Wheeler Meets the Enemy – Sherman Does Not Notice

November 20, 1864 (Sunday)

Smith Atkins to the front!
Smith Atkins to the front!

When Joseph Wheeler, the Confederate cavalry commander in Georgia, arrived in Macon the night previous, he found William Hardee, freshly arrived from Charleston. Now in command of the department, Hardee directed Wheeler to move with his force at daylight toward the town of Clinton to “ascertain the enemy’s force and location.”

As Wheeler was readying his men, now in line around Macon, his flanks were pecked by small bands of Union troopers. This caused him a bit of delay, but after swatting them away, he mounted his command and rode through thick fog to the town of Clinton.

There, he found no cavalry, but instead an entire corps of Union infantry, which he nearly stumbled into through the dim. “Six men dashed into the town,” wrote Wheeler in his report, “and captured General [Peter] Osterhaus’ servant (an enlisted man) within twenty feet of General Osterhaus’ headquarters.”

Though he had not seen them at first, Union cavalry, under Judson Kilpatrick, were at hand. “A regiment of the enemy’s cavalry charged us,” he continued, “making the retreat of my small escort necessary.”

When retreating from the town, a squad of Federal troopers bore down upon them. Through skill and determination, Wheeler’s men were able to force them back, charging as they came. The Yankees were scattered, but soon regrouped and returned the gesture. Wheeler was able to drive them off for good, the foe retreating back into Clinton.

Shortly after the Northern troopers were dispersed, Wheeler received word that even more Federal cavalry were approaching Macon from the southeast. He wished to aid his comrades, but doing so would leave open the road to Milledgeville – the state capital. Nevertheless, Wheeler started his command south.

In the meanwhile, Judson Kilpatrick was moving ever closer to Macon, led by a brigade under Atkins Smith. Before them was only a brigade of Rebels, left behind by Wheeler. Four miles east of Macon, they met the enemy crouching behind barricades.

To test their strength, Atkins dispatched a portion of the 92nd Illinois Infantry, which had been mounted for the campaign. Reverting to their more natural mode of transportation, they dismounted, approached the works and were promptly driven back by the Rebels on horseback. Fortunately, the charge was repulsed by Atkins’ other troops.

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

“The charge was received and repulsed and the enemy charged in turn,” wrote Atkins in his report, “when the entire brigade of the enemy cowardly ran off, scattering through the woods. We did not follow them, but pushed on toward Macon.”

The Federals again met the enemy behind Walnut Creek. Once more, the 92nd was dismounted and sent forward, though this time they were bolstered by artillery and the 10th Ohio Cavalry. “They crossed the creek in a most difficult place,” Atkins continued, “and charged in column of fours up the road, and were successful in gaining momentary possesion of he enemy’s outer works and several pieces of artillery, which, however, could not be brought off, and the regiment retired.”

Wheeler had arrived after the attack and assessed the situation. “Finding large unportected intervals between the redoubts,” he wrote, “I placed Harrison’s and Hagan’s brigades in line, making the connection complete. After slight skirmishing the enemy retreated a short distance.”

Atkins removed his men to Griswoldville, east of the battlefield, where a detachment of his command had been destroying what they could of the town. His men” charged into the town, driving the enemy out, and under their fire captured and burned a locomotive and train of cars; burned the public buildings, and destroyed the railroad.”

That night, Wheeler and Hardee met again, the latter ordering the former to move out immediately through the dark toward Griswoldville. By the time he reached the place, the Federals were gone.

The infantry troops in Sherman’s Right Wing, which Kilpatrick was screening, were encamped for the night between Clinton and Gordon on the railroad. His Left Wing, to the north, were edging every closer to Milledgeville, the capital now abandoned.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p363, 389-390, 406; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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Wheeler Meets the Enemy – Sherman Does Not Notice by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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