Civil War in Georgia, Week 31: The sack of Milledgeville

Michael K. Shaffer"The first stage of the journey was, therefore, complete, and absolutely successful."

Riding into the state capital of Milledgeville on Nov. 23, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman expressed satisfaction about his initial advance across Georgia. Meanwhile, soldiers watched "tipsy officers hold a mock legislature and pass some remarkable laws" as they presided over a "session" of the Georgia Legislature in its own chamber (state officials had fled the city upon hearing of the Federals' approach).

After raising the Stars and Stripes above the Capitol, several of Sherman's troops convened their legislative session. They deliberated and voted on several acts; one, placing Georgia back into the Union, passed unanimously to a roar of approval.

Federals take Milledgeville photo
The Federals raise the flag above the Georgia state Capitol at Milledgeville in November, 1864. Harper's Weekly, Jan. 7, 1865.
Then, tiring of posing as elected officials, the Federals began destroying valuable books and irreplaceable documents in the state library. One non-participant watched as his blue-clad brothers lay waste to the repository. In his journal, he later noted, "I am sure General Sherman will, some day, regret that he permitted this library to be destroyed and plundered."

Sherman had great confidence as the two wings of his forces advanced with minimal resistance. An elderly resident of Milledgeville queried the general as to the destination of his army. Sherman remarked, "I'm going just where I damn please."

Meanwhile, high-ranking Confederate officials continued flowing into Georgia in an attempt to provide leadership for the token forces at their disposal.

Civil War in Georgia, Week 31: The sack of Milledgeville photo
Federal soldiers and civilians watch as the Milledgeville penitentiary goes up in flames. The Soldier in Our Civil War, 1890.
Lt. Gen. William Hardee reached Savannah on Nov. 24. The following day, Gen. Braxton Bragg established his headquarters in Augusta; the Confederates had hurriedly removed their Powder Works from that city, but Sherman's forces were unaware of this fact. It was assumed the blue coats would make a lunge for Augusta, given its strategic role in Confederate munitions making.

Hardee thought otherwise. On Nov. 25, for the first time since Sherman's latest campaign opened, he sent a dispatch expressing his belief that Savannah was the Northerners' true target.

Meanwhile, Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler's horse soldiers had a very busy week, striking Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry at Ball's Ferry, Sandersville and Buck Head Creek.

Civil War in Georgia, Week 31: The sack of Milledgeville photo
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net
In Sandersville, one of the war's rare engagements inside a town occurred. A Federal trooper involved in the fighting observed the citizens "were frightened for the firing was active as we drove through the streets."

Two days after this inner-city action, Wheeler almost captured Kilpatrick - his old West Point classmate - at Buck Head Creek. In his after-action report, Wheeler noted, "We fought General Kilpatrick all night and all day, charging him at every opportunity." Kilpatrick informed Federal officials of "the most desperate cavalry charge I have ever witnessed."

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's right wing encountered unexpected difficulty crossing the Oconee River; a ragtag force of Georgia militia, including cadets from the Georgia Military Institute, managed to hold the Federals at bay for several hours. Finally, Howard broadened his front and flanked the holding force, and the Southerners fell back. Once across, the Federals burned their version of the Rohrbach/Burnside Bridge, a span that had slowed the Northerners during the Sept. 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg).

Combining the two wings of his army outside Tennille on Nov. 27, Sherman shifted his headquarters to Howard's right wing. Sherman's forces encamped near Sebastopol, along the Central of Georgia Railroad, on Nov. 30. The same day, in South Carolina, Federals attempted to sever the Charleston & Savannah Railroad north of Savannah at Honey Hill, but 1,400 Confederates repulsed the attempt. Savannah was safe - for now.

Another group of gray-clad soldiers would not fare as well that day. Gen. John Bell Hood, responding to an order from General P.G.T. Beauregard to take the offensive "and crush enemy's force in Middle Tennessee," launched a disastrous attack at Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville.

Formed into a line of battle two miles wide, 20,000 brave soldiers of the Army of Tennessee - all that was left of a force that had numbered more than 60,000 troops in the spring of 1864 - began a 1 3/4-mile advance to reach the Federal works. When the fighting subsided long after dark, Hood had suffered 6,200 casualties.

Back in Georgia, a soldier in the left wing of Sherman's army summarized the end of November and their progress thus far in his diary: "This is the sixteenth day out from Atlanta. ... We have had but little fighting, but we have destroyed one thousand miles of railroad and burned millions of dollars' worth of other property." December would prove little different as Sherman drew closer to his goal.

Beginning Jan. 26, the College of Continuing and Professional Education at Kennesaw State University will offer an eight-week course, "1864-1865: The Conflict Draws to an End." Michael K. Shaffer will explore the final year of the Civil War in the eastern and western theaters. Classes will meet 7-9 p.m. Mondays at KSU Center. Course fee is $129. To register, call 470-578-6765 or go to: www.ksuolli.com

Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net

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