Sherman’s Famous March to the Sea

Pontoon Train, Civil War

Pontoon Train, Civil War

A section of pontoon train was with each corps, and Howard put down two bridges; but, though his head of column reached Planters’ Factory on the 18th, and the bridges were kept full day and night, it was not till the morning of the 20th that the rear guard was able to cross. The bank on the eastern side of the river was steep and slippery from rain, making it tedious work getting the trains up the hill. His heads of columns were pushing forward in the meantime, and reached Clinton, a few miles north of Macon, by the time the rear was over the river. Kilpatrick now made a feint upon Macon, striking the railway a little east of the town, capturing and destroying a train of cars, and tearing up the track for a mile. Under cover of this demonstration and while the cavalry were holding all roads north and east of Macon, Howard’s infantry, on November 22nd closed up toward Gordon, a station on the Savannah railroad, 20 miles eastward.

Union General Charles R. Woods’s division of the Fifteenth Corps brought up the rear and was approaching Griswoldville. The left wing, which Sherman accompanied, applied itself in earnest to the destruction of the railway from Atlanta to Augusta, making thorough work of it to Madison, 70 miles from Atlanta, and destroying the bridge over the Oconee River, 10-12 miles further on. Here, the divergence between the wings was greatest, the distance from General Henry Slocum’s left to Kilpatrick, on the right, being 50 miles in a direct line.

Sherman’s advance from Atlanta drew from Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, a rattling volley of telegraphic dispatches to all the Confederate officials, civil and military. In these, he made much of the fact that he had ordered General Richard Taylor in Alabama to move with his available forces into Georgia; but, Taylor had no available forces, and could only go in person to Macon, where he arrived on November 22nd, just in time to meet Governor Joseph E. Brown with his Adjutant, Robert Toombs, escaping from the State Capitol on the approach of General Slocum’s columns. The only organized troops were Wheeler’s cavalry, Smith’s division of Georgia Militia, and a couple of battalions of local volunteers. General Howell Cobb was nominally Confederate commander of “reserves,” but, there seems to have been no reserves to command.

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Beauregard issued from Corinth, Mississippi, a proclamation to the people of Georgia, calling upon them to arise for the defense of the State and to “obstruct and destroy all roads in Sherman’s front, flank, and rear,” assuring them that the enemy would then starve in their midst. He strove to raise vague hopes also by announcing that he was hastening to join them in defense of their homes and firesides. A more practical step was his order to General Hood to begin the Tennessee campaign, the only counter-stroke in his power. At Milledgeville, Georgia, the approach of Sherman was met by an Act of the Legislature to levy en masse the population, with a hysterical preamble, picturing the National general as an ogre, and exhorting the people “to die freemen rather than live slaves.” The act, to have been of any use, should have been passed a month before, when Hood was starting west from Gadsden. It was now only a confession of terror, for there was no time to organize. Any disposition of the inhabitants along his route to destroy roads was effectually checked by Sherman’s making it known that the houses and property of those who did so would be destroyed. Such opposition to a large army can never be of real use; its common effect is only to increase by retaliation the miseries of the unfortunate people along the line of march, and in this case there was, besides, no lack of evidence that most of them were heartily tired of the war, and had lost all the enthusiasm which leads to self-sacrifice.

However, as the troops continued to move forward, they would encounter resistance and participate in numerous skirmishes, including the Battle of Griswoldville on November 22nd when Union Brigadier General Charles Walcutt’s six infantry regiments ran into the Georgia Militia. The Union force withstood three determined charges before receiving reinforcements of one regiment of infantry and two regiments of cavalry. The Rebels did not attack again and soon retired. The Union victory resulted in estimated casualties of 62 Union and 650 Confederate.

The work of destroying the railway was begun by the right wing at Griswoldville, and of the 100 miles between that station and Millen, Georgia very little of the road was left. General Oliver O. Howard found the crossing of the Oconee near Ball’s Ferry a difficult operation, for the river was up and the current so swift that the ferry could not be used. Confederate General Wheeler’s cavalry made some resistance from the other side. A detachment of corps, directed by the engineers, succeeded in constructing a flying bridge some two miles above the ferry, and getting over to the left bank, moved down to the principal road, which had been cleared of the enemy by the artillery on the other side. The pontoons were then laid and the march resumed.

General William T. Sherman, John Chester, 1800s

General William T. Sherman, John Chester, 1800s

Sherman ordered Kilpatrick to make a considerable detour to the north, feinting strongly on Augusta, but, trying hard to reach and destroy the important railway bridge and trestles at Briar Creek, near Waynesboro, halfway between Augusta and Millen. He was then to move rapidly on Millen in the hope of releasing the National prisoners of war who were in a prison camp near that place. Kilpatrick moved by one of the principal roads to Augusta, giving out that he was marching on that city. After he had passed the Ogeechee Shoals, Wheeler heard of his movement and rapidly concentrated his force on the Augusta road, where it debouches from the swamps of Briar Creek. Kilpatrick, however, in obedience to his orders, turned the head of his columns to the right, upon the road running from Warrenton to Waynesborough, and they were well on their way to the latter place before Wheeler was aware of it.

Murray’s brigade was in the rear, and two of his regiments, the Eighth Indiana and Second Kentucky, constituted the rear-guard. These became too far separated from the column when they camped at evening near a place called Sylvan Grove. Wheeler heard of their whereabouts and attacked them in the middle of the night. Though surprised and driven from their camps, the regiments stoutly fought their way back.

Confederate General Wheeler followed up persistently with his superior forces, harassing the rear and flank of the column, and causing some confusion, but gaining no important advantage, except that Kilpatrick was obliged to abandon the effort to burn the Briar Creek bridge and trestles, and to turn his line of march southwesterly from Waynesborough, after destroying a mile or two of the railroad. He reported that he learned that the Millen prisoners had been removed, and determined to rejoin the army at Louisville. Early in the morning of the 28th Kilpatrick himself narrowly escaped capture, having improperly made his quarters for the night at some distance from the body of his command, the Ninth Michigan being with him as a guard. The enemy got between him and the column, and it was with no little difficulty he succeeded in cutting his way out and saving himself from the consequences of his own folly.

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