THE BATTLE OF BALLS FERRY, GEORGIA
By Scott B. Thompson, Sr.
They were coming! Sixty thousand Yankees in columns as far as you could see were marching to the sea. Nothing in their reach was safe from the foraging parties. Rails were twisted, livestock slaughtered, factories and mills were burned, and homes were ransacked for anything of military value.
On the afternoon of November 21, 1864, General Henry C. Wayne, C.S.A. realized that the defense of Gordon was futile and ordered his men to withdraw to the eastern banks of the Oconee River. Their mission was to defend the Central of Georgia Railroad bridge near the small village of Oconee. The Confederates built a fort with a commanding view of the bridge and the opposite bank of the river. The area approaching the bridge on the west side of the river was nearly impassable. Jackson's Ferry had been abandoned and the trestles along the western bank of the river were demolished by Wayne's men.
The right wing of General William T. Sherman's Army, composed of the 15th and 17th Corps, were moving into Gordon on the 22nd - days after a difficult skirmish at Griswoldville with Confederate Cavalry. Gen. Oliver Howard, U.S.A. was in command the Right Wing. The 15th Corps, with Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus commanding, arrived in Gordon on the 22nd hoping for a few days rest. Generals John E. Smith, John M. Corse, William B. Hazen and Charles R. Woods were in command of the 15th's four divisions. Gen. Francis P. Blair, U.S.A. commanding the 17th Division moved his men forward from Gordon through McIntyre and eventually to Toombsboro - destroying tracks and depots along the way. Generals Gustavas A. Smith and Mortimer D. Leggett were in command of the 17th's two divisions. The 17th Corps were to move to Jackson's Ferry to Secure the Oconee Bridge. The 15th Corps were to move to the right to secure the county seat of Irwinton and to follow the 17th Corps to the River.
Gen. Gustavas Smith arrived at the Oconee Bridge on the 23rd. He found that there was no Jackson's Ferry and certainly no approaches to the supposed site. He found Gen. Wayne's forces fully entrenched on the morning of the 23rd at Station 14 Central Railroad (Oconee) with six guns in place. The guns were strategically placed with a commanding view of the opposite bank. When the advance elements of the 17th Corps reached the western bank they found all roads impassable with no bridge in place. They reported back that a crossing would be costly. Little did they know that the opposing forces included a mixture which included Georgia Military Institute Cadets, state prisoners, and local guards. Gen. Wayne repeatedly begged Gen. McLaws for more men, ammunition, and rations. Gen. McLaws sent 85 enlisted men, 145 cadets, and 200 militia. The cavalry and artillery horses arrived on the 22nd.
General Smith found the only way out of the swamp was to return to Toombsboro. He decided to move further south to join the 15th Corps at Ball's Ferry - sixteen miles through Toombsboro but only a couple down the river. Before moving the Union artillery shelled the Confederate Fort across the river inflicting as much damage as possible. Gen. Smith dispatched Col. Spencer and the 1st Alabama Union Cavalry to Ball's Ferry early on the 24th of November. Their mission was to secure the ferry for passage by the Right Wing. The cavalrymen found the ferry boat on the opposite side of the river. A patrol was sent up the river crossing on makeshift rafts. The patrol moved down to the east bank of the ferry and dislodged the Confederate pickets.
Gen. Wayne dispatched Major A.L. Hartridge with two cavalry companies, 80 infantry soldiers, and 2 cannon to Ball's Ferry. Major Hartridge arrived at 3 p.m. just in time to prevent the Alabama Cavalry from securing the ferry. The Union cavalry suffered nearly a dozen casualties. Major Hartridge set up positions along the east bank of the ferry. That evening he returned to Oconee with part of his command.
Lt. Colonel Andrew Young commanding the 30th Georgia Battalion arrived in Oconee on the 24th. Gen. Joseph Wheeler led his four thousand cavalrymen along the right flank of the right wing. They left Macon and swam across the Oconee River at Blackshear's Ferry. Lt. Col. Gaines and his Alabama Cavalry were sent to Ball's Ferry. They strengthed the fortifications preparing for the larger force which would soon come. The remainder of Wheeler's force moved to Tennille. On the night of the 25th the head of the 15th corps was camped in Irwinton with its rear in Gordon. The head of the 17th corps was still camped near the Oconee River Bridge with its rear along the railroad back through Toombsboro.
On the morning of the 25th the two corps began their march toward Ball's Ferry. The 17th corps returned to Toombsboro on their way. General Hazen's Division, 15th Corps led the way. General Woods' Division was to move next detouring south toward the Lightwood Knot Bridges. General Woods' mission was to protect the flank against an attack by Wheeler's Cavalry. He sent the 29th Missouri (mounted) to destroy the bridges. The cavalrymen reported resistance at the bridges. They never knew the extent of the resistance. The force that turned them away was a Confederate surgeon and an elderly slave woman. The Confederate force set the bridges on fire and began screaming and firing weapons. The cavalry, satisfied that the bridges were destroyed, returned to the division.
General Hazen arrived first around 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon. He found the Confederates entrenched on the opposite bank with skirmishers up and down the stream. As soon as the 12th Wisconsin Battery was set in place, the Confederate forces on east bank were beseiged by artillery fire. The 19th Illinois and the 97th Indiana were placed on picket duty along the river. The 17th Corps arrived about dusk. The 17th sent infantrymen to cross the river upstream and work their way down to the right flank of the Confederates. The Smith and Corse Divisions of the 15th Corps and the pontoon trains of the 1st Michigan Engineers arrived during the night.
Col. Gaines realized the magnitude of the opposing force around midnight. General Wayne's main force at Oconee had been outflanked and with no hopes of reinforcements Wayne ordered a retreat to Tennille. Commanding Gen. William J. Hardee ordered the army to move to a defensive position on the Ogeechee River.
On the morning of the 26th two pontoon bridges were laid across the river. Generals Corse and Woods crossed first moving to Irwin's Crossroads to camp for the night. General Hazen moved ahead of General Smith who remained behind to remove the bridges. After the crossing was completed Hazen and Smith moved to Irwin's Cross Roads. After crossing the river Blair's 17th Corps moved north toward Oconee to continue the destruction of the railroad. The 17th Corps Headquarters was established at the intersection of the Oconee and Irwin's roads. As the two corps rendevoused near Irwin's elements of both continued the destruction of the railroad. The right and left wings of Sherman's army came together at Sandersville and Tennille. On the 28th Sherman's army entered the last four weeks of its March to the Sea. By Christmas Savannah was controlled by General Sherman's forces.