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Civil War Series

Fort Pulaski and the Defense of Savannah

   

SHERMAN'S MARCH TO THE SEA

The next threat to Fort McAllister was from the land side. Major General William T. Sherman approached the city of Savannah at the conclusion of his famous march to the sea. Sherman had taken Atlanta, Georgia, as part of the Federal 1864 spring offensive. He began his southeast advance in mid-November. His 62,000-man army was divided into two "wings." The right wing was commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard and was composed of two corps, the XV Corps commanded by Major General Peter J. Osterhaus and the XVII Corps led by Major General Frank P. Blair. The left wing was commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum and consisted of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis's XIV Corps and Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams's XX Corps. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick commanded the cavalry. A pontoon train and a few companies of engineers, along with fifteen batteries of light artillery, accompanied the army.

SHERMAN'S TROOPS BEGIN THEIR "MARCH TO THE SEA" AS ATLANTA BURNS BEHIND THEM. (FMTW)

Kilpatrick's cavalry and Howard's two corps moved south toward Macon: Slocum's wing headed east toward Augusta. Confederate Major General Gustavus W. Smith's force of a few thousand Georgia militia and local defense troops, along with a few brigades of Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry—8,000 men—were south of Atlanta at Lovejoy Station and withdrew to Macon as the Federals marched out of Atlanta. On November 20 Howard abandoned his feint on Macon and moved toward Georgia's capital at Milledgeville. Confederate Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, headquartered in Savannah, commanded west to central Georgia and ordered Smith to move his force east to stand between Sherman's army and Augusta. As part of the move, Confederate Brigadier General Pleasant J. Phillips's three brigades of militia inadvertently collided with Union Brigadier General Charles C. Walcutt's rear-guard brigade of the XV Corps near Griswoldville. Phillips attacked the well-entrenched Union troops and was repulsed with over 500 casualties; Walcutt sustained less than 100 killed and wounded and continued on to Milledgeville.

On November 24 Sherman moved on to the Ogeechee River: five days later the Federals entered Louisville. Wheeler's troops, in an occasional skirmish. were their only opposition. By December 3, Sherman had reached Millen, almost 70 miles from the coast at Savannah or Unionist-controlled Port Royal Sound. Alarmed Confederates in Savannah began in earnest to fortify the western approaches to the city. Reinforcements from Georgia as well as the Carolinas were moved into Savannah. Smith's militia reached the city early on November 30.

FEDERAL SOLDIERS FROM THE 107TH NEW YORK STAND ATOP THE ROOF OF THE STATE CAPITOL AT MILLEDGEVILLE, GEORGIA. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

Union forces, anticipating Sherman's arrival on the coast, moved from Hilton Head inland to cut the Savannah and Charleston Railroad east of Grahamville, South Carolina. Major General John G. Foster, commander of the Department of the South headquartered at Hilton Head Island, ordered Brigadier General John P. Hatch to move up the Broad River from Port Royal Sound to Boyd's Neck, ten miles east of the railroad at Grahamville. Hatch and his 5,500 men spent November 29 fortifying their position. His way was "blocked" by a few companies of the 3d South Carolina Cavalry. The following morning Hatch's command moved toward Grahamville. By now a large force on Confederates, including elements of Gustavus Smith's Georgia militia from Savannah, as well as troops from Charleston, had been concentrated in the South Carolina village. Smith moved some of his men to Honey Hill, three miles south of Grahamville. There, 1,400 men, along with five artillery pieces, dug in. Hatch's force was delayed by the Confederates, who set the fields and woods afire to confine the Federals to the road. Hindered by "dense undergrowth and swamps," the Unionists made little progress. By afternoon the Federals began to withdraw and by 7:30 they had retreated from the field. Hatch suffered over 750 casualties; Smith, less than 50.


(click on image for a PDF version)
This map shows the route of Sherman's destructive march to the sea. From Savannah, Sherman would head north to Charleston, South Carolina.

As reinforcements continued to arrive in South Carolina, Smith and his militia returned to the Savannah defenses. Major General Samuel Jones, headquartered in Charleston, moved down the railroad as far as Pocotaligo. Jones's line would become the second front for Savannah. Although the Federals gained several positions from which they could shell the railroad, they never severed the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. The Federal failure to sever the railroad would result in a loss of the opportunity to trap Hardee and his forces in Savannah.

Meanwhile, as Sherman approached Savannah, Hardee prepared his defenses. He commanded about 10,000 troops and had no chance to defeat Sherman. His only hope was that Sherman, without supply lines, would be unable to subject the city to a prolonged siege and be forced to seek the Federal navy and supplies elsewhere, perhaps at Beaufort, South Carolina, the closest point under Federal control. Hardee, however, hoped to retain control of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, which extended about twenty miles from the city before turning north to cross the Savannah River. His outer line of defenses extended from the Savannah River above the bridge southwest to the Great Ogeechee River. Swamps and a few detached works, containing artillery, constituted the line.

UNION TROOPS BURN A RAILROAD BRIDGE OVER THE OGEECHEE RIVER ON NOVEMBER 30. (FL)

CONFEDERATE BATTERIES LIKE THIS ONE SURROUNDED SAVANNAH. (AMERICAN HERITAGE COLLECTION)

Sherman left Millen on December 4 with three of his corps moving between the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers. Osterhaus's XV Corps moved down the right bank of the Ogeechee River and thereby flanked Hardee's outer line, forcing him back to the inner line of defenses.

The right of the Confederate inner line extended on the right from Williamson's Plantation on the Savannah River north of the city, near the upper end of Hutchinson Island, across high ground to the Little Ogeechee River. Much of the front was swamp and flooded rice fields. Two railroads and three wagon roads penetrated the defenses; they had been cut and stood under several feet of water. Fort Hardeman on the Savannah River protected the canal that allowed flooding of the rice fields. Battery McBeth covered the railroad as it passed through the central Confederate works. Piney Point Battery and Battery Jones covered the roads from the southwest. Confederates occupied the lower end of Hutchinson Island, covering the right flank of the inner line. Artillery from some of the river batteries east of the city was moved to protect against the threat of Federal land forces; 54 guns were moved after November 20.

GENERAL JUDSON KILPATRICK LEADS A UNION CAVALRY CHARGE AGAINST JOSEPH WHEELER'S CONFEDERATES AT WAYNESBORO, GEORGIA. (FMTW)

The right of the Confederate was occupied by G. W. Smith's 2,000-man militia and 20 pieces of artillery; they extended to the Georgia Central Railroad. Major General Layfette McLaws's 3,750 men held the center four miles with a mixture of Confederate and reserve regiments and 29 guns. Major General Ambrose R. Wright's 2,700 men and 32 pieces of artillery defended the left, a line extending to the Little Ogeechee River near the railroad crossing. This entire line was about ten miles along. In addition, the Confederates manned detached Fort McAllister on the Great Ogeechee River, as well as the batteries on the waterways east of the city.

Fort McAllister was isolated after Hardee was forced to abandon the outer defense line. McAllister kept Sherman from using the Great Ogeechee River as a link to the Federal navy and resupply. Resupply for Sherman meant not only provisions but heavy artillery and ammunition for a siege of Savannah. Hardee without communication to McAllister, hoped it could hold out long enough for Sherman to be forced to move elsewhere to rendezvous with the Union navy.

Hardee ordered the Savannah River Squadron, which had been largely inactive since its 1862 activities in conjunction with Fort Pulaski, up the river to defend the Charleston and Savannah Railroad bridge, which was beyond the inner line of defenses. Commodore William W. Hunter sent his gunboats Macon and Sampson, along with the tender Resolute, to protect the bridge.

THE SAVANNAH RIVER SQUADRON SURROUNDS FEDERAL VESSELS IN NOVEMBER 1864. (LC)

Hardee stated that he had no plans to evacuate Savannah but that if it became necessary, he planned to use the Savannah River gunboats to ferry his men to South Carolina.

On December 9 Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard arrived in Savannah from Charleston. The Creole commanded the department in which Savannah was located. He urged Hardee to make arrangements to abandon the city if he could not successfully defend it. Hardee stated that he had no plans to evacuate Savannah but that if it became necessary, he planned to use the Savannah River gunboats to ferry his men to South Carolina. Beauregard suggested that Hardee construct a pontoon bridge, to which Hardee objected as a waste of labor and as an obstruction of the river.

On December 10 Hardee sent orders, by the Ida, for Hunter's squadron to burn the bridge. Federals had established batteries along the river and disabled the Ida, which had played a conspicuous role earlier in the war. Aground, she was captured and burned by Captain Henry A. Gildersleeve, of the 115th New York. On December 11, two companies of the 3d Wisconsin reached Argyle Island, between the railroad bridge and Hutchinson's Island. The next morning six more companies arrived. Reinforcements soon moved onto the northwestern tip of Hutchinson's Island. On December 12, Commodore Hunter's squadron, which had been guarding the railroad bridge, received orders to destroy it and return to Savannah. They burned the bridge, but as they returned to the city, they encountered Federal forces who had prepared for the possibility. When the gunboats Macon and Sampson and tender Resolute approached, a Federal battery opened on them. As the Resolute turned, she hit the gunboats, lost control, and ran aground on Argyle Island, where she was immediately taken by men of the 3d Wisconsin. The two gunboats were able to escape the battery and continued up river to Augusta.

To the south on December 9 Confederate troops who had been guarding the approaches to Fort McAllister realized how badly they were outnumbered by the approaching Federals. They abandoned their position and moved south across the Altamaha River. McAllister's garrison was now isolated on the south bank of the Great Ogeechee River. A month's provisions would enable the men to withstand the isolation. Great stocks of ammunition had been moved to the magazines. All of the trees within a half mile of the fort had been cut. The landward rear wall of the fort was strengthened and guns moved to cover this approach. "Ground torpedoes"—land mines—covered the land approaches.

The next day, December 10, Sherman's forces moved on the Savannah defensive line. From right to left were the XVII, the XIV, and the XX Corps; the XV Corps was on the north side of the Great Ogeechee River. Light skirmishing occupied the Federals, but they made no effort to break Hardee's lines. Sherman did not press his assault but rather tried to establish contact with the navy off the coast.


GEORGIA CIVILIANS DURING SHERMAN'S MARCH

As Union soldiers marched out of Atlanta on the morning of November 16, 1864, they anticipated following William Sherman's orders to "forage liberally on the country."

Martha Amanda Guillen measured the Federal advance that first day by observing smoke plumes on the horizon. Near Stone Mountain Thomas Maguire described the losses on his farm as the "destruction of Jerusalem on a small scale."

On November 17 the blue columns reached Dolly Sumner Lunt Burge's plantation near Covington.

"But like Demons they rushed in!" Burge wrote. "To my smoke-house, my Dairy, Pantry, Kitchen and Cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way. The thousand pounds of meat in my smoke house is gone in a twinkling, my flour, my meat, my lard, butter, eggs, pickles . . . are all gone. My eighteen fat turkeys, my hens, chickens and fowl, my young pigs are shot down in my yard and hunted as if they were the rebels themselves."

At Chamblee's Mill an old blind mule pulling a wagon filled with six grieving women and the coffin of a small child to a cemetery was seized by soldiers. Foragers at Birdsville Plantation dug up the graves of twin infants, four days dead, while searching for treasure.

As a Spalding County farm was being sacked, a woman glanced out a window and noticed that it was snowing.

"No, misses," a servant replied. "Those men are ripping up all your feather beds and pillows to see the feathers fly."

PHOTOGRAPH OF WILLIAM T. SHERMAN AND FIVE OF HIS GENERALS TAKEN AFTER THE INFAMOUS MARCH TO THE SEA. L-R: O. O. HOWARD, JOHN A. LOGAN, W. B. HAZEN, SHERMAN, JEFFERSON C. DAVIS, AND H. W. SLOCUM. (LC)>

Louise Caroline Reese Cornwell was forced to feed General O. O. Howard, one of Sherman's four corps commanders, at her home in Hillsboro. She found it strange that while Howard "sat at the table and asked God's blessing, the sky was red from flumes of burning houses." General Howard himself would soon note "many instances of the most inexecusable and wanton acts."

The civilians reacted with bitter defiance. "Our men will fight you as long as they live," a woman said quietly as her farm was stripped of food, then she waved at her children and continued, "and these boys'll fight you when they grow up."

Sherman seemed unable to comprehend their hatred, writing to his wife, Ellen, "I doubt if history affords a parallel to the deep and bitter enmity of the women of the South. No one who sees them and hears them but must feel the intensity of their hate."

Sherman's army marched swiftly to Milledgeville, the midpoint of the journey, where they rested for several days. Although soldiers had destroyed considerable property and cleaned the country of provisions, they had molested few civilians. That changed after skeletal escapees from the infamous Andersonville prison camp reached Union lines.

In Irwinton on November 25 an officer wrote that "the boys had a good time last night. Wrecked town recovered valuables." Next day the men were lined up and read an order prohibiting looting and arson for "I guess the twentieth time," he concluded.

UNION SOLDIERS CAUSE MAYHEM AND DESTRUCTION DURING THEIR MARCH ACROSS GEORGIA. A SLAVE SEEKS REFUGE AMID THE CHAOS. (LC)

As the march slowed from cold rain, swampy roads, and resistance, soldiers found time for mischief. Near Louisville a squad took Mrs. Nora M. Canning's elderly husband into a swamp to persuade him to divulge the location of his valuables, which were stored in a Macon bank. Rejecting this reply, the Federals tossed a rope over a branch and tied a noose around Canning's neck. The men trice hoisted Canning up until he was unconscious, then settled for his watch.

"Oh! the horrors of that night!" Mrs. Canning wrote of caring for her husband, who "lay with scorching fever, his tongue parched and swollen and his throat dry and sore. He begged for water and there was not a drop. The Yankees had cut all the well ropes and stolen the buckets."

At Magnolia Springs, near Millen, Sherman's troops burned an empty Confederate prison camp that dwarfed Andersonville. The primitive conditions of the camp "made my heart ache," declared Chaplain George Bradley, "miserable hovels barely fit for swine." Soldiers' hearts were further hardened toward residents of the Confederacy. Learning that hounds were used to track escaped prisoners, they shot every dog they encountered, including a poodle. "There's no telling what it'll grow into if we leave it," a raider told its owner.

Federals overran Mrs. Charles Colcock Jones's plantation near Midway on December 15. She watched in horror as they seized ducks and chickens, "tearing them to pieces with their teeth like ravenous beasts."

One day later, Cornelia Screven prepared food for her children three times, only to have soldiers snatch it from their plates. She begged them to leave some for her hungry children, but a Federal snarled, "Damn you, I don't care if you all starve," a scene repeated across Georgia.

After capturing Savannah, Sherman estimated that his army had stolen 7,000 horses and mules, 20,000 head of cattle, 20 million pounds of corn and fodder, and an incalculable number of hogs, chickens, turkeys, vegetables, and fruit. Sherman believed his army had inflicted $1 billion worth of destruction on Georgia—$20 million military value—the remainder pure vandalism.

"This may seem a hard species of warfare," Sherman wrote, "but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities." The modern term is total war, waged against combatants and civilians alike.

—Jim Miles

TERRIFIED SOUTHERN CITIZENS FLEE FROM THE APPROACHING UNION ARMY. (DEPT. OF CULTURAL RESOURCES, NORTH CAROLINA DIVISION OF ARCHIVES AND HISTORY)

On December 9 Sherman's men had built a pontoon bridge across the Ogeechee and on the tenth they rebuilt King's bridge, a major causeway across the Ogeechee River about a mile above the destroyed railroad bridge. At the same time Sherman ordered Kilpatrick to his right; the cavalrymen reconnoitered the area around Fort McAllister on the twelfth with the intention of taking the fort the next day. Confederate Major George W. Anderson and a small party of scouts collided with Kilpatrick's advance just south of King's bridge. In the brisk skirmish that ensued, the Confederates were able to withdraw into Fort McAllister. The troopers rode out to Genesis Point but stopped short of the causeway to the fort. Shortly thereafter a courier arrived with Sherman's revised orders to Kilpatrick, namely, that he not take the fort but turn the mission over to the infantry. Kilpatrick withdrew and set up his headquarters at Strathy Hall, home of Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Joseph L. McAllister, on whose land the fort had been built. Kilpatrick then sent the 9th Michigan Cavalry to take Kilkenny Bluff in anticipation of linking with the navy in Saint Catherines Sound. The remainder of the troopers spread out through the counties to the south, and some went to the site of Sunbury on the Midway River, a deepwater port abandoned from colonial times. Kilpatrick would make contact with the Fernandina on the thirteenth.

THE RESOLUTE IS BARRAGED BY FEDERAL GUNFIRE. (FMTW)

DITCHES WITH ABATIS IN FRONT OF FORT MCALLISTER. (LC)

Sherman ordered Brigadier General William B. Hazen's Second Division of the XV Corps across the Ogeechee River to take the fort on the thirteenth. Sherman himself had commanded that division at Shiloh and Vicksburg. At dawn on December 13, Hazen's 4,300 men crossed the bridge and moved east down the road on Bryan Neck to approach the fort from the rear. As his men assembled two miles from the fort, twelve scouts ran down the causeway a mile from the fort. They captured the unsuspecting Confederate pickets. The prisoners told the scouts about the "land torpedoes," both on the road ahead and outside the fort. The Federals forced the prisoners to locate and remove them from the causeway.

Removing the torpedoes took several hours and delayed the Federals from moving close enough to assault the fort. While Hazen was clearing the road of mines, he deployed sharpshooters to annoy the fort's garrison; artillery several miles upstream and across the river at Dr. Cheves's rice mill shelled the Confederates in McAllister. Because of the wooded and swampy terrain, it took all afternoon for Hazen to deploy his troops.

CAPTURED CONFEDERATE PRISONERS DIG UP BURIED TORPEDOS IN FRONT OF FORT MCALLISTER. (FMTW)

THE STORMING OF FORT MCALLISTER BY GENERAL HAZEN'S DIVISION ON DECEMBER 13, 1864. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

Hazen planned a three-pronged assault. Three regiments of each brigade were set to assault the fort; the remainder were held in reserve. The 47th and 54th Ohio and 111th Illinois from the Second Brigade would attack on the left. The 19th and 48th Illinois and the 70th Ohio of the Third Brigade formed on the center. The 6th Missouri, 30th Ohio, and 116th Illinois from the First Brigade would move on the right. The infantry deployed in a line 600 feet from the fort on an arc from the river below the fort to the river above it. They were arranged "as thin as possible so that no man in the assault was struck till they came to close quarters."

At 4:45 P.M. they charged in unison. Slashed timber briefly impeded the men; they scrambled on and over the cheavaux-de-frise and abatis and swarmed over the parapet into the fort. Land mines outside the wall were responsible for most of the Federal casualties, "blowing many men to atoms." Within fifteen minutes Hazen's force had overwhelmed Major Anderson and his remaining garrison of 229 men and officers. In addition, 11 Confederates were killed and 21 wounded. Eleven heavy guns, a 10-inch mortar, twelve field guns, 60 tons of ammunition, and a month's supply of food were captured. Hazen lost 24 killed and 110 wounded.

THE DANDELION SIGNALS TO SHERMAN ON THE SHORE. (FMTW)

MAJOR GENERAL JOHN FOSTER WELCOMES GENERAL SHERMAN ABOARD THE NEMAHA. (COLLECTION OF THE NY HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

Sherman and Howard watched the assault from the roof of a shed at Dr. Cheves's rice mill, where a signal station had been built. As Hazen began his assault, signalers saw and signaled the Federal tug Dandelion. After the fort surrendered, Sherman and Howard went downriver in a skiff, had dinner with Hazen and the captured Major Anderson, and were taken to the tug, where Sherman wrote Stanton, Halleck, and Grant. He then returned to McAllister for the night.

Sherman was soon awakened and told that General Foster was aboard the steamer Nemaha downstream. Sherman joined him and together they went to Wassaw Sound to meet with Admiral John A. Dahlgren aboard his flagship Harvest Moon. There, Sherman learned of the situation in South Carolina along the Charleston-Savannah Railroad. After arranging for supplies and the transfer of heavy siege guns from Port Royal to use against Savannah, Sherman returned to his troops.

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