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Kill-Cavalry’s Ride to the Sea

By Noah Andre Trudeau
8/6/2018 • MHQ Magazine

William T. Sherman considered Judson Kilpatrick ‘a hell of a damned fool’—just the man to lead his cavalry on the March to the Sea.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman was of two minds when it came to using mounted forces in his operations. By his own admission, Sherman was “mistrustful of cavalry.” Yet as one of the finest military thinkers of the Civil War, he knew only too well how critically important that arm of the service was to any large-scale campaign. Personally, he was a “nervous and somewhat careless rider,” which may well have colored his opinion of his cavalry. In the words of modern historian (and horseman) David Evans, Sherman “had no affinity for horse soldiers, no grasp of their capabilities, and no patience with their limitations.”

All this became painfully obvious during Sherman’s Atlanta campaign (May-September 1864). While his infantry columns eventually triumphed and captured Atlanta after a series of hard-fought battles, his cavalry fumbled most of its strategic assignments. Some of the blame lay with Sherman, who persisted in sending his riders against the Rebel railroads that converged on the Gate City, operations for which they were ill prepared. Wrecking iron track is not an easy task for lightly equipped riders, and most of the damage they inflicted was quickly repaired. Sherman’s inability to choke off Atlanta using only his cavalry was one of the great frustrations he experienced during that campaign.

An even greater mark against this arm, at least in Sherman’s estimation, was its leadership. He repeatedly brought in outsiders to fix the problem, rather than promoting worthy officers from within. Few commanders in other theaters willingly parted with their best and brightest, so Sherman’s importation policy resulted in a group of mediocre men seeking their second or even third chance to succeed.

How well this didn’t work is exemplified by the case of Major General George Stoneman. Bumped from command of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry following the disastrous Chancellorsville campaign, Stoneman wound up leading a mounted corps in Sherman’s Army of the Ohio. He led most of it on a deep raid toward Macon, where he hoped to wreck some railroad track and liberate Union prisoners held at Camp Oglethorpe. Stoneman not only failed to achieve any of his mission goals but also became trapped with a portion of his command at Sunshine Church in Hillsboro, and was forced to surrender on July 31, 1864.

Sherman had no good choices when it came time to select a cavalry leader for the campaign that would go into legend as the March to the Sea. He had decided on a top-to-bottom reorganization of the various mounted corps reporting to him and, characteristically, brought in an outsider, Major General James H. Wilson, for the job. He needed to keep Wilson in Tennessee accomplishing that task, so to command the mounted force that would accompany his foot soldiers, Sherman had to choose from the roster of officers who had already failed him one or more times. He settled on a candidate that most observers would have rated a long shot at best: Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick was the personification of every infantryman’s negative stereotype of a cavalryman. A staff officer in Sherman’s infantry, who served for a while as a liaison with the cavalry during the upcoming campaign, recalled Kilpatrick as “the most vain, conceited, egotistical little popinjay I ever saw….He is a very ungraceful rider, looking more like a monkey than a man on horseback.” It was said that he drove his men and horses so hard that some of the troopers took to calling him “Kill-cavalry.”

Kilpatrick, who had come west after botching a mounted raid against Richmond in early 1864, had the good fortune to receive a minor wound early in the Atlanta campaign. He was absent during many of the underachieving cavalry expeditions that so annoyed Sherman, though soon after his return in late July he undertook his own railroad wrecking operation, which delivered much less than expected. Nevertheless, Sherman selected Kilpatrick, hoping that his headstrong dash, self-confidence, and combativeness would serve him well. Asked by Wilson why he had selected the brigadier, Sherman responded, “I know Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of a man to command my cavalry on this expedition.”

In the upcoming campaign, Kilpatrick would be leading about five thousand troopers, divided into two brigades. For its first phase, he would be attached to the Right Wing under one-armed Medal of Honor recipient Major General Oliver O. Howard (like Kilpatrick, an Army of the Potomac veteran). It would be his job to screen Howard’s exposed right flank as his columns moved from Atlanta toward Macon, which would be bypassed. A trooper in the 9th Ohio Cavalry well understood that the “position of the cavalry….was to be at all times between the infantry and the enemy.” Kilpatrick knew that if the Rebel forces widely scattered throughout southeastern Georgia were allowed to concentrate on any portion of Sherman’s march, they might well be able to dispute the “passage of every river and [have] delayed us days and days, which, of itself would have been fatal.”

The principal Confederate force opposing Kilpatrick was a three-division cavalry corps under Major General Joseph Wheeler. On paper this represented more than five thousand men, but a number of factors seriously limited how many could be brought into action at any one time. Until early November, Wheeler had been assigned to the Army of Tennessee under General John Bell Hood. Only a last-minute deal brokered by the theater commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard, replaced Wheeler’s command with one led by Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Wheeler’s men were riding over from northeastern Alabama to the Atlanta area when Sherman began moving his forces eastward in two great infantry streams.

Compounding this problem, Wheeler soon found himself tasked with conflicting orders from a succession of regional commanders who required him to both harass the Yankee columns and fully scout their positions and direction. Consequently, he had to disperse his riders all along the wide perimeter covered by Sherman’s four infantry columns. It is unlikely that he was able to concentrate more than three thousand troopers to oppose Kilpatrick at any single point between November 15 and early December.

Wheeler had only about twenty-five hundred men in place (or getting into place) when the Federal force began pushing out of Atlanta. Sherman’s Left Wing, marching nearly due east from the city, encountered little initial opposition. The Right Wing, however, entered a zone where Confederates—worried about a thrust against Macon—were expecting trouble. While Howard’s infantry scrapped with one of Wheeler’s brigades near Stockbridge, Kilpatrick’s men bulled their way through Rebel roadblocks at East Point and outside Jonesboro. Wheeler fired off a sighting report announcing the enemy movements before falling back toward Griffin, along the railroad to Macon.

The next day, November 16, Yankee troopers struck at Wheeler barricades at Lovejoy’s Station and Bear Creek Station. At the former, triumphant Federals recaptured a pair of Union cannons lost to the Rebels during the Atlanta campaign. At the latter, Wheeler himself directed the brief defense and withdrawal. Afterward, wound-up Union cavalrymen skirmished heavily with the local livestock, bringing forth an angry Kilpatrick decree decrying the “most unmilitary and…willful waste of ammunition.” His orders concluded, “Let the men catch and kill their hogs with their sabers, a weapon that can be used equally as well to kill hogs as rebels.”

Howard’s Right Wing columns were now bearing south and east, following roads that would carry them just to the north of Macon. Kilpatrick dutifully kept station off the right flank, which caused his line of march to diverge from the railroad tracks being protected by Wheeler’s men. For several days the two antagonists were out of contact except for patrol clashes. During this period, Kilpatrick mounted a credible feint against the railroad depot at Forsyth, causing both Wheeler’s cavalry and some Georgia militia to congregate there. This was fine with General Howard, whose columns had been slowed getting across the Ocmulgee River at Planter’s Factory by heavy rains and muddy roads.

If anything, Howard’s concern for the security of his long wagon train intensified after crossing the Ocmulgee. To forestall any concentrated Rebel strikes against his slow-moving and exposed wagons, he ordered Kilpatrick to feint against Macon itself. Moving out from the small village of Clinton on November 20, Kilpatrick angled around to approach Macon’s defenses from the east. As part of this operation, a detachment entered the manufacturing town of Griswoldville, where the troopers wrecked facilities and burned a pistol factory.

Scrapping constantly with small Rebel patrols and roadblocks, Kilpatrick pushed steadily toward Macon with one brigade. When their course intersected the Georgia Central Railroad line, Union signal officers discovered that the telegraph link to the city was still functioning. Hooking up his own instrument to the wires, Kilpatrick’s operator listened in on the unciphered military traffic until an alert Macon telegrapher discovered his presence. A brief dialogue ensued:

Yank: Please inform General Hardee that Generals Howard and Kilpatrick will take breakfast with him in the morning.

Reb: All right; We’ve got Stoneman’s old quarters ready for them.

The cavalry officer was enjoying himself hugely until the line went dead, cut by another Federal party carrying out the orders of destruction. Sighed Kilpatrick, “Our fun was over.”

Consciously or not, he was following the course used by his unfortunate predecessor, General Stoneman, during his disastrous July raid. Before long, the head of the Federal column had reached Walnut Creek, about two miles outside Macon. The ground there favored the defense, with the road west of the creek climbing up a steep hill that was flanked to the north by a second rise. The Confederates had established a strongpoint on the high ground in an old frontier outpost, Fort Hawkins, while on the lower crest, on a farm owned by Samuel S. Dunlap, there was a two-gun battery with infantry support. The defenders, numbering between a thousand and twelve hundred men, were a mix of militia and veterans.

At 3:30 P.M. Kilpatrick’s advancing troopers challenged Macon’s defenses. A portion of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry, armed with quick-firing Spencer rifles, pushed to the creek, while the six guns of Kilpatrick’s horse artillery opened up on the hilltop positions. A few Yankee overshoots landed in the Central Railroad’s workshop area, leading to a hasty retreat by the employees, who took all the functioning engines and cars into Macon. On Dunlap’s Hill, a line of defenders shook out from the earthworks in skirmish formation to challenge the dismounted Illinois infantry.

The full Federal deployment was masked by trees along the creek’s east bank, helping conceal a charging column of fours from the 10th Ohio Cavalry, which burst from cover and pounded up the hill, scattering the Southern skirmishers. Although the Rebel gunners had a clear shot, faulty friction primers plagued them, resulting in several misfires. “It was quite a descent to [Walnut Creek]…,” remembered one of the Ohioans, “but before the [Rebel] guns could fire the second round we were upon them with the saber.”

The advantage was momentary. Even through Kilpatrick had two more cavalry regiments close at hand, neither was committed to exploit the breach. The Ohio troopers on the hilltop began to take hits from the guns in Fort Hawkins, while in the distance they saw a well-organized line of infantry forming for a counterattack. The Buckeye commander commented, “Seeing that the [captured] guns could not be removed, and that there was barely time to withdraw the regiment before the rebels would be upon us, I ordered the column to retire.” A simultaneous effort to burn the nearby railroad bridge across Walnut Creek was also unsuccessful.

Losses in the fracas were light. The Rebel gunners serving the two cannons that were briefly overrun suffered one dead and two wounded. The 92nd Illinois reported two wounded, and the 10th Ohio counted seven more.

At no time did Kilpatrick commit more than a small portion of his force to the spearhead, choosing instead to employ most of his troopers in wrecking the railroad. Fully a third of his troopers were kept at that task overnight. In a message sent to General Howard, Kilpatrick promised to keep blocking the roads in his sector “until the trains are well out of the way.” His command camped along the railroad, with pickets posted along Walnut Creek.

Joe Wheeler reached Dunlap’s Hill not long after the Federals had withdrawn. He stiffened its defenses with some of his own men before conferring in Macon with the ranking officer on the scene, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee. This resulted in two days of small-scale cavalry actions as mounted Confederate patrols pushed and probed at Kilpatrick’s force.

Ironically, the troopers on both sides had essentially left the scene when a column of Georgia militia, marching east from Macon in the hope of passing below Howard’s column, collided with a Yankee infantry brigade near Griswoldville on November 22. This accidental encounter became the largest stand-up battle of the March to the Sea and a bloody combat initiation for the part-time warriors.

Once it became clear that the Federals had no designs against Macon, all eyes turned toward Augusta, with its irreplaceable gunpowder works, as the next likely target. Sherman didn’t hesitate to shift Kilpatrick from the job of covering the extreme right flank to protecting the left. Wheeler, too, acting on his own initiative, marched around the Federal right flank via Dublin.

The weary Yankee riders plodded through the captured Georgia capital of Milledgeville heading north and east, but not before their commander had a little fun. He took part in a mock session of the state legislature conducted by Federal officers, passing resolutions repealing the state’s ordinance of secession. At one point, according to a Wisconsin officer present, “Gen. Kilpatrick…regaled the convention by an account of his great raid on a [wine] cellar.”

When he wasn’t entertaining his fellow soldiers, Kilpatrick was receiving a new mission from General Sherman. As the cavalryman recalled the instructions, Sherman said: “I want you to move right on, straight for Augusta. Strike the railroad at Waynesboro, between Millen and Augusta. Move well in toward the city, and at the same time send a force and, if possible, rescue our prisoners at Millen, but don’t risk your command; don’t give or receive battle unless under the most favorable circumstances.” The target near Millen was Camp Lawton, a prison compound established in October to replace the overcrowded Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville. Lawton was said to be holding several thousand Federal prisoners.

Once more Kilpatrick and Wheeler were on converging courses. Between November 26 and 29, the Rebel commander latched onto the tail of Kilpatrick’s column and constantly harassed the Federals as they pressed eastward to Waynesboro, then south toward Millen. Only after reaching the depot town on November 28 did Kilpatrick learn that the Confederates had evacuated all the prisoners they were holding at Camp Lawton not a week earlier. He now turned back toward Sherman’s main columns. Wheeler struck hard at the Yankee intruders in a series of sharp clashes at Buckhead Church and Reynolds Plantation, but by November 30 the exhausted troopers were encamped with infantry protection near Louisville.

Besides ripping up a stretch of railroad track (quickly repaired by the Confederates) and burning some buildings at Waynesboro, Kilpatrick had accomplished little for all the effort expended. Sherman ordered the troopers to try again to wreck the railroad bridge across Brier Creek just north of Waynesboro, and to fight Wheeler if the opportunity presented itself. This time he sent a division of infantry along in support.

Advancing steadily against moderate but persistent opposition from Wheeler’s men, the combined force camped around Thomas Station, just six miles south of Waynesboro, on the night of December 3. Wheeler, who could see what was in the offing, prepared to oppose the effort, setting the stage for the largest cavalry battle of the Savannah campaign.

The Federal infantry was settled around Thomas Station, with Kilpatrick’s men posted a mile farther north. Around midnight, Wheeler’s men manhandled an artillery piece, or maybe two, as close to the Union picket line as they dared and opened fire on the cavalry bivouacs, clearly delineated by campfires. This provoked a rapid response from the pickets, compelling the cannons to withdraw, but the damage had been done. Two members of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry were dead, and many officers went without much sleep that night.

An Indiana foot soldier reported that “General Kilpatrick was at…[Colonel Morton C.] Hunter’s headquarters during the time of the bombardment and said he would give them something to do in the morning.” True to his word, the bugle notes of officer’s call sounded throughout the cavalry camp before dawn. While the company commanders gathered, the enlisted men brewed their coffee and managed breakfast. Then the meeting broke up and the officers scattered back to their units.

The troopers in Company L of the 9th Michigan Cavalry listened as Captain David P. Ingraham explained that Kilpatrick had warned them “to prepare for a fight; that he was going out to whip Wheeler.” Not long afterward, the bugles were at it again. This time they were announcing boots and saddles.

The infantry became bemused spectators when Kilpatrick insisted on having his entire division parade in formation, filling the open fields near the railroad station. While it may have boosted the morale of his riders, the watching foot soldiers were less impressed. “So many cavalry in line in an open plain make a beautiful sight,” Major James Connolly admitted. “But it’s all show; there’s not much fight in them….” The troopers began filing toward Waynesboro a little before 8 A.M.

The 10th Ohio Cavalry had the advance. Its leading section had hardly passed through the Federal picket line when it struck a slight barricade manned by a regiment of dismounted Confederate cavalry. After a blast of gunfire sent the Ohioans packing, the rest of the regiment deployed, losing time in the process. A second advance found the Rebels had hastily abandoned their barricade, allowing the column to continue northward. About a mile farther, the Federals encountered Wheeler’s main line of resistance, which a reporter present described as “a splendid defensive position with heavy rail barricade, with a swamp on one flank and the railway embankment on the other.”

Wheeler afterward insisted a single regiment was holding the position, though another Southern source puts several regiments from Brigadier General William Wirt Allen’s division there. The enemy soldiers were ready and waiting, so there was no chance of overwhelming them by a quick rush. Kilpatrick ordered Colonel Smith D. Atkins’ 2nd Brigade to take the barricade.

Atkins’ plan was conventional but effective: Pin down the enemy front with heavy fire while mounted columns turned the flanks. The 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry (backed by the 10th Wisconsin Battery) was given the task of hammering the center, while the 9th Ohio Cavalry was to sweep around the enemy’s right, with the 9th Michigan Cavalry and the 10th Ohio Cavalry tackling the left. Even as his units were deploying, Kilpatrick rode out to his vedette perimeter to taunt Wheeler, a fellow West Pointer. A writer for the New York Herald, who doubtless polished the language for publication, recorded the tirade as: “Come on now, you cowardly scoundrel! Your organs claim you have thrashed Kilpatrick every time. Here’s Kil himself. Come out, and I’ll not leave enough of you to thrash a corporal’s guard!”

The fight began in the center as the dismounted battle line of the 92nd Illinois made contact. “We moved up through a slough and were well covered until we got within 200 yds of the works when they opened with Artillery and musketry but shot too high,” reported an Illinois soldier. The Yankee troopers levered their Spencers frantically to lay down a heavy suppressing fire, a process that an officer later described as “grinding out the shot from your coffee-mill guns.”

The 9th Ohio Cavalry swept around the enemy’s right flank. “I ordered my bugler to sound the charge,” Colonel William D. Hamilton recalled. “The companies began to move in an awkward irregular line, looking back for me….Waving my hat, I called, ‘Come on, boys.’ A shout went up all along the line, and the glitter of their sabers following the fire of the carbines showed the mettle of the men, when the charge was on.”

“…[A]way we went on the gallop,” added another Ohio officer, “carbines firing, sabers flashing.” Trooper F.J. Wentz in Company H became an unwilling spectator when his horse, attempting to jump a small ravine, “landed lengthwise in the bottom of this excavation.” Wentz could only observe as his regiment “swept on close up to the edge of the swamp, driving everything before it.”

The attack of the 10th Ohio Cavalry came against the Rebel left center. “At the word of command, 200 bright blades leaped from their scabbards, and with a yell away we flew…like the sweeping cyclone, until the intervening space had been passed,” declared a trooper. “Moments seemed hours….Suddenly a sheet of flame shot out from the…barricade…, and as suddenly horses and riders were in the last agonies of death, blocking the way.”

“We could see an officer dashing down the [enemy’s] line with his saber raised and hear his voice, calling on his ‘brave men’ to ‘stand and fight the invaders,’” recorded a Buckeye. “This officer, we afterwards learned from the prisoners, was General Wheeler.” It was here that one of Kilpatrick’s favorites, Captain Samuel E. Norton, was seriously wounded. Just before the charge he had proclaimed, “Now for a name for our regiment.”

Wheeler riposted with his reserve regiments to stiffen the flanks. In response, the 9th Michigan Cavalry added its weight to the combat on the right. The Michigan men, said a report, “had to form while on the run from column of fours to that of battalion….” This was accomplished despite the fact that the “fog and smoke was now so dense as to almost totally obscure the enemy’s position.” Attempting to capture an enemy battle flag, the regiment’s adjutant, William C. Cook, “was knocked from his horse, and had his horse shot,” before being taken prisoner. The Rebel color-bearer had tried to spear the impetuous Yankee with his flagstaff, but it bent double instead. “I was glad I did not kill him for he was a handsome fellow,” remarked the Confederate.

While this was unfolding, the men of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry rushed the barricade. The dismounted regiment overran it “and pumped their Spencers at the backs of the retreating Rebel soldiers.” In a brief melee along the barrier, the Illinois color-bearer was killed, while an enemy officer seized the flag he was carrying. According to one account, the dying color-bearer shouted: “I’m shot. For God’s sake save the flag!” Before the Rebel could claim his trophy, a Yankee trooper grabbed one end of the flagstaff and the two engaged in a deadly tug-of-war, each masking the fire of comrades behind them. The impasse was only broken when the Illinois soldier fumblingly drew his revolver, compelling the Confederate (armed with just a sword) to surrender. Also killed in this action was George “Wait” Downs of Company I. “He never spoke after he was struck,” wrote a friend. “It will be sad news for his folks, but you know in battle, there is no distinction.”

According to Kilpatrick, Wheeler “made several counter-charges to save his dismounted men and check our rapid advance.” The Union general committed his ready reserve, the 5th Ohio Cavalry, yelling to its commander, “Col. Heath, take your regiment; charge by column of fours down that road and give those fellows a start.” The New York Herald reporter recounted that Kilpatrick went in with them: “They rode over the rebel barricade, hewed men down and used their pistols in a close engagement.”

It was during this part of the action that the leading files of Federal infantry reached the scene in time to be interested spectators. “The charge by our cavalry across the open field was a most sublimely grand, never-to-be-forgotten scene; no words of the writer can describe or paint the picture,” recorded an Ohio foot soldier. An Indiana infantryman noted that some of the Rebels “had to retreat across a large swamp about a mile and the road was graded high and about wide enough for three or four men to ride abreast. They was in such a hurry they crowded each other off.”

Kilpatrick’s men now controlled the roadblock, but Wheeler wasn’t finished. A second, even stronger barricade had been erected just outside Waynesboro, along McIntosh Creek. The Confederate cavalry leader funneled his men (most from Brigadier General William Y.C. Humes’ division) into this position, where they waited for the next attack.

It wasn’t long in coming. Kilpatrick moved Colonel Eli A. Murray’s 1st Brigade to the fore, and it was these men who first spied the enemy’s position. “Between us and Waynesboro was a valley, through which ran a small creek,” remembered an Indiana trooper. “On the north or opposite side of this creek the rebels had taken their stand, having their artillery well posted.”

Kilpatrick realized that he could not repeat the tactics that had served him so well at the first barricade. This time, he later wrote, Wheeler’s “flanks [were] so far extended that it was useless to attempt to turn them. I therefore determined to break his center.” Colonel Murray deployed his brigade, sending the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry against the enemy’s left, the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry around to the Rebel right, and the 8th Indiana Cavalry (fighting dismounted) straight up the middle. Once more the 10th Wisconsin Battery was on hand for fire support, with the 2nd and 5th Kentucky Cavalry in reserve.

It took time to get all the units into position. Murray erred in setting up the 3rd Kentucky first, halting it in full view of the enemy, where it became the object of their focused attention. “No body of men ever stood fire any more resolutely; not a man faltered,” reported the regiment’s commander. “At length, the enemy’s fire becoming fierce and many of their comrades falling around them, they disregarded the restraints of discipline and rushed, with wild shouts, upon the enemy in their front.”

An Indiana trooper recalled that the 3rd Kentucky cavalrymen “moved rapidly upon the works of the enemy, without firing, and received such a shower of lead that they were thrown into confusion and hurled back upon the 8th Ind. Cav. which stood firm, and letting the Kentucky boys through, closed up their ranks and moved upon the works of the enemy, under heavy fire, which was returned from their Spencers….At this time the 10th Wis. Battery was run into position and opened a fire of canister upon the enemy….”

Some of the resistance to this effort was directed toward the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which now struck the enemy right. Just as in the case of the 3rd Kentucky, the Pennsylvanians were goaded into action after being forced to wait under a galling fire. Suddenly, said one of the troopers, “our whole line commenced to move forward without orders, at a slow walk of our horses at first, but faster and faster until we were charging at full speed….”

With both flanks engaged, the middle of Wheeler’s line became the dramatic focus. Under the cover of unrelenting volleys from the 8th Indiana Cavalry and artillery rounds sent over by the 10th Wisconsin Battery, the 2nd Kentucky rode forward, ripped passages through the barrier, and penetrated the Confederate center. Wheeler’s second position collapsed as the various units disengaged to make their way through Waynesboro toward safety behind Brier Creek.

“Through the streets of Waynesboro we rushed,” crowed an Indiana rider, “through the streets of Waynesboro they retreated.” Wheeler himself admitted that his men “were so warmly pressed that it was with difficulty we succeeded in withdrawing….”

Even as the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry pushed through the town, Colonel Murray abruptly detached half the regiment for a mission to the right. The unit’s commander did not know this had happened until he cleared the streets and drew his men into a line, only then realizing that he had just fifty or sixty troopers to take on all of Wheeler’s command. Fortunately for the Kentuckians, the Confederates were more intent on getting behind Brier Creek than attacking a tiny Federal unit, and help was on hand in the form of Union infantry. “Kilpatrick stopped; we marched thru his lines, formed in line, and went about a mile,” recollected a Missouri soldier. “We found neither works nor rebs and fell back and got dinner.”

In Waynesboro, General Kilpatrick was relishing the moment. An Indiana man recalled him “rushing around like a child with a new toy, saying: ‘I knew I could lick Wheeler! I can do it again!’”

“I seen one old Reb laying along the road (quite an old man) that had been [struck by] a saber stroke across his back and was not dead yet but mortally wounded and under other circumstances his grey hairs would have appealed to my heart for sympathy,” said one of the infantrymen, “but we are not here to sympathize with men who brought it on themselves.” Another foot soldier saw a “woman [who] was kneeling over the dead body of a Confederate cavalryman; perhaps it was her husband.”

North of Waynesboro, Wheeler’s men retreated across Brier Creek, closely shadowed by Kilpatrick’s two reserve regiments, the 5th Ohio Cavalry and the 5th Kentucky Cavalry. While the Kentuckians covered them, the Buckeyes destroyed the wagon and railroad bridges. Back in the town, some of the Pennsylvania troopers “amused themselves by examining the contents of the fine houses in town and making several bon fires of buildings, &c.”

A seventeen-year-old female resident was drafted to entertain on her family’s piano, relocated into the street. “They made me play a long time,” she recollected, “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.” Neither the infantry commander nor Kilpatrick intended to linger long, so by 3 P.M. the Federals were hustling away to the southeast, with the troopers forming the rear guard.

On top of the day’s combat decisions, Kilpatrick faced a difficult personal matter. His promising officer Captain Samuel Norton was too badly wounded to be moved and would have to be left behind. A 10th Ohio cavalryman volunteered to remain with him. Kilpatrick’s contribution was a note to be given to Joseph Wheeler. “For the memory of old association,” Kilpatrick asked Wheeler to see that Norton received medical attention and to allow the trooper to care for the officer he termed “very brave and a true gentleman.” In return for Wheeler’s courtesies, Kilpatrick promised “the thanks of your old friend.” Sadly, despite care tendered by a Waynesboro physician, Captain Norton succumbed to his wounds.

In their after-action reports, both Wheeler and Kilpatrick claimed to have been fighting against a numerically superior enemy, and each was certain he had inflicted grievous casualties on the other. Wheeler never bothered with a head count, but a cavalry veteran and later historian of his campaigns pegged his strength at about two thousand men. Kilpatrick had left Atlanta on November 15 with some five thousand riders; attrition and detachments had likely lowered the number engaged at Waynesboro to perhaps thirty-seven hundred. So the advantage in numbers was with Kilpatrick, though the force multiplier enjoyed by defenders was in Wheeler’s favor.

Federal participants’ reckonings of the Confederate losses ranged from less than a hundred to more than five hundred. A fair estimate of the killed, wounded, or captured would be around 250. Wheeler claimed to have inflicted 197 casualties on the Yankees. Various Union regimental histories and Northern newspaper accounts peg the total Federal loss in the day’s action at between 125 and 190.

One target that Wheeler’s men often hit sported four legs. The Union saber charges against log barricades took a fearsome toll on horses. Kilpatrick reported “upward of 200 in killed and wounded.” In a note to General Sherman, the cavalryman complained that his continuing duties as rear guard allowed the infantry to scour the countryside of livestock, leaving nothing for his troopers. “I…respectfully urge that a few hundred horses be turned over to me from one or more of the army corps marching on roads parallel or near to my line of march,” Kilpatrick requested. Sherman promptly issued orders to his infantry commanders to divest their columns of foraged horses and turn them over to the cavalry.

Other than thinning the Yankee horse herd, what did the Confederates accomplish? Some of Wheeler’s adherents said the action saved Augusta, but in fact neither the infantry commander nor Kilpatrick intended to push beyond Brier Creek. Even had Wheeler offered no opposition, Kilpatrick would have turned his column south once he had completed his mission by destroying the Brier Creek bridges. Inflicting damage on the Yankee cavalry, while perhaps quenching a warrior’s thirst for revenge, left the core of Sherman’s striking force untouched. Besides, with the Union infantry on hand, Wheeler had no chance of delivering a telling blow.

One of the Federal infantrymen on the scene was certain that on this memorable day “the rebel cavalry have learned a lesson they will not soon forget.” However, the only changes to Wheeler’s operation came when the concentration of Union forces before Savannah left him with little to do on the west side of the Savannah River. Kilpatrick, anxious to feather his cap, could bluster about thrashing his opposite number, though the close presence of strong infantry support dims any luster to that accomplishment. The Federals had wrecked a stretch of a branch railroad, destroyed some bridges, and trashed a few buildings in Waynesboro. Not a victory of any substance, though both Confederate General Braxton Bragg in Augusta and Union General Sherman viewed the conflict at Waynesboro as necessary to shield their more important assets from the enemy.

Perhaps most critical for Sherman’s grand movement, he accomplished the tricky pivot toward Savannah without any significant challenge to the lengthy logistical tail that was his true weak point. A few mounted Confederate bands made some uncoordinated rushes at wagons before being easily repulsed by the train guards. At no point were the supply vehicles imperiled by anything more than broken mill dams, sucking mud, or inadequate trails.

None of these caveats diminishes the fortitude and courage shown by the fighting men on both sides. Compared with infantry combat, cavalry actions were dashing and swift, briefly violent, and given to abrupt reverses of fortune. A momentary repulse or a charge generally meant little in the overall ebb and flow, though it did spice up an official report. Still, at the point of sharpest contact, the combat was as fierce as in any of the more celebrated mounted engagements of the war. Yet in many ways infantry officer Major James Connolly was not far off the mark when he observed, “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.”

Following Waynesboro, Kilpatrick’s men were assigned to protect the rear of Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Left Wing column, now marching southeast on an obvious course toward Savannah. Once Sherman’s army drew up before the Rebel citadel on December 10, Kilpatrick’s troopers were shifted to the extreme right of the Federal position. They provided invaluable service by effectively scouting the Rebel strongpoint of Fort McAllister and preparing the way for a successful infantry assault on December 13 that opened Sherman’s communication with the Union fleet blockading Savannah. In the run-up to that attack, Kilpatrick made a case for allowing his troopers (stiffened with some infantry) to make the charge, but Sherman opted to go with the infantry alone.

Kilpatrick’s men were sent farther south, which brought them into Liberty County, where for several days they were the only foragers on the scene and faced little armed opposition. (Anxious to protect his overland link to Charleston, Savannah’s commander, Lieutenant General William Joseph Hardee, had ordered most of Wheeler’s troopers across the Savannah River into South Carolina to counter any Union efforts to cut the route.) Given free rein, Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen ranged across Liberty County, helping themselves. Declared one embittered civilian afterward, “There wasn’t a rooster to crow in ten miles square of Midway Church [Kilpatrick’s headquarters].”

Savannah fell on December 21. Even as he made plans for the next phase of his grand expedition, Sherman saluted the troops who had marched with him to the sea with a series of grand reviews. The cavalry’s turn came on January 12, 1865. “We went to the sity and was reviewed by Genl. Shirman,” recorded a proud Pennsylvania trooper. A New York infantryman thought the riders “did very well,” while an Illinois foot soldier was even more enthusiastic. It was, he declared, “a splendid sight….It took them about an hour and a half to pass.” The infantryman was awed by the sight of the horsemen “all in uniform decorated with burnished weapons…. Oh, it was a grand scene!”

Though it is seldom highlighted in chronicles of Sherman’s March to the Sea, Kilpatrick’s division played a significant and important role. Throughout the first phase (Atlanta to Milledgeville), the cavalrymen effectively covered the exposed flank of Sherman’s Right Wing, giving Macon’s defenders enough pause to allow the slow and vulnerable Federal wagons to pass without serious challenge. In the second phase (Milledgeville to Millen), Kilpatrick took the fight to Wheeler, keeping that potent Rebel force off the back of Sherman’s infantrymen. Finally, in the conquest of Savannah, Kilpatrick’s men ably set the stage for the infantry assault that took Fort McAllister, opened Sherman’s communications, and made Savannah’s fall inevitable.

Perhaps the greatest accolade for Kilpatrick came on December 29, when Sherman wrote him: “I beg to assure you that the operations of the cavalry have been skillful and eminently successful….[At] Thomas’ Station, Waynesboro’, and Brier Creek, you whipped a superior cavalry force, and took from Wheeler all chance of boasting over you. But the fact that to you, in a great measure, we owe the march of four strong infantry columns, with heavy trains and wagons, over three hundred miles through an enemy’s country, without the loss of a single wagon, and without the annoyance of cavalry dashes on our flanks, is honor enough for any cavalry commander.”

 

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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