ORPHAN BRIGADE AT OCONEE RIVER BRIDGE
November 25, 1864
Following the battle of Stockbridge, Georgia, in which the mounted infantry troops of the Orphan Brigade gave Sherman's March to the Sea its first real resistance, the Kentuckians fell back in front of Sherman's Right Wing, toward Milledgeville. The Federals bypassed Milledgeville, and found themselves at the crossings of the Oconee River, south of Milledgeville, on November 24, 1864. These crossings consisted of the main road, which crossed via Ball's Ferry, and the railroad bridge, some three miles to the north.
Captain John Weller, Acting Major of the Fourth Kentucky Mounted Infantry, described the defense of the railroad bridge. The Fourth Kentucky was joined in this action by a unit of convicts from the Milledgeville penitentiary and a battalion of cadets from the Georgia Military Institute at Milledgeville. The Fourth Kentucky had previously crossed the river at Ball's Ferry, headed north to the railroad bridge, and recrossed there, to set up a defensive position blocking the bridge. The Fourth Kentucky was in the center, protecting the bridge, with the convicts and cadets on either side. Let us join Capt. Weller's narrative:
"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."
Oconee River Bridge
Capt. John Weller
The skill of the Fourth Kentucky, and the bravery of the cadets and convicts notwithstanding, the Confederate force (probably numbering not over 400 total) was facing an entire Army Corps (probably the 17th) of Sherman's force. As at Stockbridge, there was little the gallant Southerners could do to stop the Federal juggernaut. When Federal artillery began to fire at the bridge, the Confederates withdrew and recrossed the river. The Federal 15th Army Corps had already crossed further down, both by the main road at Ball's Ferry and by a boat crossing, so the force at the railroad bridge would soon have been cut off. Once again, the Orphans had delayed Sherman's March, but could not prevent it from reaching Savannah.
--- Geoff Walden
Fred Joyce [John Weller], "From Infantry To Cavalry," Part IV, The Southern Bivouac, Vol. 3, No. 7, March 1885, pp. 299-301.
Gen. O. O. Howard, "Sherman's Advance From Atlanta," Battles and Leaders, Vol. 4 (NY: Yoseloff, 1956), pp. 663-666.
This article first appeared in "The Chickamauga," newsletter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Gen. Ben Hardin Helm Camp #1703, Vol. 2, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1996.
Oconee River Bridge, taken on the 131st anniversary of the battle, Nov. 25, 1995 by Geoff Walden
Capt. John Weller--Ed Porter Thompson's "History of the Orphan Brigade" (1898)
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Geoff Walden: enfield577 (at) live.com
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