Of all the areas visited by Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies on the March to the Sea (save perhaps Atlanta itself) Liberty County, Georgia had the worst experience. While other places along the march experienced “Yankees” for at most a few days, the foragers remained in Liberty County for nearly two months – from the arrival of Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick on December 13, 1864 until the departure of the armies from Savannah. Before I discuss the impact this had on the civilians in the county, let me establish the nature of the military activities.
Mentioned in earlier posts, Kilpatrick’s cavalry began operations out of Midway on December 13. Colonel Eli Murray, commanding the Cavalry Division’s First Brigade, described the Confederate reaction in his official report:
The rebel Colonel [Arthur] Hood, commanding the district composed of the counties of McIntosh, Liberty, and Screven [Wayne?], was greatly discomforted by our presence. His men, stationed at Sunbery, Dorchester, Riceborough, and Station No. 3, were totally demoralized and fled, reckless of organization, to the Altamaha bridge, whenever attacked.
Further down the coast, the Navy also made patrols and raids on Confederate picket posts which further stretched the defenders thin. On December 15, Acting Ensign Walter Walton from the USS Dai Ching led a five boat expedition up the Big Satilla River searching for a Confederate force reported in the vicinity of Satilla Mills (Point #1 on the map below). Walton encountered only mention of Confederate forces, indicating the coastal patrols had also withdrawn inland.
Although a portion of Brigadier-General Alfred Iverson’s cavalry division would swing down a few days later, Confederate resistance in Liberty County from that point on was fleeting at best. Federals then went to work on several targets – the Savannah & Gulf Railroad, the Altamaha Bridge, and the lush forage across an area of rich plantations. On the afternoon of December 13, the cavalry made calls on plantations around Riceboro (Point #2)
To destroy the railroad, the divisions of Brigadier-General William B. Hazen (Fifteenth Corps) and Major-General Joseph Mower (Seventeenth Corps) were given sectors. Hazen’s men started their work on December 17 and covered from Walthourville (Point #3) back to the Ogeechee River. For five days they worked over that twenty miles of rail in a methodical but relaxed pace.
Mower had to wreck the line from Walthourville out to the Altamaha River, to include the bridge (Point #4) near Doctortown. Federal cavalry first struck for the Altamaha Bridge on December 14, but found the approach difficult. So on December 17, Mower brought first and third brigades of his division along with a section from Battery C, First Michigan Artillery. Working with Colonel Smith Atkins’ brigade of cavalry, Mower’s column reached a point eight miles from the bridge on December 18. The following day Mower sent Atkins to destroy the bridge:
I directed him to destroy the bridge and a trestle-work leading to it. He succeeded in destroying the trestle-work, but it was found impracticable to approach the bridge, as the enemy had two redoubts on this side which it was impossible to get at, there being a deep swamp all around them. There were also two 32-pounder rifles on the opposite side of the Altamaha enfilading the bridge, and a locomotive, with a gun on it, which the enemy used at this end of the bridge. My orders being imperative to return in five days I was obliged to desist from the attempt at destroying the bridge, as it was utterly impossible to get at it without occupying at least two more days’ time. The destruction of the trestle-work, however, renders the bridge useless to the enemy. I therefore returned to camp, where I arrived on the 21st, having marched eighty miles and destroyed eighteen miles of railroad in five days.
The redoubts mentioned were those at Doctortown, on the southwest side of the river from the bridge. Below is a view from the Confederate position looking towards the swampy bottom lands. The railroad crosses Morgan Lake, an old river meander, about a mile east of the bridge. It was there, and at several other points in the swamp, that Atkins burned the trestles.
My photo was taken in the mid-1990s. There are some recent views of the site, taken during a reenactment in 2008, on Flickr. But you get the gist of this action in one view. There was simply no way for the Federals to get at the far side of the bridge without making a lengthy detour. For which, Mower had no time.
But Hazen’s and Mower’s were not the only infantry columns operating in Liberty County at that time. Forager detachments from the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth Corps ranged through Liberty County beginning on December 16. One of those parties, from Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps, ran into some of Iverson’s troopers at Hinesville (Point #5) that day. Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Perrin, 7th Illinois Infantry, reported a mounted detachment from his command engaged there, resulting in one Confederate casualty. But this proved to be the exception to the rule. Most of the foraging parties met no resistance.
Offering a “bookend” to all these Army maneuvers, another Naval party, including 43 men and a boat howitzer, led by Acting Master I.A. Pennell of the USS Ethan Allen, went twenty miles up the Altamaha River on December 20 to attack a Confederate picket post (Point #6). This foray encountered and captured a seven man detachment. While waiting for the tides, a sixty man cavalry detachment arrived and attacked the sailors. Pennell reported:
Soon as the tide flowed enough to float the launch within range, I threw shell and grape into the houses in which they were secreted, causing them to fall back to the woods, out of range.
With that, Pennell withdrew with his prisoners and seven escaped slaves, though he reported one man wounded due to a weapons accident. The skirmish did indicate the Confederate cavalry had remained in force along the Altamaha, much to the detriment of those living north and east of the river.
One of the most prominent civilians in Liberty County was 55-year-old Mrs. Mary Anderson Jones. The widow of Reverend Dr. Charles Colcock Jones, she owned three plantations across the county. When the Federals advanced into the county, she was in the process of hiding much of her property. Instead she had to hold up at her Montevido Plantation outside Riceboro. There she and her family suffered through several waves of Federal foragers. In her journal entry for December 22nd, she wrote:
I have often said to the enemy: “I pray not for revenge upon you, but I pray daily for deliverance from you”; and always felt amid my deepest distress: “Oh, if my country was but free and independent, I could take joyfully the spoiling of my goods!”
The events of December 1864 and January 1865 would leave Liberty County in devastated and bare. Though in some regards, it was turned over as if a freshly plowed field.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 150, 372; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 136; Myers, Robert Manson, and Charles Colcock Jones. The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972, page 1233. )