November 26, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal march through Georgia resumed, as did the destruction and desolation left in the soldiers’ wake.
Sherman had two armies on the move in Georgia. The left wing (i.e., the Army of Georgia under Major General Henry W. Slocum) had captured the state capital of Milledgeville and, on the 24th, was on the move again. Slocum’s new target was Sandersville, 30 miles east.
The right wing (i.e., Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee) moved south along the Oconee River. A small force of Confederates put up a fight on the Oconee, but Howard easily outflanked them. Lieutenant General William Hardee, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, ordered the troops back to Sebastopol, 40 miles east. The Federals crossed the Oconee and continued advancing to keep pace with Slocum’s left wing to the north.
Sherman directed his cavalry, led by Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick, to move northeast, feint toward Augusta, and then turn to destroy the bridge over Briar Creek near Waynesboro, on the Augusta & Savannah Railroad. This would cut the rail link between Augusta and Millen. Sherman also instructed Kilpatrick to try freeing the Federal prisoners held at Millen.
Major General Joseph Wheeler led his Confederate cavalry to Sandersville, where they awaited Slocum’s approach on the 25th. According to Sherman:
“A brigade of rebel cavalry was deployed before the town, and was driven in and through it by our skirmish line. I myself saw the rebel cavalry apply fire to stacks of fodder standing in the fields at Sandersville, and gave orders to burn some unoccupied dwellings close by. On entering the town, I told certain citizens (who would be sure to spread the report) that, if the enemy attempted to carry out their threat to burn their food, corn, and fodder, in our route, I would most undoubtedly execute to the letter the general orders of devastation made at the outset of the campaign. With this exception… the people did not destroy food, for they saw clearly that it would be ruin to themselves.”
As Slocum’s Federals entered Sandersville, Wheeler turned north to take on Kilpatrick’s horsemen, which were reportedly threatening Augusta. Kilpatrick arrived at Millen on the 26th, where he discovered that the Federal prisoners there had been transferred to Florida. Kilpatrick instead ordered his troopers to destroy a stretch of the railroad before camping for the night.
Wheeler’s Confederates approached near midnight and targeted the camps of the 8th Indiana and 2nd U.S. Cavalry at Sylvian Grove, near Waynesboro. Wheeler reported:
“I started immediately with my command, overtaking him about midnight. I immediately attacked and captured his picket, and pushed on to his camp and drove him back from the main Augusta road and out of his camps, capturing 1 stand of colors, some prisoners, some 50 horses, clothing, blankets, camp equipage, &c., in considerable quantities.”
Kilpatrick, who had been sleeping in a nearby house, hurried onto his horse in his nightshirt and barely escaped capture. Wheeler’s Confederates pursued closely, preventing the Federals from burning the railroad bridge over Briar Creek. Wheeler hoped to save Augusta from destruction. He later wrote:
“Being mindful of the great damage that could be done by the enemy’s burning the valuable mills and property which were not protected by fortifications, including the factories in the vicinity, the large portion of the city outside of the fortifications, the arsenal and sand hills, I hoped by pressing him hard he might be turned from his purpose.”
The forces of Kilpatrick and Wheeler clashed on the 27th in a fight that included saber charges and close-range pistol fire. The Federals withdrew and camped for the night at Buck Head Creek, unaware that Wheeler’s troopers were still nearby. Kilpatrick inexplicably set up his tent away from the main encampment, and when the Confederates attacked the next morning, he was nearly captured again.
Kilpatrick and the 9th Michigan fended Wheeler off long enough to join the main body of cavalry. As the Federals crossed Buck Head Creek, the 5th Ohio formed a rear guard and stopped the Confederate attackers with a section of howitzers. The 5th Ohio’s colonel reported, “When the smoke… cleared away the rebels who were crowded on the causeways of the bridge were not seen.”
The Federals burned the bridge to slow Wheeler’s pursuit, and Colonel Smith D. Atkins’s Federal brigade formed a defense line near Reynolds’ Plantation to the south. Atkins’s men repelled two Confederate charges “quickly and easily,” enabling Kilpatrick’s command to rejoin Slocum’s left wing at Louisville.
As November ended, Slocum’s Federals crossed the Ogeechee River without any real opposition. The Confederate high command soon began realizing that Sherman was headed for the Atlantic. President Jefferson Davis wrote General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, that the Federals “may move directly for the Coast.”
Davis then sent General Braxton Bragg, currently stationed at Wilmington, North Carolina, to supersede Hardee. Bragg accepted the assignment but wrote, “In assuming it, I must candidly express my belief that no practicable combinations of my available men can avert disaster.” Bragg arrived at Augusta on the 27th, certain that the Confederates could do nothing to stop Sherman’s advance.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 492-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 523-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 601, 603-04; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 87, 474-75; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67