Beginning of the End

Major General Sherman ordered Major General Hazen and his forces on December 16, 1864, to destroy the railroad track from McIntosh to the Ogeechee River. He ordered Major General Joseph A. Mower, commander of the 17th Corps, and his forces to destroy the railroad from McIntosh to the Altamaha River. Three days later both missions were com­pleted.


Major General Sherman ordered Major General Hazen and divisional troops of the 15th Corps to destroy the Doctor­town railroad bridge over the Altamaha River. That mission was never completed. Remnants of several Confederate Army units had regrouped at a Confederate headquarters established on the south side of the Altamaha River at the bridge. They were formed into a defense task force of considerable size by Brigadier General Henry K. McKay.


The Battle of the Altamaha Trestle took place on December 18, 1864. It was the fiercest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War in coastal Georgia. Federal troops were determined to destroy the bridge to prevent its further use by the Con­federate Army. Confederate Army troops were just as deter­mined to save the bridge to evacuate military and civilian persons from the war zone in Liberty County.


Two thousand troops of the Third Division, U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Smith D. Atkins, and elements of the Ninth Pennsylvania Infantry, commanded by Captain E.A. Hancock, faced about 1,000 Confederate Army troops commanded by Brigadier General McKay and Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Hood, the Echols Light Artillery, the Milton Light Artillery, and Campbell’s Siege Train.


Confederate Army troops employed two 32-pounder field pieces mounted on the Altamaha River bluff, and a third cannon mounted on a flat car pushed by a locomotive firing from the trestle over the bridge. The three artillery pieces raked the railroad embankment for half a mile north and east of the trestle.


Federal troops mounted three frontal assaults on the Con­federate Army positions during the day-long battle. The Confederate Army troops did not give ground. The river trestle was not destroyed, but federal troops did fire the Morgans Lake trestle. There were dead and wounded on both sides. Major General Hazen abandoned his mission and re­turned to Savannah, where a bombardment of the city was just getting underway.


Liberty County near Christmas 1864 lay prostrate in the wake of its devastating invasion by federal troops. Most of its plantations and farms were destroyed. The Liberty Coun­ty Courthouse, however, was not touched.


Early December 1864 had been mild and balmy. By the middle of the month freezing rain commenced and contin­ued throughout the winter. Hungry and shivering refugees were everywhere, trying to make their way to the Altamaha River and ride the one train still running to an area not occupied by federal troops.


Joseph LeConte, a native of Liberty County, suffered many hardships on his journey from Columbia, South Caro­lina, to rescue his small daughter from the home of his sister, Jane LeConte Harden, near Riceboro. He and an elderly manservant rode the train to near Savannah, and then walked around the federal army to Riceboro. He found a mule for the child to ride, and the three of them traveled through the federal army back to South Carolina, and rode a train still running to Columbia.


Hunger, desolation, and hopelessness gripped Liberty County by Christmas Day 1864. Risking their very lives, many Liberty Countians left their homes and traveled else­where in search of food. Starvation in the county was by now not just a threat but a reality.


The plight of the people of Liberty County was further aggravated by stragglers of Confederate Army units, now completely disorganized. They roamed the county robbing, looting, and creating havoc among their own people. Some citizens of Liberty County were doing the same things to their neighbors.


Those prisoners encountered by John Stevens and Captain John Winn were kept for a few days at Midway Church. They were then marched to the Ogeechee River and kept in make­shift prisoner cages for several more days. The final leg of  their journey was to a federal prison in a waterfront ware­house at Savannah. Reverend Robert Q. Mallard. pastor of the Walthourville Presbyterian Church, was eventually paroled to the home of Reverend I.S.K. Axson, pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah.


Stories circulated around the county of acts perpetrated by federal troops. One story said they removed furniture in Taylors Creek Methodist Church to their camp and used the church building as a foraging headquarters. Another story said they broke open a cornerstone at Midway Church,  placed there when the church celebrated its 100th anniversary, and scattered its contents. Still another story said federal troops warned slaves that they would be killed if they continued serving their masters. The Midway Church organ, placed in the church attic for safekeeping, supposedly was found by the troops and used as a meat block. It was no story, but a fact that white people of the county were forbidden by federal troops to move around without a permit. Slaves, on the other hand, were free go to whenever and wherever they liked.


By the end of December 1864 a large part of the white population of Liberty County had fled to other parts of Georgia. John Stevens and Captain John Winn made their way to Doctortown and rode the train to Thomasville, Geor­gia, where they remained for several weeks. Communities of the county were like ghost towns. Those people who remained huddled in their homes, foraged for food, and tried to keep alive.


Brigadier General McKay sent a detachment of cavalry, under a flag of truce, from Doctortown to the interior of Liberty County to see what help he could give the people. The detachment rode to Jonesville, Riceboro, Dorchester, Midway, and the Ogeechee River, and returned to Doctor­town through Flemington, Hinesville, and Walthourville without seeing any federal troops.


Lieutenant Colonel Hood managed to communicate with federal authorities and secured permission to escort old and ill persons out of Liberty County to Doctortown where they could move by train to the interior of the state. Under a federal guard, Lieutenant Colonel Hood moved into Liberty County on December 31, 1864. He moved people out of Liberty County for the next several weeks.


Major General Sherman entered Savannah on December 21, 1864. He remained there until he continued his march to the north in the middle of January 1865. He left occupa­tion troops behind. They were needed because of a serious antagonism between the white people and freed slaves.