A few days ago, I pointed out that the aggregate width of the Federal columns marching through Georgia on November 27, 1864 was about thirty miles. In contrast, if you were to tour the locations visited on the march for December 4, start at the Brier Creek Bridge north of Waynesboro and drive about 55 miles south on US Highway 25 to Statesboro. A lot of operational and geographic considerations caused the columns to extend out on December 4. And at the tactical level, the day featured a set of engagements at the extremes of the advance – action from top to bottom. I’m going to deal with the cavalry battle around Waynesboro in a separate post going live later today. So for starters, let me turn to the movements of the main columns of Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies.
Yes, the map is wider in scale today with very narrow blue arrows. Let’s break this down into components so you can see it. First the Right Wing and Twentieth Corps moving along the Ogeechee River:
For the Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard asked the Fifteenth Corps to continue advancing in two columns towards Statesboro, keeping in line with Seventeenth Corps on the north bank of the Ogeechee. The Seventeenth’s objective for the day was to wreck the railroad while advancing to Station No. 5½, or Cameron (which does not appear on the map I’m using, sorry). For all elements of the wing, orders stressed security of the force. Everyone was expecting to see more Confederate resistance. Giving more explicit orders for the Seventeenth Corps, Major-General Frank Blair focused on foraging practices:
Forage parties will not be permitted to move in advance of the column; they must keep on the flank of the command. Hereafter all stragglers and foragers found in advance of the column of infantry will be arrested and held for punishment. The pickets will be instructed not to permit foragers or stragglers to pass the lines before the column starts.
Major-General Peter Osterhaus of the Fifteenth Corps directed:
Division commanders will be very careful and encamp their commands with a view to defense, as the expected approach of a large force of the enemy renders a sudden attack very probably. The exposed wings should be very strong, and, if possible, rest on a natural point of security, such as creeks, swamps, &c. The picket and outpost duties, which have been neglected for some time, must be enforced with the utmost strictness, and officers intrusted with this very important service will act with all circumspection and attention demanded by the duties of the occasion.
Both corps commanders had reason to be concerned with Confederate forces that day. At Station 4½, where the railroad crossed Ogeechee Creek, 4,000 men under Major-General Henry Wayne stood ready to block the Federals. The position was naturally good for the defense. At that point, due to the twists and turns of the rivers, the Ogeechee and the Savannah Rivers were only some fifteen miles apart. The ground on the south side of Ogeechee Creek featured a “bluff” high enough to give the defenders good fields of fire. And Ogeechee Creek was wide enough to require bridging and corduroying of the adjacent swamp. (And yes, the Creek flows into the River of the same name… compounding the reader’s task, sometimes the Creek is mistakenly called “Little Ogeechee.” But, there are two “Little Ogeechee Rivers” which are not connected to consider. That’s sort of why maps are important!)
The lead elements of Second Division, Fifteenth Corps reached the outskirts of Statesboro. In the vanguard, a foraging detail advanced only to meet a force of Confederate cavalry. Colonel John Oliver, commanding Third Brigade, Second Division of the corps, described the encounter:
At 3 p.m. some mounted foragers of the division were attacked by some 600 cavalry near Statesborough, and driven back, until the enemy encountered the Seventieth Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, who were in advance as a guard for pioneers corduroying the roads. The Seventieth Ohio gave them one volley, after which the rebels hastily retreated, leaving 6 killed and 1 wounded in our hands. Our loss was slight.
Likely the strength of the Confederate force was exaggerated for effect. Division commander Brigadier-General William B. Hazen recorded the loss of 27 foragers captured and 8 wounded in the encounter. Some of those captured were soon re-captured in the advance.
To the north of the Right Wing, Twentieth Corps moved to close up on the other columns. The previous day, leading elements had reached Horse Creek. On December 4, Colonel Ezra Carman, commanding Second Brigade, First Division, crossed Ogeechee Creek near Hunter’s Mills. However, the trailing division, that of Brigadier-General John Geary, only advanced four miles to reach Crooked Creek. Very bad roads, and a burst dam at Horse Creek, slowed the corps overall. But elements of Twentieth Corps over the creek, the Confederate defense along Ogeechee Creek appeared less formidable.
Reinforced early in the day, Wayne disposed his force to meet the approaching Federals. He refused his right with an extended line, but lacked the forces to cover all the way to the Savannah River. In the afternoon, the Federal advanced scouts began probing the line (dashed line on my map above), as Wayne related.
At 1.35 p.m. the advance of the Seventeenth Corps appeared on our left in front of the [Georgia Military Institute] Cadets, one of whom (Coleman, a vedette) brought down the officer of the party who demanded his surrender. Skirmish began on our left and in front of the bridge on the railroad.
Sensing Wayne had his hands full, Lieutenant-General William Hardee sent Major-General Lafayette McLaws arrived to assume command around 4 p.m. McLaws assessed the situation and by 5:30 that afternoon decided the position was compromised by the flanking. He ordered the force withdrawn east to Pooler, outside Savannah.
The left-most corps in the Federal line of march, the Fourteenth Corps, remained split with one division detached with the cavalry guarding the army’s left flank. The other two divisions of the corps moved on the south side of Beverdam Creek, through the placename of “Habersham” in the northeast corner of Jenkins County. Major-General Jefferson C. Davis intended to bring in the cavalry and his Third Division that day. However, a situation report from Brigadier-General Absalom Baird caused a small delay to those plans. Reporting from Thomas’ Station, Baird complained about Kilpatrick, “The cavalry will not move one inch toward the enemy in advance of my column, and I have to go with it in order to accomplish what is necessary to be done.” Baird went on to say his plans for the 4th were to support Kilpatrick, who was going into Waynesboro. The bridges over Brier Creek were the objectives for the force. With those destroyed, Sherman could feel easier about his left and rear flanks. Baird related:
… but to induce [Kilpatrick] to do so I have promised to wait here till 8.30 o’clock, so that if he finds Wheeler there I can go up and help whip him. If he finds him there I can spend a day or two trying to thrash him; if he does not find him I will move at the hour named, via Alexander, for Sardis, where I expect to be to-morrow night.
With that intent, on the morning of December 4, the cavalry answered to “Boots and Saddles” before dawn. Soon after that, the morning silence was broken by the sound of battle. I’ll turn to that engagement in my next post.
Following the march by markers, for December 4 there are entries for the skirmish and Federal occupation of Statesboro, Confederate line on Ogeechee Creek, Seventeenth Corps advance, Cooperville, Alexander, and Waynesboro.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 120, 613, 615, and 618; Volume 53, Serial 111, pages 35-6.)