‘I Will Endeavor to Give them a Warm Reception’ – Sherman’s Host Steps Off

November 15, 1864 (Tuesday)

Judson Kilpatrick was considered by many to be a brash and reckless officer, having little regard for the ultimate safety of his own men. When in battle, his mood turned fey, and few who knew his work could ask “have you ever seen a dead cavalryman?” And because of this, he was known widely as Judson Kill-cavalry – not for the dead of the enemy left on the field of battle, but for the lives of his command he sacrificed to sometimes questionable ends.

Destruction of Atlanta
Destruction of Atlanta

And it was all of this that shifted him from a division commander in the East to the head of Sherman’s cavalry in the West. Perhaps there was no other better suited to the position. He

Kilpatrick had arrived in Atlanta the day previous, leading his 5,500. There, he was informed by Sherman that he would set course for Georgia’s capitol, Milledgeville. His command would shield the Right Wing of the army, and he would make feinting stabs towards the town of Forsyth before crossing the Ocumlgee River. He was then do the same to Macon, stopping short of an attack, falling upon the Georgia Central Railroad as near to the city as he could safely come.

Then, sticking to the tracks, he would, as he put it, “fall back toward Gordon, destroying track till the arrival of infantry,” though this was hardly falling back. His cavalry was Sherman’s vanguard, and they would be “falling back” toward the east from Macon, meeting Olive Otis Howard’s Wing as they did. Kilpatrick had seven days in which to accomplish this feat, and there was little time to lose.

“We left Atlanta on the morning of November 15,” wrote Kilpatrick in his report, “crossed the Flint River and occupied Jonesboro. A portion of General Wheeler’s cavalry, and the Georgia militia under General Cobb, was reported to be at Lovejoy’s Station.”

Some of his cavalry had gotten an early start, encamping on the railroad near East Point. Come the dawn, they met the unsuspecting Rebel pickets, and drove them most of the day. One Federal regiment caught Wheeler’s Confederates sleeping, and was able to round up nearly a score of prisoners.

But the cavalry weren’t the only ones to get in on this game. The lead elements of Howard’s Wing, under the command of General Peter Osterhaus, “met them [the enemy] not far from Rough and Ready, and again in the vicinity of Stockbridge.” But there, he also found an entire brigade of Rebel cavalry, which he told to be 900-strong.

Through the morning, Joseph Wheeler received reports of the mass movement. The Federals, he said in a message to anyone who might listen, “have driven our cavalry back to this place. Strength not yet ascertained. Enemy have burned many houses in Rome, Marietta, and Atlanta; also destroyed railroad and burned bridge over Chattahoochee.”

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

General G.W. Smith, commanding the Confederate troops at Lovejoy’s, just south of Jonesboro, received the message from Wheeler, replying post-haste. “My trains are getting ready to start,” he began. “The wagons came in just as your note was received notifying me that the pickets were driven in and the enemy at Morrow’s Mills. If they come too close to me I will endeavor to give them a warm reception. If nothing occurs to prevent I will move tonight to the position spoken of yesterday afternoon [presumably Macon].”

Wheeler knew he couldn’t face down Sherman’s host on his own, but was also unwilling to simply let the Yankees run rampant. Thus, he ordered that “all mills near the enemy’s lines of march will be rendered useless to the enemy by breaking the machinery, and, when practicable, by drawing off the water.” Though the mill would be rendered useless, he made it very clear that “no mill building, corn-crib, or any other private property will be burned or destroyed by this command.”

Horses and livestock were, of course, fair game, lest they fall into Northern hands, though he implored his men to give receipts. In an attempt to take care of the citizens in the path of Sherman, he ordered that “reliable officers and men [ride] at least one day in advance to instruct citizens in which direction to drive their stock.”

Slocum's troops moving out of Atlanta
Slocum’s troops moving out of Atlanta

Wheeler was intimately familiar with Sherman’s style of hell, and, though practically impossible, he took it upon himself to lessen the coming fury. Leaving Jonseboro in the early afternoon, he fell back, taking the command at Lovejoy’s with him, to Griffin, south by nearly thirty miles.

And so Sherman’s March to the Sea began. The Federals marched in two Wings. The Left, comprised of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps, and helmed by General Henry Slocum, had just left Atlanta, the Twentieth Corps marching east along the Georgia Railroad to Stone Mountain, while the Fourteenth remained in Atlanta.

The Right Wing, commanded by Howard, moved southerly in two columns, pushing Wheeler’s rear guard as they came. They settled along creeks for the night, having marched about fifteen miles.

Kilpatrick’s men, encamped near Jonesboro, though rumors of Rebels in nearby Lovejoy gave them notice of what might come the following morning. 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p26, 65-66, 362, 368, 406, 858-859; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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