The Battle of Griswoldville

On the morning of November 22, 1864, the men of Confederate General Pleasant J. Philips’s brigade departed Macon, Georgia. They followed the tracks of the Central of Georgia Railroad eastward toward Gordon, where they hoped to entrain for Augusta. They marched, already tired and worn out, having weathered severe cold and mixed snow and rain on the city’s fairgrounds the night before.


Furthermore, these men marched under the opprobrium of being Georgia militia. Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia had not allowed the emergency of the war, or even the advance southward and the capture of Atlanta by Union General William T. Sherman, to become a pretext for abandoning state control of state forces. This stance, even in a new country ostensibly dedicated to resisting the overreaching demands of national governments, caused widespread contempt for Brown.


For the men actually pounding the dusty roads of central Georgia under the summer heat, the result was mockery. They became “Joe Brown’s Pets” to the regulars actually doing the fighting, and they were most widely and famously mocked in popular song:


Just before the battle the General heard a row,

He said the Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now;

He looked about in wonder, and what do you think he sees,

The Georgia militia eating goober peas!


This contempt was not eased by Brown’s grant of temporary furloughs to much of the militia in the fall. Most of these troops came from the yeomanry, the small family farmers who made up the vast majority of Southern whites, and though the harvest-season furlough was a boon to them it also cemented their reputation as peanut-munching laggards.


But now their march had renewed urgency, as they were some of the only defense forces now left in Georgia. At the end of September, General John Bell Hood led the Army of Tennesse on a strike westward into Alabama, a move meant to inspire in Sherman a fear for his supply lines. Instead, Sherman sat tight until after the 1864 presidential election. Once it was clear that Lincoln had been handily reelected, Sherman abandoned his supply train and left Atlanta. He made for the sea and lived off the land.


Hood, by then, was almost two hundred miles away.


Map by Hal Jesperson

* * * * *


Sherman's march had begun a week before Philips's men departed Macon, and already the rumors of damage were severe. The Confederate command struggled to divine Sherman’s intentions. After learning that elements of Sherman’s right wing had passed through McDonough, and later that Sherman had crossed to the eastern side of the Ocmulgee, General Gustavus W. Smith’s militia moved rapidly and repeatedly to block or intercept them. The militia first marched from Griffin to Forsyth (“a distance of thirty-five miles in twenty-four hours,” according to Smith’s report), and, finally, to Macon.


Macon’s defenses had been expanded and strengthened in the months previous and Smith, believing the enemy’s route thus far revealed the city to be the next target for destruction, prepared to defend it. Over the next few days, signs of Union activity grew clearer and clearer and culminated in the skirmishes around the hills of the Dunlap farm east of town on November 20. There, Union cavalry under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, screening Sherman’s extreme right, probed the defenses of Macon, briefly capturing a Confederate artillery position before being repulsed. Kilpatrick’s cavalry fell back to the east along the railroad.


On the 22nd, Smith remained behind in Macon to coordinate logistics and sent his militia ahead under Philips, his ranking brigadier, a former banker and undistinguished regimental commander. The battle that day would play out under Philips's authority.


Philips led around 2,000 men, the majority of them militia from three brigades under himself, Henry Kent McCay, and Charles D. Anderson. But also in his column were two experienced regiments of the Georgia State Line, infantry that had been bloodied and depleted, but acquitted themselves well that summer, and a battery of four twelve-pounder Napoleons. These artillerists, historian William Harris Bragg notes, were by far the most experienced men in this ad hoc force: “They had fought numerous battles in Tennessee and Virginia, as well as in Georgia. The militiamen know them well and valued them highly, since they had supported them during the fighting around Atlanta.”


Philips was also authorized to take under his command another force operating in the area, 400 tired but well-armed men of the Reserve battalions commanded by Major F.W.C. Cook. Cook, an English industrialist and part owner of the Cook and Brother Armory in Athens, had drawn most of his troops from among his employees at the armory—which also supplied his men’s Enfield rifles. The balance of his force were more industrial workers from the Augusta powderworks, the destruction of which—following Sherman’s eastward pivot in the second week of his march—Confederate leaders now presumed was one of the Yankees’ objectives.


After several hours of marching along the partially wrecked tracks, Philips caught up with Cook at about 1:00 PM. The Englishman’s reserves had been en route to Gordon for the train ride to Augusta but had halted. When Philips arrived, they stood awaiting new orders from Macon in the cold and wet about a mile from the railside factory town of Griswoldville. From where this motley force of militia had stopped, all that could be seen of the town was a pillar of smoke.


* * * * *


Griswoldville’s namesake was the Yankee businessman Samuel Griswold, who had moved south from Connecticut in the 1810s. Resettled in Georgia, Griswold prospered as a manufacturer of cotton gins. Around 1850, Griswold relocated his businesses to land he owned along the recently completed Central of Georgia R.R., approximately halfway between Macon and Gordon, a move that only magnified his success. Business boomed and Griswoldville was well-connected by rail. Bragg, in his book Griswoldville, notes that even in this small town in central Georgia, fresh oysters from Savannah were readily available. By the outbreak of war, Griswold’s factory was thriving, the town had a growing population serviced by a general store, soapworks, blacksmith, water-powered grist mill, and post office. Griswold also owned 108 slaves—many of whom worked for wages at his gin factory—placing him in a position of extraordinary wealth.


With the arrival of war, Griswold converted some of his machinery to produce pikes for the Confederate war effort before converting again to produce Griswoldville's most famous product, the .36 caliber Griswold and Gunnison revolver, the highest-quality Confederate Colt copy of the war. The town was not only an antebellum success story, it had become strategically significant.


With the beginning of Sherman’s march, all of this made Griswoldville a target, and on November 20, 1864, two days before Philips’s departure from Macon, “one hundred picked men” under Captain Frederick Ladd of the 9th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, acting on orders from General Kilpatrick, assaulted the town. According to Colonel Smith Atkins, who dispatched the raiding party,


Starting from Clinton [Captain Ladd] found the enemy picketing the roads. Avoiding them he kept on through the woods, reached Griswoldville, and 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.


Virtually the only building left standing was Samuel Griswold’s house, with its fine furniture and well-stocked library, saved by the efforts of house slaves. When Kilpatrick arrived he made it his headquarters.


Kilpatrick’s forces, which were also engaged at Dunlap Farm outside Macon that day, remained in the area until driven back toward Clinton by the Confederate cavalry of Joseph Wheeler. The following day, it would be Wheeler’s cavalry that alerted Maj. Cook to the presence of Union horsemen on the road ahead. Cook dispatched a messenger to bear this intelligence back to Macon and request further orders. Wheeler’s cavalry moved off.


But the situation had already changed. Kilpatrick’s cavalry, now occupying positions east of the town, had been holding out for the arrival of Union infantry. These men, veteran soldiers of Brigadier General Charles Walcutt’s brigade of Woods's division, had been dispatched to support Kilpatrick in the seesaw fighting with Wheeler that had occupied much of the day and night of the 21st and part of the morning of the 22nd. Once arrived, Walcutt’s men moved into a position on a low ridge known locally as the Duncan Farm with the railroad on their right and the shallow, marshy, willow-hedged Big Sandy Creek and acres of open fields at their front—an unassuming but strong position. Kilpatrick’s cavalry, following Wheeler’s suit, moved off.


All that now stood between the veteran infantry of Walcutt, on the ridge east of town, and the untried militia of Philips, assessing the situation with Cook on the road west of town, was the smoking ruin of Griswoldville.


General Charles C. Walcutt

* * * * *


What went into Philips's decision to attack Walcutt’s position at Griswoldville, not to mention his role during the battle, is unclear. Rumors that he had been drinking heavily that morning, with the implication that his judgment was impaired, still dog him. Prisoners taken from among his force later reported to their Union interrogators that he had been killed in action. He had not—and in fact lived until 1876—but that he exercised so little control over the attack that he might as well have been dead is clear.


Having waited and conferred between themselves, Philips and his officers determined to resume their march, with Cook in the lead. He and his force passed through the smoky ruins—a large barn was still burning—and immediately ran into Walcutt’s pickets.


From here the battle was quickly joined. Philips rode forward and, with Cook pointing out the Union position beyond, ordered his men into line of battle. The time was approximately 2:00 PM.


Philips’s men—militia, State Line, Cook’s Reserves—deployed across the railroad in three lines, with the majority of his force on the southern side. The battery of Napoleons deployed just north of the railroad on open ground with good views of Duncan Farm. Their contribution would prove crucial.


Philips ordered the attack.

Captain Charles Wright Wills of the 103rd Illinois, positioned near the center of the Union line, wrote in his diary that night that

We were getting dinner, not dreaming of a fight, when lively musketry opened on the picket line, and in a minute more our pickets came in flying. A fine line of Johnnies pushed out of the woods after them, and then started for us.

As the stunned Federals watched their pickets being driven in, yet more infantry appeared. CoNoel Robert Catterson of the 97th Indiana described the militia “emerging from the woods about 800 yards from our position, and rapidly running across an open field toward us in three lines of battle, either of which more than covered our brigade front.”

The attackers made a strong impression. Catterson numbered the Confederates as “between 6,000 and 7,000 men,” Wills estimated their strength at “about 6,000,” Walcutt’s commanding officer, Brigadier General Woods, reported “about 5,000,” and corps commander Oliver O. Howard, with characteristic understatement, later reported “quite a large body of infantry.” The ferocity of the Confederate assault amplified the apparent force of the roughly 2,400 men actually charging the Union works on Duncan Farm. Walcutt's infantry scrambled to reinforce their works and, according to Wills, only formed up to open fire on the attackers when they “had got within 250 yards of us.”


Walcutt ordered his artillery chief, Captain Arndt of the 1st Michigan, Battery B, to open fire, but the counterbattery fire of the Confederate Napoleons was so rapid and accurate, with one of the first shots destroying a caisson and others killing six horses and more men in the opening minutes, that he had his men drag their guns to cover. Near the retreating artillery in the center of the Union line, another Confederate shell struck the improvised works and fragments cut down the 6th Iowa’s color bearer. The regimental flag was sprayed with his blood and brains.


Under this effective artillery cover, Philips’s men, their lines now broken and intermingled by the thickets and willow-stands through which they had advanced, charged uphill to positions within 100 yards of Walcutt’s works. At a ravine on the Union right the attacks made it even closer, attacking three times from the relative shelter of the ravine and falling back to regroup.


Unfortunately for the Georgia militia, some of whom had only recently been swept up from nearby farms and carried nothing more than bird guns and antiques, many of Walcutt’s men were armed with Spencer repeating rifles. Furthermore, the uphill approach caused many of the militia to overshoot. “25 out of 30 Rebel bullets went 20 feet over our heads,” Wills wrote. “Not one of ours went higher than their heads.” Catterson, now in command after Walcutt was wounded, reported that “the fire was so terrible that ere [the militia] reached [the ravine] many of his number were stretched upon the plain.” Each of the three charges was “repulsed with terrible slaughter.” Wills described how “One after another their lines crumbled to pieces.”


Nevertheless the militia’s numerical advantage told, and the Union had to extend their line to the right, where the Confederates threatened that flank with their attacks from the ravine. Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Alexander’s 46th Ohio carried out this extension “under heavy fire, deploying so as to cover a space equal to about three times my own proper front.” Alexander spread his men thin, but it was enough. The 46th helped turn back the militia’s attacks.


The Confederates had begun their attack about 2:30. Dusk on November 22 fell around 5:00 PM, with true darkness about an hour after that. Having startled the Yankees with their assault and gotten well within musket range of their line, the militia had found themselves stranded. A few attacks on the Union works were enough to prove they would not carry the position; but retreat downhill across hundreds of yards of open ground was a perhaps even worse choice. They therefore kept up the attack until darkness fell, and retreated—an anti-climax to what had begun as the first great test of Joe Brown’s Pets’ courage and resolve.


They acquitted themselves well. “The officers and men,” Smith later reported, “behaved with great gallantry.” Even Gen. Howard, basing his report on what his subordinates had told him about the battle, would write that the militia attacked “with great vigor.” But the Union held the field.


* * * * *


The militia’s losses were heavy, but exact numbers are hard to come by. Smith, in his report of December 6, estimated losses of about six hundred, “more than one-fourth of the effective muskets we had.” A widely reprinted figure, based on the earliest reports to come out of the battle, is 51 Confederate dead and 472 wounded—a figure that must be low. Lt. Col. Alexander of the 46th Ohio counted forty dead “and a large number of wounded” in his front alone. (Alexander’s losses: five wounded.) Wills, writing late in the night after the battle, recorded that “We estimate their loss at 1,000, and I do not think it an overestimate.” Catterson, in a position to know as commander of the brigade, reported that Confederate losses “could not have been less than 1,500, about 300 of whom were killed,” making Philips’s fatalities alone at least 12.5%. Added to these losses were prisoners, of whom Walcutt captured hundreds, including fifty in the ravine with “a number of Africans among them,” according to Wills.


And there were hundreds of wounded. While the official reports are dispassionate on this point, survivors were moved by what they discovered on the field after the militia’s retreat. In a widely reproduced passage, Wills noted what he found:


I was never so affected at the sight of wounded and dead before.


Old grey-haired and weakly-looking men and little boys, not over 15 years old, lay dead or writhing in pain. I did pity those boys, they almost all who could talk, said the Rebel cavalry gathered them up and forced them in.


“Another Federal officer,” Bragg writes in Griswoldville, “discovered a particularly horrific scene: a badly wounded teenage boy surrounded by the corpses of his father, two brothers, and an uncle.”


It was a melancholy scene, a grim demonstration not only of the much-maligned militia’s courage but also of how thinly stretched the Confederacy had become. Noting that his men had covered the dead with blankets and taken all of the wounded “that could bear moving” to their field hospital, Wills concluded: “I hope we will never have to shoot at such men again.”


* * * * *


After the battle, Philips fell back on Griswoldville. The Griswolds had returned to the ruins and opened their home to the wounded, but only now did Philips receive orders—dispatched in response to Cook’s original report of Union cavalry six hours before—to return to Macon. The night was frigid. In his diary entry for the next day, Wills remarked on seeing inch-and-a-half thick ice that had formed during the night. Still weary, now exhausted and with the many luckily walking wounded, the militia fell in once more and marched, this time to the west, in retreat. They arrived in Macon at 2:00 AM, about eighteen hours after they had left.


Sources

  • Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 44., reports of Alexander, Atkins, Catterson, Kilpatrick, Woods, Howard, Wheeler, and Gustavus W. Smith.

  • Bragg, William Harris. Griswoldville. Macon, Georgia: Mercer UP, 2009.

  • Davis, Burke. Sherman's March. New York: Vintage, 1980.

  • Scaife, William R. and William Harris Bragg. Joe Brown's Pets: The Georgia Militia, 1861-1865. Macon, Georgia: Mercer UP, 2004.

  • Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea. New York: Harper, 2008.

  • Wills, Charles W. Army Life of an Illinois Soldier. Washington, DC: Globe, 1906.


About the author


Jordan M. Poss is a native of Rabun County, Georgia and an alumnus of Clemson University, where he studied Anglo-Saxon England and military history. He currently teaches history at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, South Carolina. He is also the author of four works of historical fiction including Griswoldville, a novel about a boy and his grandfather in the Georgia militia during the American Civil War. He lives in upstate South Carolina with his wife and children.

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