December 4, 1864: Kilpatrick “whipped Wheeler soundly” at Waynesboro

Before daylight on December 4, 1864, Federal cavalrymen were up and moving.  Events and issued orders of the previous day set had set the stage for a cavalry battle.  The combined column of Brigadier-General Absalom Baird’s infantry division and Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry had spent the night in a defensive position around Thomas’ Station.  Orders for the 4th called for Kilpatrick to move north through Waynesboro and destroy bridges over Brier Creek, with Baird’s infantry supporting if needed.

Major-General Joseph Wheeler, receiving his own orders to put pressure on the Federals, had moved his cavalry through Waynesboro in the late afternoon of December 3rd.  Throughout the night, the Confederates harassed the Federal lines.  And under cover of that screen, they built two roadblocks on the road to Waynesboro.  Each was placed on ground with swamps or otherwise difficult terrain on the flanks.  The barricades might not stand for a set piece assault, but any adversary would pay a price to gain them.  Wheeler looked to lure the Federals into a close fight the next morning, where he could negate any numerical advantage.

During the restless night, Baird sent a status report off to Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, commanding the Fourteenth Corps.  Earlier, Baird had expressed his disdain for the cavalry, who seemed to be leaning much on the infantry for support.  Now he alerted his commander about Wheeler’s increased activity, presence of Confederate artillery, and signs of entrenching.  “Kilpatrick thinks that the fight of the campaign will take place here to-day. I do not see it in that light, but will support him….”  But there was a limit to how much Baird could do, as his ammunition supplies were desperately low.   Yet, Kilpatrick planned to wade into Wheeler the next morning with eagerness:

… I directed brigade commanders to send surplus animals and all non-combatants to the wagon train; that in the morning the command would move to engage, defeat, and rout the rebel cavalry encamped at Wanesborough.

Leading the Federal advance that morning was Second Brigade under Colonel Smith Atkins.  After driving in the Confederate pickets, they ran into a barricade system manned by dismounted cavalry, Point #1 on the map:


Wheeler would say one regiment, but in all likelihood there were two posted there.  Atkins attempted a rush at the line, but the attack failed.  So he deployed, with Kilpatrick’s urging, the brigade with a mind to envelope it from both flanks:

The Ninety-second Illinois Mounted Infantry was dismounted, the Tenth Ohio and Ninth Michigan Cavalry, in columns of four by battalions, were sent in on the right, and the Ninth Ohio Cavalry was placed in the same order on the left.

Backing up the 92nd Illinois was Captain Yates Beebe’s Tenth Wisconsin Battery with six 3-inch rifles.  The sound of Yates’ guns carried far, as that morning Major-General William T. Sherman, in a note to Left Wing commander Major-General Henry Slocum, observed, “We heard the firing today which you report, which, from its rate of fire, I inferred to be from Kilpatrick, who is fond of using artillery.”

Atkins had a tough “nut” to crack, “Wheeler had chosen his position cautiously in the roughest, most inaccessible locality, and feeling himself safe against a sabre charge hung to it tenaciously….”  While the mounted regiments worked into position, the 92nd Illinois “moved steadily up in front of the barricades, keeping the enemy in constant fear of his Spencer rifles….”  With the 9th Ohio skirmishing on the west side of the road, the other regiments charged from the right:

The Tenth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry charged in gallant style down the road.  The Ninth Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, after passing the first barricade, charged by squadron to meet a counter-charge by the enemy, and did it finely, driving them back. Three successive lines of barricades were taken in the single charge, the enemy stubbornly resisting, but compelled to yield to our charging columns.

While they gained this first line of barricades, the Federals had indeed paid a price.  Among the Federal wounded was Captain Samuel Norton, one of the promising officers of the command.  “Now a name for our regiment,” he said before leading the charge of the 10th Ohio.  And in the melee, Norton received a mortal wound.


Wheeler reorganized his command behind another barricade system where the road into Waynesboro crossed McIntosh Creek (Point #2).  (And it is important to point out that Wheeler’s description of the action leads one to believe the fighting was one continuous action over barricades, while the Federals all indicated two series were encountered.)   Again, he’d chosen the position well and the Federals would need to deploy if they wanted to proceed.  It was the turn of Colonel Eli Murray’s First Brigade to challenge that second line:

The enemy held splendid positions. The approaches to the town were difficult, by reason of a stream almost impassable, save by the main road or railroad. The Third Kentucky pushing across, went into position on the right, under a heavy fire, the Ninth Pennsylvania forming on the left. In the meantime the Eighth Indiana (dismounted) moved across the stream, through the swamp; Lieutenant Stetson, with his artillery, and Colonel Baldwin, with the Fifth Kentucky, in position on the south side of the stream. The Second Kentucky ordered to follow within supporting distance of the first line. The Third Kentucky, charging on the right, found the enemy in barricades, and were subjected to a fire from front and flank. The Ninth Pennsylvania, pushing on the left, struck the enemy, relieving the Third Kentucky from the flank fire. These two regiments pushed forward in magnificent style. The Eighth Indiana and Second Kentucky moving up inch by inch, the enemy were driven through the town, the Ninth Pennsylvania and Third Kentucky pressing the enemy heavily. The appearance of the Eighth Indiana (dismounted), and the charge of the Second Kentucky, sent the enemy, panic-stricken, from the field. His loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners was heavy, and saved themselves from still more serious slaughter by fleeing to the woods.

Again, the Federals had managed to crack Wheeler’s lines.  With that, the Federals swept into the town.  To buy time, Wheeler had the 8th Texas and 9th Tennessee Cavalry charge the Federals, “which was gallantly done, meeting and driving back a charge of the enemy, and so staggering him that no further demonstration was made upon us until we were prepared to receive the enemy at our new position north of the town.” (Point #3)

Portions of Atkins’ brigade moved up and pressed to the bridges.  Though under fire from a battery supporting Wheeler’s cavalry, the 5th Ohio Cavalry destroyed the railroad bridge completely, “firing seventy-nine bents of heavy trestle bridging.”  Kilpatrick’s objective was thus achieved.  That accomplished, Baird moved his infantry on the road towards Alexander, leading southeast out of Waynesboro (Point #4).  Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen were not far behind.

Confederate casualties for the day were likely around 250.  The Federals suffered under 200, including Norton mentioned above.  Leaving the officer behind, Kilpatrick left a note for his adversary, who’d been an acquaintance in the pre-war Army:

General: For the memory of old associations, please let Corpl. M. D. Lacey, Tenth Ohio Cavalry, to remain to attend a wounded soldier, one for whom you should have every respect, for hie is a very brave and true gentleman.  Captain Norton was wounded to-day charging your barricades. Please show him such attention as is in your power, and at some future day you shall have the thanks of your old friend, J. Kilpatrick, U.S. Army.

The Federals also lost a large number of horses in the engagement. Kilpatrick was quick to inquire for more mounts.  For brevity here, we’ll take that up on a subsequent post.

As things are, I’ve run this post a little longer than normal.  From the first time I was able to walk the ground of this engagement, I’ve been fascinated with the story. I’ve discussed the action here to the brigade level.  I would encourage readers to look at the engagement at the regimental and squadron level at some point.  You’ll be taken in too!

Although Baird’s infantry were not engaged, they moved in close support of the cavalry.  Many of the men later related their recollections as “spectators” to this cavalry clash.  Let me close the description of the December 4 fight at Waynesboro with a quote from one  who was no great fan of the cavalry.  Major James Connolly offered his impression for the diary entry of the day (emphasis in the original):

So many cavalry in line in an open plain make a beautiful sight. But it is all show; there’s not much fight in them, though Kilpatrick’s men have behaved very handsomely today.  They did all the fighting and whipped Wheeler soundly…. But then Kilpatrick’s men had the moral support of two of our brigades that were formed in line right behind them and kept moving forward as they moved, so that our cavalry all the time knew that there was no chance of their being whipped.  This has been a regular field day, and we have had “lots of fun” chasing Wheeler and his cavalry. Kilpatrick is full of fun and frolic and he was in excellent spirits all day…. A cavalry fight is just about as much fun as a fox hunt; but, of course, in the midst of the fun somebody is getting hurt all the time.  But it is by no means the serious work that infantry fighting is….

Even begrudging respect is respect, I guess.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 364-5, 371-2, 392, 399, 410, 624, 625, and 627;  James A Connolly, Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland: The Letters and Diary of Major James A. Connolly, Ed. by Paul M. Angle, Indiana University Press, 1996, page 345.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

One thought on “December 4, 1864: Kilpatrick “whipped Wheeler soundly” at Waynesboro

  1. Thank you Craig for this excellent glimpse into this sad time for our country. No winners in war really. I hope that those who might pine for the glory of a such tumult, stop and try to comprehend the consequences of such actions. There is no glory there, just painful reality of aftermath.

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