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Civil War Series

Fort Pulaski and the Defense of Savannah

   

With Fort McAllister in Federal hands, the Great Ogeechee River was open to the navy and resupply was at hand. A wharf and warehouses were soon built at King's bridge, the river cleared of obstructions, and by December 16 supplies were arriving and being transported to the army.

Federal action now shifted to the north. On December 16 Colonel Ezra A. Carman's brigade of the XX Corps crossed the channel between Argyle Island to South Carolina and established their position at Izard's Mill, six miles from Savannah. They could not move further down the left bank of the Savannah River because the rice fields had been flooded and behind them was a strong Confederate line. Sherman was reluctant to commit too many men to the left bank of the Savannah River since the Confederates had several gunboats in the river and could "destroy any pontoons laid down by us between Hutchinson's Island and the South Carolina shore, which would isolate any force sent over from that flank."

Carmen's move into South Carolina put Sherman's left within striking distance of Union Causeway, the sole line between Savannah and South Carolina. The road led to Hardeeville, where the railroad passed northward. As these maneuvers took place, Federal engineers opposite Hardee's inner line prepared sites for the now arriving siege guns and began to drain the flooded rice fields between the lines. Hardee, in turn, realized the danger to his only route of evacuation and had transferred Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry to block any Federal movement eastward toward the causeway.

On December 15 Colonel Orville F. Babcock, an aide of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, arrived with a letter from the commander of the Union armies, written December 6, informing his friend, "My idea now, then, is that you establish a base on the sea-coast, fortify and leave in it all your artillery and cavalry, and enough infantry to protect them. . . . With the balance of your command come here by water with all dispatch. Select yourself the officer to leave in command, but you I want in person." Sherman was furious; he had planned to move northward taking the war into the interior of the Carolinas. Fort McAllister offered an ideal site for the concentration and embarkation of his army, and Sherman ordered his chief engineer, Captain Orlando M. Poe. to begin the necessary preparations to develop the new port facility, should Savannah not fall.

A PHOTOGRAPH OF FORT MCALLISTER TAKEN SHORTLY AFTER ITS SURRENDER (LC)

With the fall of Fort McAllister, Hardee's position had become untenable. On December 17 Sherman sent Hardee a summons to surrender Savannah.

You have doubtless observed from your station at Rosedew that sea-going vessels now come through Ossabaw Sound and up Ogeechee to the rear of my army, giving me abundant supplies of all kinds, and more especially heavy ordnance necessary to the reduction of Savannah. I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied; and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts, and shall await a reasonable time your answer before opening with heavy ordnance. Should you entertain the proposition I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, and the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge a great national wrong they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.

Hardee promptly responded:

I have to acknowledge receipt of a communication from you of this date, in which you demand "the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts," on the ground that you have "received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot into the heart of the city," and for the further reason that you "have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison can be supplied." You add that should you be "forced to resort to assault, or to the slower and surer process of starvation, you will then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and will make little effort to restrain your army" &c. The position of you forces, a half a mile beyond the outer line for the land defenses of Savannah, is, at the nearest point, at least four miles from the heart of the city. That and the interior line are both intact. Your statement that you "have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison can be supplied" is incorrect. I am in free and constant communication with my department. Your demand for the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts is refused. With respect to the threats conveyed in the closing paragraphs of your letter, of what may be expected in case your demand is not complied with, I have to say that I have hitherto conducted the military operations intrusted to my direction in strict accordance with the rules of civilized warfare, and I should deeply regret the adoption of any course by you that may force me to deviate from them in future.

ONE OF THE CANNONS AT FORT MCALLISTER. (LC)

Hardee, realizing his only course was retreat, began to prepare to evacuate his forces from Savannah.

Hardee, realizing his only course was retreat, began to prepare to evacuate his forces from Savannah. Using "rice-field flats," shallow skiffs 80 feet long collected from the plantations, he linked them as floats for a bridge from the foot of West Broad Street in the city to Hutchinson's Island to Pennyworth Island to the South Carolina shore. Railroad car wheels were used to anchor the flats in the river. Planks from waterfront buildings served as the bridging material; when completed, the bridge would be covered with rice straw to muffle the noise.

General Beauregard telegraphed Hardee on the seventeenth to speed the preparations for evacuation. The two generals agreed that the gunboat Isonidiga and armed tender Firefly would move to Augusta (they would be beached and burned during the evacuation), the iron-clad Georgia would be scuttled, and the ironclad Savannah would cover the evacuation, (The Savannah, unable to escape down the river, would be scuttled on December 21.)

The pontoon link to Hutchinson's Island was completed on the seventeenth; however, fog, ship traffic, and a shortage of rice flats delayed the construction of the remaining two sections until December 20. Wheeler, his cavalry reinforced with part of the Savannah garrison, held off Federal moves toward the causeway. The evacuation of the city, the eastern water batteries, and finally the lines facing Sherman was completed by 3:00 A.M. of December 21. Nine thousand soldiers, along with 49 field guns, had escaped. The mayor of Savannah, Richard D. Arnold, came out to surrender the city early on the morning of the twenty-first. At 6:00 A.M. Federal troops reached the City Exchange and raised the United States flag. Sherman was away conferring with General Foster and when he returned that night found himself in possession of the city. The following day, he sent President Lincoln word of his prize: "I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."

THE CONFEDERATE RAM SAVANNAH IS TORCHED ON THE EVE OF THE FEDERAL OCCUPATION OF SAVANNAH. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

Sherman has been criticized for his desultory conduct before Savannah and for allowing Hardee to escape. Sherman feared that if his army was divided by the river, Hardee might crush the detached wing as Confederate gunboats, still active in the river, prevented additional troops from coming to their support. He realized that he needed to resupply his men from his new deepwater base. Finally, he had received a letter from Grant ordering him to send the bulk of his forces north on ships to take part in the final push against Lee; for this reason he had to keep his force intact and at the coast.

Sherman, along with Federal forces in Hilton Head, could have prevented Hardee's escape. Sherman was aware that the Confederates were building a pontoon bridge to South Carolina, yet upon his departure for Hilton Head Island on December 19, he left orders for his army not to attack the Savannah works until he had returned. Sherman's subordinates clearly observed the Confederate evacuation on December 20 yet did nothing to interfere with it. Sherman's victory in Savannah was won through default, not brilliant tactical maneuver.

CONFEDERATE TROOPS CROSS A PONTOON BRIDGE OVER THE SAVANNAH RIVER AS THEY EVACUATE SAVANNAH AND MARCH TOWARD SOUTH CAROLINA. (FMTW)

For his part, Hardee ably employed the limited tactical resources he had. He had 10,000 men, yet he had to secure the water approaches east of Savannah, as well as man the western defensive line. Hardee later reflected: "Tho' compelled to evacuate the city, there is no part of my military life to which I look back with so much satisfaction."

Between 1869 and 1872 Fort Pulaski's demilune was remodeled. Underground magazines and emplacements for heavy guns were added. Major renovations were planned for the fort; however, the project was abandoned when plans were developed to build batteries on Tybee Island. After 1879 little further active military use was made of Fort Pulaski. During the Spanish-American War, a few men were garrisoned in the fort to man the guns installed on the demilune as well as at the battery on the north shore of Cockspur Island. Electric mines were strung across the mouth of the Savannah River and were controlled from Cockspur Island; the operators were also housed in the fort.

CONFISCATED CONFEDERATE COTTON IS SHIPPED TO NEW YORK BY SHERMAN'S OCCUPYING FORCES. (COLLECTION OF NY HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

During the early years of the twentieth century, Fort Pulaski was totally abandoned. The moat again filled with silt and was overgrown with marsh grass. A jungle of brush and trees overgrew the parade. Snakes slithered everywhere. Although designated for inclusion as a national monument in 1915 under the American Antiquities Act, further action was delayed by American participation in the First World War. In 1918 district engineer Colonel John Millis recommended Pulaski's immediate preservation. His successor, Colonel F. W. Alstaetter, working with local Savannah groups, began to seek national monument status for the fort. Finally, in 1924, Congressman Charles G. Edwards introduced a bill to make Fort Pulaski a national monument; it was passed and on October 15, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge issued the proclamation. The site remained an overgrown jungle until the War Department transferred it to the Department of the Interior in 1933. The National Park Service then began to preserve the fort and develop the area for visitors. Blueprints, specifications, and other plans were available in the War Department files. Using funds provided by the Public Works Administration and labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps, restoration was begun. Completed in 1938, Cockspur Island was joined to the mainland (McQueens Island) by a bridge across the south channel of the Savannah River.


THE OCCUPATION OF SAVANNAH

All through the night of December 20 Savannah's civilians listened with dread to the sounds of marching feet and cannon and wagons rumbling in the streets. The Confederate army was evacuating the city over a pontoon bridge and dawn would bring the Union army, which had burned its way across Georgia.

Confederate stragglers had plundered stores and warehouses in the night, and daylight found poor whites and slaves fighting over food stocks. Federal soldiers briefly renewed their looting activities until the arrival of General John Geary. The former San Francisco mayor posted guards and detailed a brigade to patrol the city. Sherman allowed few soldiers into the city, and those only by pass. Officers were required to remain in camp to keep their troops in rein.

Mayor Richard Arnold surrendered the city with a "respectful request" that its citizens, primarily women and children, be protected. The final Confederate edition of the Savannah Republican counseled "obedience and all proper respect" to the conquerers.

THE FEDERAL ARMY UNDER GENERAL SHERMAN ENTERS SAVANNAH ON DECEMBER 21, 1864. (LC)

Sherman immediately pronounced military law superior to civil authority but stated that "peaceful inhabitants" should resume their "usual pursuits." Family, business, and social activities continued almost normally.

Sherman retained local officials to operate the city. Newspapers, "held to the strictist accountability," were regularly published.

Only 200 families refuged from the city. The relatives of four Confederate generals who personally asked Sherman's protection were reassured that "no harm was designed" toward any resident.

Sherman later bragged that Savannah never had "a better government than during our stay." He remembered popular parades and concerts, teeming schools and churches, and plentiful provisions for all, rich and poor, black and white.

One Union soldier disagreed, describing the city as "a most miserable hole" with dilapidated buildings lining deserted streets strewn with dead horses.

The most disturbing reports were that Union soldiers desecrated cemetery vaults for thievery and shelter. "Surely such men are not human," declared Frances Thomas Howard.

Civilians were secure, although some ladies complained of petty theft and minor harassment. The women continually provoked much of that misconduct with their hauty attitudes. When asked by Charles Green, Sherman's host, if she wanted the general to be comfortable, a lady exclaimed, "No, indeed, I do not! I wish a thousand papers of pins were stuck in his bed and that he was strapped down on them."

Fanny Cohen, whose hatred for Federals rendered her "almost speechless," was forced to entertain an officer she later described as "a well bred dog."

CIVILIANS ARE ISSUED PASSED BY GENERAL GEARY. (FMTW)

When northern cities donated food to Savannah, Elizabeth Mackay Stiles wrote, "Then they think they are so liberal, giving us food, and they stole more from one plantation than the whole of New York subscribed."

During Christmas services civilians often walked out of church when Union chaplains participated. A Presbyterian minister declined the assistance of one Federal minister, explaining bitterly, "Sir, my people need comfort, and that you cannot give."

Some gaiety was experienced during the holidays. As Union General O. O. Howard played with little Daisy Gordon (later Girl Scout founder Juliette Lowe), she noted that he was missing an arm. Told that rebels had shot it off, Daisy replied brightly, "Did they? Well, I shouldn't wonder if my Papa did it. He has shot lots of Yankees."

Whether they realized it or not, the people of Savannah were fortunate, Sherman's army had destroyed Atlanta and would soon torch Columbia, but in this beautiful city the dogs of war had been muzzled.

—Jim Miles

Fort McAllister returned to forest and brush after the war. Henry Ford acquired the site with the tracts he purchased in Richmond Hill; he restored the fort in the late 1930s. In 1958, the International Paper Company purchased a parcel of land from the Ford estate and transferred the title to the state of Georgia. In ensuing years, the Georgia Historical Commission restored the parapets and bombproofs to their appearance during 1864. Parts of the Rattlesnake's machinery have been salvaged and are also located at the site.

UNION SOLDIERS GAZE UPON A TRANQUIL OGEECHEE RIVER FROM FORT MCALLISTER. (LC)


(click on image for a PDF version)
Fort Pulaski

Back cover: Original map from General Gillmore's report on the siege of Fort Pulaski from the National Archives.
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