harass their main body and impede their march.
Wheeler moved back down through Waynesboro and engaged the Federal picket line. This move did little more than to alert Federals to his return. Already Baird and Kilpatrick had orders to turn north towards Wheeler. The flank column was to “take care of the bridge over Brier Creek” on December 4. Those orders setup the second cavalry clash around Waynesboro.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 184, 274, 606, 609, 616, and 926; Volume 53, Serial 111, page 35.)