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I Saw a Column of Black Smoke

By Noah Andre Trudeau
6/1/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Two Confederate soldiers recount their dogged efforts to stop Sherman’s March to the Sea despite confusing orders and overwhelming odds.

While not quite a dime a dozen, Union memoirs of Major General William T. Sherman’s celebrated March to the Sea in November and December 1864 are plentiful. The Confederate side of this story is a much scarcer commodity, leading some to conclude that there was little or no resistance offered to the marauding Yankees. This is unfortunate, since it is clear from both Union and Confederate records that Sherman’s men faced opposition every step of the way.

The principal Confederate force engaged was an understrength cavalry corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler. What follows is an overview of the campaign in the words of two of Wheeler’s troopers.

One account is by Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Ferguson, who led a brigade of Alabama and Mississippi cavalrymen in Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Iverson’s division. A copy of his unpublished memoir resides in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina.

The other is by Captain (acting major) John Weller of the 4th Kentucky (Mounted) Infantry, part of Brig. Gen. Joseph H. Lewis’ brigade of mostly Kentucky troops known as the “Orphan Brigade,” also under Iverson’s command. Weller set down his reminiscences some 20 years after the war for a short-lived periodical called The Southern Bivouac.

When Sherman began his March on November 15, 1864, Weller and the Orphan Brigade were posted below Atlanta, just north of Stockbridge, Ga. Thanks to the “gift” of a large number of Yankee horses following a failed Union cavalry operation, the brigade had been transformed into mounted infantry. Its job was to repel any Federal raiders staging out of Atlanta, but on the morning of November 15 Weller and his comrades were confronted by some 30,000 Yankees, representing most of Sherman’s Right Wing. Weller relates his part in that engagement, as well as the simple pleasures of outpost life:

Stockbridge, Georgia, was the scene of our next exploits as mounted infantry, and we had about become settled down to camp life when the writer was handed a map of the country by his superior officers, and sent forward toward Atlanta some eight miles, with the left wing of the 4th Kentucky, to do picket duty. After some trouble finding the by-roads and residences laid down on the map, I selected headquarters at the forks of the road, one of which led directly to Atlanta and the other eastwardly, and threw the videttes over toward the main road leading from Atlanta. In front of and about one mile from headquarters lived Mr. Carruthers, and about the same distance further on lived Mr. Stubbs. A couple of videttes were placed a few hundred yards beyond the latter place, and, spreading southward the remainder of the left wing in like manner, watched the country for about five or six miles. We were kept out in this position for a week, during which time we went in for all the sport convenient….The greatest attention was in front of my headquarters, where dwelt a most beautiful and accomplished young lady, Miss Nannie Stubbs. Her father was very old, but sociable, dignified, and hospitable….My favorite time [for a visit] was about ten o’clock in the morning, and if she was in good voice, she would sing the sweet songs of the day and chat so entertainingly, that, somehow, dinner would be announced before I was aware of the flight of time….

Captain Jack Brown, with ten or twelve men, was scouting out front, reporting every two or three days, and, from all accounts, it seemed that we would not be molested for some time. But, like all bright places in a soldier’s life, our pleasures were only too brief. I was sitting in the parlor of Mr. Stubbs one day, talking with Miss Nannie and her father about the probability of Sherman coming further South. He was very uneasy, for the report had spread among the people that Sherman intended to march on the defenseless women and children of Georgia, and burn every building in his way. I remember how earnestly I strove to disabuse his mind. “For,” said I, “Sherman has no use for this country now. There is no army in his front to conquer, and no forage for his stock, nor provisions for his men, and, coming fresh, as we do, from the trenches, where every usage of civilized war was recognized, I believe you are doing him an injustice, Mr. Stubbs. With his reputation, he can not afford to turn his fine body of men loose on unarmed women and children and old men, for the purpose of arson and plunder.” He sadly shook his head, and mechanically replied: “I hope so, sir, I hope so.” The young lady was as hopeful as myself, and when, as a compromise, I told him that Captain Brown, or some of his scouts, would warn him in plenty of time to get away safely should Sherman start South, she gladly assented, and together we somewhat comforted the old gentleman….[A black servant advised Weller that one of his men wanted to speak with him.] I immediately went out to the front door, and saw Frank Chapman, of Company “D,” who called out lustily: “Cap, they are fighting at headquarters!” “Bring the videttes in with you, Frank, and I will go right in,” said I; and then it was, “Goodbye, Mr. Stubbs; good-bye, Miss Nannie,” and I was at the stall and in my saddle. “Hope for the best,” said I to him, and “Don’t you get hurt, captain, but be sure to drive them back,” said she, and I was fifty yards away by this time. As far as I could see I was turned in my saddle, gazing back at this brave, beautiful girl, who was courageously waving her handkerchief at me, while I shook my cap above me at arm’s length. I have never seen nor heard of this family since, but I would count it a great pleasure to meet them again.

The firing in the direction of our camp was very brisk, and it lent fleetness to the little horse I rode. Being unused to riding, and this being [a]…fiery bay, she seemed to fly toward the scene of conflict, and, arriving there, she kept on up to the Atlanta road toward the [Federals]. I succeeded in checking her about midway, and, running the gauntlet of bullets, took position with my command.

The boys were holding out splendidly in the woods, and, having retained the long Enfields we had in infantry, they were hitting some one every now and again….After fighting about an hour, we found that escape via Stockbridge was impossible, as our rear was filled with Yankees, so we made our way out through a country road, leaving Stockbridge to the right. We had a gallant ride through the night, only stopping about 10 o’clock to rest our stock, then on to McDonough, where we rejoined our command. The scouts and unrelieved pickets and videttes were several days arriving. How they ever found us has always been a mystery to me.

Also caught up in this opening onslaught was General Ferguson, who fell back with his troops along the line of the Macon & Western Railroad toward Macon, where he encountered a different challenge.

At Macon I came across Gen Howell Cobb, who was my superior in rank, and who sorely against my will, kept me there idle for two or three days, fearing that some detached force of the enemy might turn back from Sherman’s column and burn the city. At last Gen Dick Taylor arrived in a few minutes there after I had interviewed him and got permission to go ahead, this I did in very short order.

It was never in Sherman’s scheme to capture Macon. While his Right Wing (under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard) successfully threatened an attack, his Left Wing (commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum) entered Georgia’s undefended capital, Milledgeville. Holding onto enemy territory was also not Sherman’s intention, and after little more than 24 hours of occupation, the Union troops departed. The first armed Confederates to reenter Macon were under Ferguson’s direct command.

When some distance from that place I saw a column of black smoke rise suddenly, I judged that he had left and was burning the bridge behind him, we marched faster and faster as we became more impatient, and entered the city in a full gallop. The women ran out and knelt on the side walks, with hands joined in prayer, and tears streaming down their cheeks, and the sight once more of Confederates after their fearful experiences of the invaders, these were tears of joy. The bridge was still burning, every boat on the river for miles up and down, had been destroyed. I wanted to learn as soon as possible how far the rear of Sherman’s army camped that night, so [I] called Lieut. Pettus of my scouts and told him what I wished; he saluted [and] rode to his command a short distance off, called out seven or eight troopers and they rode “accoutered as they were” into the river then swollen by a freshet, landed some distance down on the other side, where they had been swept by the current, the Lieut raised his hat and rode into the woods. A small canoe, partially destroyed had in the mean time been found, patched up and some men crossed in it. A hail came from the other side to send the boat, it was returned with a note from Pettus giving me the desired information and with a prisoner, who had been captured with a ladies handsome opera cloak, opera glass and other plunder in his possession. I made use of some expression of disgust at such a fellow being taken prisoner, one of the men standing by said “Gen[eral] I will take him to the Provost guard.” I said very well and went on with my work, which just then was having a raft built. The next day was Sunday and a most lovely day, the population came to the river bank to see the command crossing the stream; I noticed that groups would walk up the bank a short distance look at something and then come back, at last I asked what was the attraction and learned that it was a dead yankee, I then remembered to have heard a shot in the direction the night before and soon after the prisoner had been started to the guard, and I did not doubt that he was the dead yankee. I found some rope with which I tied the raft to the middle pier of the bridge so that it could swing from shore to shore, and had it pulled backwards and forwards, by grapevines tied together. The men stood on the raft with their saddles and accouterments in their arms and knee deep in water. The wagons were crossed in the same manner, while this was being done a few of the horses were swum over led by the dug out and a few other boats which had escaped the general destruction. These horses were led to the river bank, then the rest were driven in, as soon as they reached the bank they joined the horses there assembled. And so the brigade got over in a very short time.

The first efforts by Sherman’s Right Wing to cross the Oconee River were blocked by a Rebel force positioned along the river’s east bank, principally where the lengthy Central of Georgia Railroad trestle spanned it. Any approaching enemy had to first overcome a small redoubt, built of rail ties, placed about two miles west of the trestle. Into this exposed post went an oddly mixed force, stiffened by a few members of the Orphan Brigade, Captain Weller among them.

The federal reports say, that on the 25th [of November], on arriving at the [Oconee] river, the enemy was found entrenched behind barricades, with an extended line of skirmishers. Osterhaus and Blair confronted them, etc. As these generals only had a corps each, it is a wonder they had the hardihood to form a line in front of that railroad bridge. Protecting the bridge was the Fourth Kentucky posted in the center, the cadets on the right, and the convicts [belonging to a penal battalion organized for the emergency] on the left. The convicts were dressed in prison garb, and were hardened in appearance, but calm and brave. The cadets were, of course, very young, some of them certainly not over fourteen years of age. The Federals advanced their line of skirmishers, and firing commenced. The bravery of the school boys was the glory of this fight. Several of their number were carried off wounded and dying. I can never forget the looks of one little boy as four convicts carried him on a stretcher to the rear. His handsome young face, with the flush of fever on it, and the resolute expression of his eyes, indicated that he fully realized the situation. Colonel [Thomas W.] Thompson, of the Fourth, had command of the line, General Payne [actually, Henry C. Wayne] was across the bridge at the station. Thompson went back to get instructions, leaving me in command. The firing commenced just after he left, and I was in trouble to know what to do. The enemy commenced to advance and planted artillery on the railroad, so as to command the bridge. We sent a few bullets after them, and considering discretion a cardinal virtue, I withdrew the troops and recrossed the river—and this is what we called the battle of Oconee bridge.

After that engagement the Orphans stayed ahead of the Yankee columns, until they reached Savannah, where they were added to the city’s seriously undermanned defenses. Also ordered to go there were General Ferguson’s troopers, who had to be dismounted for their service in the trenches. According to Ferguson, that order was not well received by his men.

I was then ordered to leave my horses and horse holders in [South] Carolina and go into Savannah with the remainder of my command on foot. It was a bitter pill to my men to be separated from their horses and they marched into Savannah in no good humor. I indulged in a little sport at their expense. When I had reached the camping ground in the park, I gave the orders as if to mounted men: “Rear rank open order. Prepared to dismount. DISMOUNT.” When they broke ranks they gave a cheer, showing that they appreciated the joke. My command was sent in small detachments all along the lines, to points that were weakest, so I really had nothing particular to do, and made my headquarters at the house of my old friend Mrs. R.H. Anderson, during the few days we remained in the city.

There was a strong contrast in appearance between my old soldiers who, had been marching and fighting for months and were ragged and smoke begrimed from the camp fires of pine, and the neatly dressed garrison of Savannah, which had access to the stores of blockade runners and had had some transactions even with the Con – federate quartermasters. But the tables were turned in our favor when the City was abandoned and we had to scuffle on [the] same footing, then the advantages of my transportation facilities were very apparent. I was ordered to cross and take up position on the [South] Carolina side to cover the crossing of the other troops. Immediately on receipt of this order couriers were dispatched to have the horses which had been sent to Barnwell County, brought back. The evacuation was completed without interruption from the enemy and I moved back into South Carolina.

The Orphans were also successfully evacuated. Sherman soon embarked on his Carolinas campaign, with Ferguson and the Orphans serving the Rebel defense. They remained in South Carolina when the Federals moved into North Carolina, and surrendered on May 2, 1865. Ferguson’s men escorted Confederate President Jefferson Davis and what remained of the Confederate government as far as Washington, Ga., where they were detached. They were paroled May 10 at Forsyth, Ga.

What is clear from their recollections is that both individuals were much engaged in fighting Sherman during the March to the Sea. That their efforts failed had everything to do with the shortcomings of Confederate military leadership at the highest levels, which gave a poor return on the individual courage and fortitude of soldiers such as John Weller and Samuel W. Ferguson.

 

Noah Andre Trudeau is the author of several Civil War books. In Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea, he argues the Confederacy bungled various chances to stop Georgia’s dissection.

Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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