Marching Through Georgia, December 7, 1864: Crossing rivers under fire and by way of burning bridges

As Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies neared Savannah and the coast, the columns entered a region of lowland swamps drained by sluggish streams.  Crossing points, such as over the Ocmulgee and Ogeechee Rivers, were critical during the earlier stages of the march.  But in those coastal areas, even a minor stream could become a major impasse due to the swamps.  So the orders issued during the latter stages of the campaign emphasized movements to gain bridges and other crossing points.  Compounding the passage through the lowlands, after a long period of clear weather, the rains returned on the evening of December 6.

MarchDec7

On the Left Wing, Sherman, and consequently Major-General Henry Slocum, were anxious about the movements of Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’ Fourteenth Corps.  Late in the afternoon of December 6, Sherman was “pleased at the progress of General Davis,” but urged faster movement to get on line with the other units.  Sherman suggested “if General Davis’ head of column reaches Ebenezer, and can lay a bridge over that creek, it will answer.”    Slocum echoed this down to Davis with more detail. “Your corps must follow the road you are now on, and reach the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, at Saint Augustine Creek.”   What Sherman and Slocum didn’t know, of course, was that a force from the Department of the South was working towards the same railroad, but well to the east.  Instead, Davis and his Corps would need to make a hurried crossing of Ebenezer Creek in order to attain the assigned objective.   Davis reported at 3:10 p.m. on the 7th:

My advance division took dinner at Sister’s Ferry; my rear will reach there t0-night. My headquarters will be about five miles from that place. The enemy shows himself at all the ferries on the opposite bank of the river. A little skirmishing has been reported in my rear this morning.  We find fallen timber across all the creeks and swamps.

Traveling with Davis on the previous days, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick split his cavalry on December 7th.  First Brigade under Colonel Eli Murray fell in behind the 20th Corps line of march.  Colonel Smith Atkins’ Second Brigade remained to cover the rear of Fourteenth Corps.  While covering the rear of the march, the 9th Michigan and 9th Ohio Cavalry had a small scrape with Confederate forces.  These were men from Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s command who had resumed the pursuit of the Federals.  The action was barely over an hour, but as result the Federals lost four killed, two wounded, and seven missing.  Among those killed was Captain Frederick Ladd of the 9th Michigan… another fine officer beloved by his men.

With the Twentieth Corps, Brigadier-General John Geary began movement at the customary time, but faced terrible roads forcing him to take extreme measures:

Moved at 7 a.m. and passed through a succession of terrible swamps, the surface crust of which in many places would not bear up to either man or horse. I distributed my entire division along the trains, so that each brigade, regiment, and company had its specified number of teams to bring through. With this arrangement, under the personal superintendence and efforts of myself, my brigade commanders, and staff, but little delay was allowed to occur, although so bad were the roads that at one time I counted twenty-four loaded wagons sunk to the wagon-beds. Mules in some places went in nearly out of sight.  But the trains were kept quite well closed up through all these difficulties.

Geary’s command crossed Turkey Creek in the gathering darkness that afternoon and proceeded into camp just short of Springfield.

Working to the right of that line of march, Seventeenth Corps continued its march along the Georgia Central Railroad toward Guyton, or Station No. 3.  In contrast to that compact formation, Fifteenth Corps was like a burst shell with each division on a separate track.  Orders from Major-General Peter Osterhaus had First Division (Brigadier-General Charles Woods) maintaining a position Wright’s Bridge; Third Division (Brigadier-General John Smith) and Fourth Division (Brigadier-General John Corse) concentrating at Jenks’ Bridge; and Second Division (Brigadier-General William B. Hazen) moving due south towards the Canoochee River.  Each of these operations bore some fruit.

At Wright’s Bridge, Colonel James Williamson found no opposition to his bridgehead outside Guyton.  Thus he began moving his Iowans down along the river towards Eden.  By afternoon, his column would make contact with others crossing at Jenks’ Bridge where a more dramatic crossing was made that day.

A day earlier, Colonel John Oliver’s brigade from Hazen’s Division had setup a defensive position on the west side of the river at Jenks’ Bridge.  However, Oliver was needed elsewhere, and he left one regiment to keep a presence.  After a few hours, Corse’s Division arrived to take the position amidst a lively skirmish with Confederates on the far side of the river.  When the 1st Missouri Engineers arrived around 10:30 a.m., they were ordered to support a crossing, as later recounted in the regimental history:

As the enemy held the opposite side of the river, we were ordered to launch boats and ferry over troops, which we did under the cover of our fire, consisting of field pieces and sharp shooters, without accident; but on the other side, quite a number of blue coated soldiers of the infantry skirmish line were killed before the enemy was driven off.

The engineers had a pontoon bridge setup by 1 p.m., “231 feet in length.”  With that, the 4th Iowa, from whom skirmishers had been ferried by the engineers, crossed in whole.  Their brigade commander, Brigadier-General Elliott Rice, began forcing a bridgehead out of the bottom-lands:

The country for nearly three-quarters of a mile was nearly waist deep with water in the swamps and lagoons, through which the troops waded with a good will, driving the enemy into a small rail-work which they had hastily constructed. I endeavored to turn their position and gain the rear of their defenses by throwing a portion of the Second Iowa to their left under cover of a thick woods in that direction, but the troops in their front and on their left could not be held back. They dashed forward with an unparalleled impetuosity, right over the rail-works, capturing 20 prisoners, killing 2, and wounding 4 men. The balance of the rebel force rushed to the railroad, and taking the cars moved off in the direction of Savannah.

Rice reported two killed and four wounded in the skirmishing.  But Corse had a brigade over the Ogeechee.  Soon Rice connected with Williamson, securing the entire Ogeechee upstream from Jenks’ Bridge.

Oliver’s brigade, minus one regiment, marched south that morning (dashed line on map) with instructions to scout towards the Canoochee, in advance of Hazen’s main body,  by way of Bryan County Courthouse. (Labeled “Eden” on the maps, this conflicted with the other “Eden” at Station No.2.  Years later the Bryan County “Eden” was renamed “Clyde.”)  The map I’m using (above) is not entirely accurate (as we, and the men of the Right Wing have seen).  Oliver had to cross Black and Bird’s Mill Creek on his route (the two converge about 5 kilometers from the Ogeechee, not four miles as indicated on the map).  In addition Oliver had to cross several swamps in order to reach the objective.  How did they do?

At Black Creek the obstructions in the ford were removed, so that our ambulances and ammunition wagons crossed the ford before the troops could get across on the stringers of the still burning bridge. The enemy were pushed so hard that they could not destroy the bridge across Mill Creek at all. At one place, near Bryan County Court-House, the men waded in four ranks through a swamp 300 yards across up to their waists in water.

Boldness.  And let me say more about the performance of Oliver’s command that day.  The swamps that they waded through are still there today, as part of the northeast quadrant of Fort Stewart, Georgia.  Even today, movement by four-wheel drive is difficult when moving off the maintained range roads (as in my younger days, I was very familiar with those bottom lands).  That Oliver made twenty miles in that swamp was a feat by itself, much less being opposed by Confederate scouts.

Opportunistic crossings, by pontoons, over burning bridges, and through swamps, had placed the Fifteenth Corps in possession of the approaches to Savannah.  The only major barriers between Hazen and the Atlantic, at that time, was the Canoochee and a garrison force at Fort McAllister.

Following the movements by markers today, there are entries for the Fifteenth Corps operations at Jenks’ Bridge and near “old” Clyde.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 120-1, 129, 275, 645 and 653; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, pages 162-3.)

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