Facts, information and articles about the Battle Of Waynesborough, a Civil War Battle of the American Civil War
As the morning sunlight pierced the dense fog surrounding Waynesborough on December 4, 1864, an urgent whisper awakened groggy Confederate cavalrymen and sounded a desperate warning: get ready–the Yankees are near. Shaking off their sleep, the Rebel horsemen prepared for battle. Before they had finished saddling their horses, a line of Union infantrymen emerged from the woods a short distance away. Days of sporadic fighting had come to this: a stand-up fight in front of Waynesborough, Georgia.
This cotton-producing town of 307 people, situated at the heart of Burke County, near the South Carolina border, stood prominently in the plans of both the Confederates and Federals operating in Georgia late in the fall of 1864. Waynesborough straddled the Augusta & Savannah Railroad, which linked its strategically important namesake cities. Augusta–30 miles to the north–was the home of the Augusta Powder Works, a vital supplier of gunpowder and armaments for the Confederacy, and Savannah–90 miles to the southeast of Waynesborough on the Atlantic coast–was Georgia’s key port, its link to the rest of the Southern seaboard.
Union Major General William T. Sherman knew just how much the Confederacy needed this part of Georgia, and he knew just how to exploit that dependence. After capturing Atlanta in September and spending the next 10 weeks destroying the city, Sherman led the armies of his Military Division of the Mississippi southeast toward the region in mid-November. If his 62,000-man army could tear a path from Atlanta to Savannah, he reasoned, it would ‘make Georgia howl,’ splitting the Deep South in half and weakening the Confederacy’s ability to continue the war.
Sherman’s army strode into Georgia’s capital, Milledgeville, on November 23, overwhelming the scant Confederate forces protecting the city. The next day, the Federals left the capital city and continued what Sherman called their ‘March to the Sea.’ They encountered little organized opposition at first, and Sherman wanted to keep it that way. So, as he took the main body of his army southeast toward Savannah, he divided his forces and ordered Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to take his 5,000-man 3d Cavalry Division, accompanied by the XIV Corps of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, and feint east toward Augusta, diverting attention from Sherman. Along the way, Kilpatrick was to ride into Waynesborough and destroy the railroad lines, then head south toward Millen and liberate the thousands of Union prisoners held at Camp Lawton, about 15 miles from Waynesborough. Once these tasks were completed, Kilpatrick was to rejoin the army, and the reinvigorated force would march triumphantly into Savannah.
Meanwhile, Confederate leaders panicked as the massive Union army rode roughshod over Milledgeville. Sherman had to be stopped–this was an order from President Jefferson Davis himself. ‘When the purpose of the enemy shall be developed, every effort must be made to obstruct the route on which he is moving, and all other available means must be employed to delay his march,’ Davis instructed Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
So far, Hardee’s department, scarcely 15,000 strong, had had little success in slowing Sherman’s devastation machine. But when it came to Kilpatrick’s cavalry raid, Hardee had a powerful weapon at his disposal: Major General Joseph Wheeler’s 3,000-man Cavalry Corps supplemented with a small contingent of Georgia state troopers. Both Wheeler and Kilpatrick had graduated 19th in their West Point classes (Wheeler in 1859, Kilpatrick in 1861). But as commanders, the two were as different as two men could be. Wheeler had earned the sobriquet ‘Fighting Joe’ for his tenacity on the battlefield; Kilpatrick, however, was known derisively as ‘Kilcavalry’ for his dangerous impetuosity in combat.
The trouble was, Wheeler did not know where Kilpatrick was headed. His outnumbered Rebel force dogged the Federals blindly for two days, but was always one step behind them. Burning houses and devastated villages in the wake of Kilpatrick’s troops marked the Rebels’ pursuit. ‘We saw thousands of old men and women, bowed over with age, crying and wringing their hands, saying everything they had was burned,’ said Private J.A. Williams of the 4th Tennessee Cavalry. This wanton destruction incensed the Confederates and spurred their pursuit.
On the evening of November 26, Wheeler learned from his pickets that Kilpatrick had crossed the Ogeechee River about three dozen miles east of Milledgeville. Wheeler surmised that the Federals were headed toward Augusta. A native of the city, the general knew that an attack there would be a calamity, especially if the Federals destroyed the city’s arsenal and powder works or burned its textile mills and factories. Wheeler caught up with the Union force and, about midnight, drove it away from the main road to Augusta. Undaunted, Kilpatrick and his men chose another road; Wheeler simply did not have the manpower to block every possible route.
Again, the Confederates set out in pursuit, following in the Union troops’ tracks until they reached Ivanhoe Plantation, northwest of Waynesborough. There, Wheeler found Dr. Amos Whitehead’s family recovering from a visit by Federals who had fled just as the Confederates arrived. The Union troops had done substantial damage to the plantation. The gin house, stables, part of the corn crib, and 25 bales of cotton were destroyed. Dr. Whitehead’s teenage daughter, Catherine, wrote in her diary, ‘The first detachment of the enemy behaved very well considering they were the enemy, but they were most audacious in their manner and walked about as if everything belonged to them.’ She added, ‘They only stole all the mules and horses and all meat from the smoke house, but when Kilpatrick came up with the main body of his army, they commenced the work of destruction and committed every kind of depredation.’
Kilpatrick’s wrath extended to the slaves, too, Catherine wrote: ‘They took everything from the Negroes, at which I was much surprised as they profess to love them so much. They stole all their clothes and money and whatever would be at all useful to themselves….’
Catherine claimed the plunder began at the top of the army and filtered down. ‘Even Kilpatrick asked for the silver,’ she wrote, ‘and when the General condescends to anything of that kind you cannot expect anything more from the men.’
Wheeler learned from the Whiteheads that Kilpatrick had sent some 500 soldiers into Waynesborough the night before to destroy a railroad bridge. This information reinforced Wheeler’s theory that Augusta was the Federals’ target. Kilpatrick would not have attacked the plantation if Waynesborough had been his target, he reasoned; he simply would have attacked Waynesborough.
The Confederates continued their pursuit, and in Wheeler’s words, they ‘pressed the enemy so warmly’ on November 27 at Brier Creek Swamp, east of the Ogeechee, that Kilpatrick was forced away from Augusta and fled southeastward. During the chase, the Federals set fire to corn cribs, barns, and houses. ‘We succeeded in driving him off in nearly half the instances in time to extinguish the flames, and frequently pressed him so rapidly as to prevent his firing a number of houses, thus saving a large amount of property,’ Wheeler recalled. The Confederate general and his staff marched into Waynesborough shortly after dark, just in time to douse another set of fires, these set by frustrated Union troopers who had just learned that the prisoners at Camp Lawton had already been evacuated. While some of the Federal soldiers continued the destruction, other Yankee cavalrymen encamped on a hill about half a mile from the railroad station.
Fuming over the seemingly random attacks, Wheeler decided to assault the Union camp before Kilpatrick’s men had the chance to dig in. The Confederates charged, and passing easily over the hastily erected rail breastworks, they pushed the Yankees out of the village. The charge temporarily halted the attacks on the Augusta & Savannah Railroad lines and kept the Federals in line of battle throughout the night. At 3:00 a.m. on November 28, the Confederates tried to surround Kilpatrick’s forces, but by daylight, the Union troops had withdrawn under the cover of dense fog.
Blinded by the mist, the Rebels advanced slowly. The Yankees responded with a charge, but the Confederates met and repulsed it. Southern cavalry under Brigadier Generals William Humes and Robert H. Anderson swarmed the Union flanks while Wheeler led the rest of his men toward the front. The combined effort drove the Federals from their positions. ‘They continued to flee, refusing to surrender, notwithstanding the demands of my men in close pursuit,’ Wheeler reported. ‘Consequently, no alternative was left but to shoot or saber them to prevent escape.’ The Confederate general called the rout ‘complete’ and reported, ‘General Kilpatrick was himself very nearly captured.’
The Rebels pursued the retreating Union soldiers into Buck Head Swamp. There, they ran into an array of barricades far more formidable than any they had encountered so far. But the Confederates, eager to capture the Federal troops, stormed the hastily erected works and forced the blueclad soldiers from their positions. Only the muck of the swamp–and certainly not the Federal troops–could stop the Rebel cavalrymen, Wheeler boasted.
But the fight was not over. Kilpatrick had his own plans. His advance guard, the 5th Ohio Cavalry, carefully set fire to the Buck Head Creek bridge as the pursuing Confederates reached it. ‘A terrific fire from the enemy on the other side prevented me from immediately extinguishing the flames,’ Wheeler reported. His own advance guard dismounted, forded the creek, and drove the Federal riflemen from the opposite bank. Meanwhile, other Confederates–with ‘great energy and hard labor,’ said Wheeler–extinguished the flaming bridge and rebuilt it using wooden pews from nearby Buck Head Baptist Church. The troopers crossed the makeshift span and continued their pursuit.
Wheeler’s men had kept the Federals on the run for several hours. But by now dusk was approaching, and the general was anxious to gain a decisive victory. So, he instructed his brigade commander, Colonel George G. Dibrell, to move through a wooded area to attack, even though by then only a small part of the Confederate force–about 1,200 soldiers–had crossed the creek over the rebuilt bridge. Wheeler and Dibrell soon converged on Kilpatrick’s line of battle. Wheeler placed the 3d Arkansas Cavalry in line and the 8th and 11th Texas Cavalries in column and charged. ‘Nothing could have exceeded the gallantry with which these troops responded to the bugle’s call, and hurled themselves upon the enemy, driving his cavalry in confusion and finally encountering the breast-works,’ Wheeler reported. ‘This so terrified the enemy as to cause him to flee in uncontrollable confusion.’
The ‘confusion’ did not last long. Soon, the Confederates ran headlong into an infantry line so well positioned that they could not pass it. Wheeler ordered Colonel Henry M. Ashby’s brigade to turn the Union flank and take the road that led toward Louisville, where the Union cavalry was retreating. In the growing darkness, however, Ashby positioned his men on the wrong road. The mistake opened a path of escape for the Union soldiers, who fled toward Louisville, about two dozen miles southwest of Waynesborough.
That night, Wheeler bragged, ‘Kilpatrick sought 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.’ But Wheeler’s boasting was misplaced; his division had suffered some 250 casualties, and the Union force, only about 190.
His ‘victory’ notwithstanding, Wheeler was still not sure he had dissuaded Kilpatrick from raiding Augusta. Placing pickets at all the Brier Creek crossings, he ordered his main force to Rocky Creek Church, about five miles west of Waynesborough on the road to Louisville. There, he would be in position to check any Union advance. Kilpatrick and his division, meanwhile, remained in Louisville, recovering from days of constant fighting. They stayed there until December 1, when Sherman, wanting Wheeler out of his path, ordered Kilpatrick to attack the Confederate cavalry at every opportunity. In obedience to these new orders, Kilpatrick’s cavalry and Davis’s corps of infantry marched up the Louisville Road, bound for Waynesborough. Wheeler’s cavalry met them at Rocky Creek, and the Yankees quickly turned east toward Thomas’ Station.
Wheeler was beginning to change his hypothesis about the Union strategy. Kilpatrick had been diverted too easily; perhaps he was not headed for Augusta after all. Perhaps the Union raiders were headed farther south, toward Savannah. Whatever the Federal plan, however, Wheeler was determined to stop the Federals’ continual destruction of the railroad.
On December 3, Wheeler advanced and attacked Kilpatrick at Thomas’ Station, about five miles south of Waynesborough. Once again, the damage to the railroad was halted. After nightfall, when the Yankees resumed their destruction of the rails, Wheeler responded by shelling their camp, reportedly to good effect. That night, Wheeler’s advance guard camped about three miles south of Waynesborough, the men hitching their horses to a fence on the edge of a large cotton field that was lined on the far side by pine trees. The night passed quietly as the Confederate cavalrymen, exhausted from days of skirmishing, received the rest they craved.
The Rebels’ blissful hours of rest ended abruptly as the sun rose on December 4. Private Williams recalled, ‘About the first chicken crow in the morning, someone came round taking hold of everyone, for [we were] asleep, saying, get up and not speak above a whisper and saddle your horse, saying Yankee Infantry was laying asleep about 50 yards out in the woods there.’
The 200-man 4th Tennessee, part of Wheeler’s advance guard, quietly but hurriedly prepared for another fight. Told to stay put until further orders arrived, the cavalrymen took stock of their situation. A large swamp loomed to one side of them, and a railroad embankment jutted through the fog about 200 yards away. Soon, a rustling sound arose and grew louder until Union infantry emerged double-file from the pine trees beyond the cotton field and formed into line of battle. At the same time, three Union cavalry regiments came riding down on the opposite side of the railroad. The terrain and the Federals were joining forces to trap the Rebels. Williams could see what was happening. He asked his commander what the men should do, but he received only an echo of earlier words–wait for further orders.
Williams refused to wait. Looking around, he saw a road passing through the cotton field, crossing the edge of the swamp, and intersecting a second road that led back toward Waynesborough. He shouted to his comrades, ‘I suggests, boys, let’s go a skirt of timber on one side of that graded road and swamp on the other side.’ The Confederates galloped toward the road and had very nearly escaped when ‘the Yankees fired a shell which bursted just over our heads
…as we came together on that road,’ Williams said. ‘No one was hurt, but the smoke was thick.’ Confederate artillery responded, raining the Union cavalry that was pursuing the men of the 4th. Trees draped with moss and prickly briars pestered the Southerners as they galloped down the narrow road. The situation worsened when ‘the Yankees charged us from some distance,’ Williams recalled. ‘We would load our guns as we retreated and turn and fire on them and keep them off us till we got past the swamp. Just here, Shaw’s Battalion [the 4th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion, led by Major Jo Shaw] came to our relief. Just in time to save me from capture.’
The escalating sound of rifle fire alerted the rest of Wheeler’s command, which was in Waynesborough seeking forage. Wheeler concentrated his troops and threw together some works. The Union cavalry charged Wheeler’s lines, but the Rebels repulsed the assault. The Federals regrouped and came back a second, third, and fourth time, but the Confederates turned back each charge. Finally, the Union’s long infantry lines advanced and overwhelmed the heavily outnumbered Confederates. After what Wheeler called ‘warm fighting,’ Kilpatrick’s cavalry turned the Confederate flanks and forced the Rebels to fall back through the town.
Confederate Captain William Henderson was caught in the thick of the battle. ‘I was color bearer in my company,’ he reported. ‘Well, the fight began near the little creek below here…and we fought all over the field to the right. It was in that field that I dismounted an adjutant of a Michigan regiment [probably the 9th Michigan Cavalry] with my flag-staff and would have killed him if it had not bent double. Afterwards I was glad I did not kill him for he was a handsome fellow. In a few minutes we began to retreat and reached town…. I was standing shoulder to shoulder to Captain Bess when he fell mortally wounded. Being color bearer, I always felt that he received the shot intended for me. We could not stop to remove him, but we heard that some of the enemy picked him up and carried him [away].’
Finally, the Confederates withdrew from Waynesborough. ‘The moment our lines left our works,’ Wheeler later wrote, ‘I directed the Eighth Texas [under Colonel Gustave Cook]…and the Ninth Tennessee [a battalion under a Captain Blomley]…to charge the enemy, which was gallantly done, meeting and driving back a charge of the enemy, and so staggering him that no further demonstration was made upon us until we were prepared to receive the enemy at our new position north of the town.’ The Federal attack Wheeler expected never came. Instead, Kilpatrick and his troops remained in the town for three hours before marching south down the road to Savannah. They spent that night in Alexander, about 10 miles southwest of Waynesborough, and then rejoined Sherman’s column as it marched on Savannah.
Though the fighting was over around Waynesborough, the invasion had left deep scars. Union soldiers reportedly had burned the railroad depot, the post office, the town’s carriage shop, and a house. Some reports claimed other houses had been plundered, provisions and clothing stolen, and all the poultry killed. And during the battle, residents were forced to hide under their houses to protect themselves. A report that the Federals had lobbed a shell into the town as they departed especially outraged the townspeople.
Florence Byne, a teenager, lived with her parents on Waynesborough’s main street. She recalled seeing soldiers from both sides topple from their horses, some of them wounded and others killed. ‘The shots fell thick and fast in our front windows,’ she said. ‘My mother had to pile up mattresses to protect us from the shots.’ Union soldiers looted her family’s home, she later wrote, and Kilpatrick used it briefly as his headquarters. Federal soldiers even moved her piano onto the street and ordered her to play. ‘They asked me to play ‘Yankee Doodle’ and I told them I did not know it but played ‘Dixie’ instead,’ she said. ‘This made them furious, and they threatened to cut the strings of my piano if I did not stop it. Then I played ‘The Southern Girl,’ singing the words of ‘My Homespun Dress and Palmetto Hat.’ They laughed and said, ‘Just listen at the little rebel.’ They made me play a long time, but I never played anything but Southern airs. I must say I was not afraid of them, and I told them so, but they laughed it off.’
Wheeler considered his operations around Waynesborough successful. ‘Every engagement was a success, and the utter defeat and discomfiture of the enemy’s cavalry was most signal and complete, notwithstanding [that] his force of cavalry was always superior to mine,’ Wheeler wrote in his post-battle report. ‘During all the engagements the enemy’s cavalry were at least double my own numbers, and were, besides, reinforced by one or more divisions of infantry.’
But Kilpatrick, too, had accomplished his mission at Waynesborough. The Union troops had burned several railroad bridges and had forced Wheeler’s cavalry away from Sherman’s Savannah-bound army. Sherman and Kilcavalry marched virtually unopposed into Savannah less than three weeks later. CWT
This article was written by Angela Lee and originally published in the June 1998 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!