December 4, 1864 (Sunday)
Around midnight and in the early morning, Joseph Wheeler’s Rebel cavalry, numbering roughly 2,000, slid close to Judson Kilpatrick’s encampment a few miles south of Waynesboro, Georgia. Kilpatrick had been guarding Sherman’s extreme left and had begun now to turn southerly toward Savannah.
For the past several days, Wheeler had dogged Kilpatrick, forcing the Yankee to “the protection of his infantry, which he did not venture to forsake again during the campaign, no doubt being too much demoralized to again meet our cavalry.” In truth, Wheeler was wearing on Kilpatrick, and Sherman had assigned a division of infantry under General Absalom Baird to him as support. However, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the new neighbors.
And so it was that Wheeler had devised a method of keeping Kilpatrick’s men from sleep. Through stealth, Wheeler had managed to drag two pieces of artillery surprisingly close to Kilpatrick’s pickets guarding his camp. Sighting the pieces on the Federal campfires, they opened upon their slumbering foes, as Wheeler reported, “shelling their camp with good effect.” This could not stand, and before long Kilpatrick’s pickets drove back the Rebel gunners.
Major James Connolly, a member of General Baird’s staff, described the situation in his diary: “Of course, the General and all his staff had to get up, had our horses saddled, and as I was the only one about headquarters that knew how to get to our pickets up the R.R., I had to act as guide through the woods in the dark. It was very dark and after we had gone some distance, and everything had become quiet again, the General declared that we had already gone too far, that we were already outside of our pickets, and that if they followed my lead we would all be captured. The experience of yesterday had made him very cautious, but after some parleying I convinced him I was right and we went ahead to our pickets. But as the fuss was all over, and we could see nothing, we returned, betting to bed again, in bad humor, about 2 this morning.”
Before turning in himself, Kilpatrick vowed to make the Rebels pay the next morning. And sure enough, as dawn showed itself, there he was, ordering his entire division – 5,000 men – to mount and whip Wheeler.
Connolly continued his tale:
“Kilpatrick drew up his whole division of cavalry in the open fields this morning at 7 o’clock, ready to commence operations for driving the rebels up the R.R. to Waynesboro and through that place. So many cavalry in line in an open plain make a beautiful sight. But it’s all show; there’s not much fight in them, though Kilpatrick’s men have behaved handsomely today. They did all the fighting and whipped Wheeler soundly, killing, wounding and capturing about 300 of his men, and losing only about 50 themselves. 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, for Wheeler and he were classmates at West Point, and he was elated at the idea of whipping his classmate.
“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. Wheeler himself had to run at an ingloriously rapid rate through the streets of Waynesboro today. That must have been very humiliating to this proud cavalier.”
Wheeler had a slightly different take on this events. Most of his force had been sent into the countryside to gather forage and supplies. When Kilpatrick fell upon him, he was not expecting such a reply. In his official report, Wheeler claims that “a single regiment held the entire column in check.”
“This rough screen was hardly completed when a general charge was made upon our lines, which was repulsed, with considerable loss to the enemy. A second, third, and fourth charge were made by the enemy, each of which was repulsed or met and driven back by counter-charges. Finally, their long lines of infantry advanced, and, after warm fighting, their cavalry having turned our flanks, we were compelled to fall back, which was done by taking successive positions till we reached the town of Waynesborough. Here we were so warmly pressed that it was with difficulty we succeeded in withdrawing from our position.”
“The men of my command,” wrote Kilpatrick in his report, “fought most bravely throughout the day, and it is impossible to single out from among the officers individual cases of gallantry when all did so well.”
Wheeler’s men retreated to the creek north of the town, pursued by a couple of Federal regiments, who spent more time destroying the railroad and the bridge across than fighting the Rebels.
The whole reason for this battle, the purport as to why Kilpatrick was on Sherman’s extreme left, was so that the columns of infantry to his south could pivot without vexation from Wheeler’s cavalry. If the Rebels were distracted, Sherman could angle his men toward Savannah. Whipping Wheeler was simply the icing. And though a ball, it was ultimately unnecessary, though you’d hardly hear Sherman complain about it.
As for Sherman, he remembered almost nothing of this, for him, uneventful day. There was marching, to be sure, but so routine had it all become that he was able to take a noontime nap along the road. It was with this abandon that his men were making their way through Georgia.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p368, 409-410; Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland by James Connelly; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]