November 26, 1864 (Saturday)
Since we peered in on William Tecumseh Sherman, he had entered, sacked, and left Milledgeville, continuing on his March to the Sea. He marched now toward Sandersville, thirty miles farther east. Sherman was still marching his army in two wings, and while the Left Wing worked its way toward Sandersville, the Right was facing a small contingent of Rebels along the Oconee River. The Federal troops fielded many more men, to be sure, but the Confederates were entrenched. And so through the day previous, the Union skirmish lines were extended again and again groping almost blindly for the Rebel flank.
It was finally found and more or less bypassed by a nearby ford. Outnumbered, the Southerners could do little to stop their foes. Around 1am, the Confederates along the Oconee were ordered to fade forty miles east to Sebastopol by William Hardee, commanding the forces in Georgia.
Glancing away from Sherman’s Right Wing, Hardee ordered Jo Wheeler’s cavalry to ride for Sandersville in hopes of stopping the Left, which appeared to be heading for Augusta, though Hardee believed Sherman’s ultimate objective to be Savannah.
“A brigade of rebel cavalry was deployed before the town,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs of Sandersville, “and was driven in and through it by our skirmishline. 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, and one or two minor cases near Savannah, the people did not destroy food, for they saw clearly that it would be ruin to themselves.”
Here, he halted the Left Wing, waiting for the news that the Right was abreast with him to the south, along the railroad.
The Right finished crossing the Oconee via an pontoon bridge laid after the Rebels before them made their egress. Just as the Left, the Right was made up of two corps, each taking parallel roads, and each stymied by swamps. Rather than moving east as they had been, both corps angled to the north, as Sherman attempted to join his army into one.
As the defenses along the river showed, as Sherman’s troops moved farther east, the Rebels grew in number, compacted as they were.
Though Sherman’s cavalry, under Judson Kilpatrick, had been on the right of the Right Wing thus far on the march, they had more recently moved beyond the Left. On this date, they found themselves twenty miles north of Sandersville.
Their objective was the railroad to Augusta, as well as the Union prisoner of war camp in Millen, just beyond. But when scouts came upon the camp, they found it abandoned. The prisoners had been sent to Florida, far out of the reach of the Federal cavalry. Nevertheless, much track was torn up and a bridge was partially destroyed. They encamped for the night around Sylvan Grove, but they were hardly on their own.
After leaving the area of Sandersville, Jo Wheeler received word that Kilpatrick had gone north and appeared to be on his way to Augusta. “I started immediately with my command,” reported Wheeler, “overtaking him about midnight.”
The night was cold and dark, and any Rebel attack was unexpected. Still, they came.
“I immediately attacked and captured his picket,” Wheeler continued, “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.”
As Kilpatrick continued on toward Augusta, Wheeler learned from the locals that the Federals were intending to raid that city. “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 next day, Sherman would continue on. Kilpatrick would again be relentlessly dogged by Wheeler.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p33, 34, 45, 48, 409, 899; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]