A Bitter Defeat
—March to the Sea Heritage Trail —
As part of a two-pronged Cavalry raid, on Wednesday, July 27 1864, Union Major General George Stoneman with over 2,100 troopers left the main Federal army then located near Atlanta. Stoneman's orders from Major General William T. Sherman, were to destroy the railroad leading north from Macon re-supplying Confederate-held Atlanta.. Stoneman also received Sherman's permission to attempt freeing the Federal prisoners held at Andersonville. Riding through
Covington and Monticello while foraging and destroying Confederate facilities, Stoneman was unable to find a. bridge across the Ocmulgee River. So he abandoned his division's primary mission and rode further south through Hillsboro and Clinton. After skirmishing with Confederate militia near Macon on July 30th and destroying rail facilities eastward including the Oconee River bridge, Stoneman received rumors of a sizeable Confederate cavalry force in pursuit. Deciding to return north by his same route Stoneman's division, encountered about 1,300 Confederate cavalrymen near Sunshine Church the following day, Sunday, July 31st. Led by Clinton native Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, Jr., the Confederates had moved to block Stoneman's path.
Dismissing alternative routes, and believing his division to be the superior force, General Stoneman ordered his exhausted cavalrymen to dismount
and attack. But the Federals were repulsed and General Iverson's Confederates counterattacked. The fighting raged back and-forth as one Federal trooper recalled, "the [road] was full of Yanks and rebs, everybody yelling 'Surrender!' shooting, cutting and slashing."
After a brief pause a renewed Confederate attack struck Stoneman's weary command as the Federals ammunition began running low. Fearing encirclement, more than half of the surviving Federal cavalrymen made a harrowing cross-country escape. "We [rode] through woodlands... leaped fences and ditches, and performed many wonderful equestrian feats,"
wrote Private John C. Weddle of the (Federal) 1st Kentucky Regiment. Stoneman masked their departure by ordering the expenditure of the last of his artillery's ammunition before surrendering himself and over 400 of his men. Ultimately only 800 members of Stoneman's division made a safe return to General Sherman's army.
On Sunday, November 20, 1864, during the "March to the Sea," the Federal 15th Corps commanded by. Major General. Peter J. Osterhaus marched south from Hillsboro to Clinton. Osterhaus's corps was part of Major General Oliver O.Howard's "Right Wing" of General Shermans army. As they marched through the July 31st Sunshine Church battlefield, Captain Charles W. Wills of the 103rd Illinois Infantry Regiment observed men becoming angry at the
discovery of "two of our dead soldiers unburied." This find increased the bitterness the Federals already felt toward Confederates.
The original Sunshine Church, which stood south of the present church building was subsequently burned. The original Sunshine Church also served as a country "field school" before the battle and as a temporary hospital during it. The current church was built in 1875 to replace the one burned in 1864. In 1890, Barzillah F. Morris, a former Federal sergeant from Ohio, wounded during the Battle of Sunshine Church and cared for by local families, returned to preach here at Sunshine Church II.
Map: Battle of Sunshine Church, Sunday, July 31, 1864
Top right: Joseph White house (no longer existent). General Iverson's HQ
(Wilbur G. Kurtz, Sr. visual arts collection, Kenan-Research Center at the Atlanta History Center)
Bottom right: "...shooting, cutting and slashing..."
(The Illustrated London News)
[Portraits]: Union Major General George Stoneman (Highest ranking Union prisoner during the Civil War)
Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, Jr. In 1858
Background watermark: "Sunshine Church II - Sunshine United Methodist Church