December 21, 1864: Savannah’s surrender “exactly four years since the passage by the State of South Carolina of the secession act”

December 21, 1864, found Major-General William T. Sherman was on the USS Harvest Moon, in the company of Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren and still in transit from Port Royal to his base at King’s Bridge on the Ogeechee River.  Bad seas delayed passage, and necessitated a slower route closer to shore.  Sherman remained disconnected from his headquarters or any subordinates while major events took place just a few dozen miles away in Savannah.


Before dawn pickets on Brigadier-General John Geary’s sector noticed the Confederates had ceased firing.  Taking a queue from what he’d observed the day before and into the evening, Geary took an aggressive stance:

December 21, after 3 o’clock this morning the firing ceased, and my pickets advancing to the enemy’s line found them hastily retreating. Having possession of their line of works, with all their cannon in front of my own and the other divisions of the corps, I immediately sent a staff officer to notify the general commanding, and at the same time pushed forward rapidly in the direction of Savannah, hoping to overtake and capture a part of the enemy’s forces. My skirmishers deployed, and swept overall the ground between the evacuated works and the Ogeechee Canal from the river to the Augusta road, while my main body of troops marched rapidly by the flank through McAlpin’s plantation to the Augusta road and on into the city.

At around 4:30 a.m., Geary ran into a delegation from the city including the mayor.  Geary sent word of this back through the lines, though the messenger had difficulty convincing the Federals still in their siege positions that he was a “Yankee” and the Confederates were indeed gone.

In the meantime my entire division entered the city of Savannah at early dawn, and before the sun first gilded the morning clouds our National colors, side by side with those of my own division, were unfurled from the dome of the Exchange and over the U.S. custom-house. Barnum’s brigade, which led in entering the city, was at once ordered to patrol it, reduce it to order and quiet, and prevent any pillaging or lawlessness on the part either of soldiers or citizens. My orders on the subject were very strict, and within a few hours this city, in which I had found a lawless mob of low whites and negroes pillaging and setting fire to property, was reduced to order; many millions of dollars’ worth of cotton, ordnance, and commissary stores, &c., which would otherwise have been destroyed, were saved to the United States Government, and the citizens once more enjoyed security under the protection of that flag which again waved over them, exactly four years since the passage by the State of South Carolina of the secession act.

Indeed, the significance of the date cannot be overlooked.  Nor can Geary’s sense of responsibility as he took up position to restore order to the city.  Later in the day official orders placed Geary in command of the city.

Geary’s division fanned out and occupied fortifications, depots, and other military facilities around the city.  A detachment of the 29th Ohio reached Fort Jackson around mid-morning.  After placing the American flag over the fort, they came under fire from the CSS Savannah, at anchor at Screven’s Ferry.

This caught the attention of Major John Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief.  But the only guns around were 3-inch rifles of Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, under Captain Thomas Sloan.  The battery engaged the ironclad, with little effect.  And the ironclad was unable to return effective fire as lacking a good position and unable to elevate her guns.  Sloan’s gunners, however, found other targets on the South Carolina shore.  “One hundred and twenty rounds were expended on the morning of the 21sth endeavoring to drive off the enemy from a boat on the river, from which they were unloading supplies.”  Captain Francis DeGress, 1st Illinois, Battery H, sent 20-pounder Parrott rifles up that afternoon to spar with the ironclad.  But by nightfall neither those or heavier 30-pdrs had done any significant damage to the ironclad.

On the South Carolina shore, Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade was still in their extended “lodgement” threatening the Confederate line of retreat.  Except now Carman opposed the entire Savannah garrison and was vastly outnumbered.  Orders came at 7 a.m. to withdraw the brigade.  Carman sent the 150th New York back to Argyle Island as a rear guard and commenced removing the artillery.  But the same rough weather that delayed Sherman worked to hinder Carman’s passage of the river channel.

It was 2 o’clock before the artillery and stores could be got far enough away to warrant the withdrawal of the balance of the brigade; then it was withdrawn, followed by our skirmishers, the enemy pressing hard. The One hundred and seventh New York Volunteers crossed; then the enemy grew more bold, advancing at all points, but under cover of the numerous dikes they were held in check. At sunset the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers crossed, and Colonel Hawley, commanding Third Wisconsin, with’ the skirmish line, was left to the delicate task of withdrawing under cover of darkness. At 11 p.m. the skirmish line crossed and without the loss of a man captured.

Elsewhere on the Federal lines, as dawn broke units began to move over the former Confederate works.  Brigadier-General John Corse’s division, on the far right end of the Federal line, advanced up to Fort Brown on the southeast perimeter of the city.  On the Vernon River, Lieutenant-Commander W.H. Dana’s gunboats continued shelling the now empty Fort Beaulieu.  “Expended 11 XI-inch shell, 19 30-pounder Parrott percussion, 6 howitzer shells.  At 10 a.m. called away all boats, manned and armed them for assaulting.”  Within a few minutes, the sailors were in the fort and had the U.S. flag flying.

Not until late afternoon, near dark, did an army steamer finally catch up with Sherman, who by then had transferred to Dahlgren’s barge to better make way in the shallow waters.  The message from Lewis M. Dayton, Sherman’s Aide-de-Camp, read, dated the 21st at 9 a.m.:

I have sent you two dispatches via Fort McAllister in hopes of reaching you. General Slocum reports enemy gone from his front and he has got eight guns – this report at 4 [a.m.]  He is also gone from this front and General Howard reports Leggett near the city, and no enemy.  General Woods also got six guns.  General Slocum is moving and General Howard the same and I have no doubt both are in Savannah now.  I will ride with General Howard, at his request, and leave our camp until the matter is more definite and you make orders.

While Sherman was at sea, the entire situation changed.  He now had full possession of Savannah, though his adversary had escaped in the night.

Dahlgren began concentrating his available forces at Tybee Roads.  Even with the fall of Savannah, the ironclad that had defended the city remained a threat.  Fearing the Savannah might still attempt a sortie, he brought up monitors.   But the Savannah was not going anywhere.

The Confederate’s own torpedoes blocked her passage downstream.  As the last forces were withdrawn from Screven’s Ferry, the crew of the ironclad abandoned ship.  Shortly before midnight, a loud explosion signaled the end of the Savannah Campaign and the march to the sea.  The CSS Savannah, just as Confederate Savannah itself, ceased to exist.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 279, 361 and 771; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 137.)

Leaving Savannah in the Night: Hardee’s evacuation

On January 3, 1861, pro-secessionist forces seized Fort Pulaski.  Events propelled Savannah into the the forefront of the secession crisis.  From the start, the Savannah was one of the Confederacy’s leading cities.  And from the start, Confederate leaders prepared to defend the city.  Fortifications ringed the city and warded off Federal threats, even after the fall of Fort Pulaski.  Savannah became both depot and bastion.  Now, just short of four years after the ball started rolling, the Confederate army was leaving the city in the middle of the night.

On December 19, Lieutenant-General William Hardee issued a circular starting with:

The troops in and around Savannah will be transferred to-night to the left bank of the Savannah River, and will proceed thence to Hardeeville.

The remainder of the thirteen part circular detailed specific actions and movement times for subordinate units. At dark the field artillery would “be withdrawn by hand,” limbered when in the rear, and drawn over the river.  Major-General Ambrose Wright’s division, furthest south on the outer lines, would withdraw at 8 p.m.  Garrisons in the coastal fortifications, east and south of the city, would retired starting at 9 p.m.  Major-General Lafayette McLaws’ men would retire at 10 p.m.  Then Major-General G.W. Smith’s division at 11 p.m. Skirmishers would maintain a presence on the line, but start retiring at 10:30, in the same order as the divisions.

Anything of military value that could be move would be transported over the river.  And what could not be moved, would be destroyed.  Heavy guns were to be spiked. But “The ammunition will be destroyed by throwing it into the river, or otherwise, and not by blowing it up.”  For this escape plan to work, Hardee did not need an explosion to tip off  the Federals.  Chief engineer Colonel John Clarke would destroy the bridge when the last skirmishers had crossed.

But, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, Hardee put the execution time off for a day due to delays setting the pontoon bridge over the river.  So on the 20th, the order of execution went out:

The movement ordered in confidential circular from these headquarters dated December 19, 1864, will be executed to-night at the hours as originally arranged, and not as subsequently amended–that is, Wright’s division will move at 8 o’clock, McLaws’ division at 10 o’clock, and Smith’s division at 11 o’clock, and Wright’s skirmishers will be withdrawn at 10.30 o’clock, McLaws’ skirmishers at 12.30 o’clock, and Smith’s skirmishers at 1 o’clock.

So other than a twenty-four hour delay, the circular stood in effect.

The Confederate artillerists, faced with hauling ammunition to the river for disposal, opted instead to fire off as much as allowed.  Brigadier-General John Geary did notice all this activity:

The usual artillery firing was kept up by the enemy during the day and night. During the night I heard the movement of troops and wagons across the pontoon bridge before mentioned, and sent a report of the fact to the general commanding corps. Leaving one of my staff to watch the sounds in that direction, I notified my officer of the day and brigade commanders to keep a vigilant watch upon the enemy, as they were probably evacuating.  The details on Forts 2 and 3 continued working through the night, the enemy shelling them heavily.

But, for the most part, the Federals remained in their positions only occasionally sparring with their opponents.  For the first time in the Savannah Campaign, the Confederates had stolen a march on Sherman.  But, of course, it was the closing movement of the campaign.

With the evacuation of Savannah, the Confederates had a substantial amount of supplies to either move, destroy, or to distribute.  Not all of it would be processed.  But under Hardee’s orders, fires were kept to a minimum.  There would be no repeat of the conflagration when Atlanta was abandoned.

With the evacuation of Savannah, its naval squadron would lose a base.  After assisting with the withdrawal, the vessels were to get out as best possible.  The ironclad CSS Savannah was to make for open sea by way of St. Augustine Creek.  The gunboats CSS Isondiga and CSS Firefly would attempt passage up river to link up with the other elements of the Confederate fleet near Sister’s Ferry.  Since the CSS Georgia could not move, her crew would scuttle the ironclad battery and escape to South Carolina. The CSS Water Witch, which had been captured earlier in the year, would be burned to prevent re-capture.

In the event, none of the vessels would make it out of Savannah. The Isondiga ran aground upstream from the pontoon bridge and was burned to prevent capture.  Throughout the night the Firefly assisted with the withdrawal and lay at Screven’s Ferry dock.   Unable to clear the torpedoes from any channels to the sea, the Savannah also remained in the vicinity of Screven’s Ferry.  There, the ironclad could at least prevent the Federals from repairing the pontoon bridge and making a pursuit over the river.

Not taken into account with Hardee’s orders were the more than 20,000 civilians in Savannah.  Very few received passes over the bridge to escape.  With the last of the Confederate army withdrawn in the early morning hours, the city found itself at the mercy of the Federal forces which had destroyed Atlanta, Milledgeville, and other cities across Georgia.  December 21 would bring a reckoning of one sort or the other.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 279, 967, 972.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 20, 1864: “The noise of the retreating enemy could plainly be heard”

For Lieutenant-General William Hardee, December 20, 1864 was a day of anticipation.  Had the pontoon bridge across the Savannah River been ready before dusk the day before, he would have started the evacuation of Savannah.  Instead, he looked to keep up the appearances of holding the city for just one more day and then evacuate under the cover of darkness.  For his plan to work, he had to keep open the one corridor out of Savannah.  To Major-General Joseph Wheeler, who’s men were protecting the bridge and causeway on the South Carolina side, Hardee implored, “The road to Hardeeville must be kept open at all hazards; it is my only line of retreat.”

Most of the Federals, however, were focused on other things than the road to Hardeeville.  Major-General William T. Sherman arrived in Port Royal Sound early on December 20.  Meeting most of the day with Major-General John Foster, the two looked for ways to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  Brigadier-General John Hatch, in command of the force on Deveaux’s Neck opposing the railroad near Coosawhatchie, reported his progress that day:

Yesterday morning I put three rifled guns in the marsh, 900 yards from the small railroad bridge, and damaged it so much that no trains have passed since.  The ground is so bad that I can not get the 30-pounders there. I have a platform laid down for one 30-pounder that will reach the railroad at a range of 1,300 yards. Am not firing now, as we are out of all kinds of ammunition, except that for our muskets; have sent to [Hilton Head] for more, but no attention is paid to our requisitions, or no transportation is furnished to bring it up.

Hatch indicated he was going to stage a feint at a point closer to Hilton Head and then attempt to flank the Confederates with a move across the Coosawhatchie River.  Likely Sherman reviewed this report while with Foster.  Before departing, Sherman promised to transfer some of his veteran troops to aid Hatch.  But that would take some time, and the first “allotment” of that would be the time required for Sherman to transit back to his headquarters to cut the orders.  As he left Hilton Head that afternoon, bad weather was brewing up causing even more delays.  The delayed transit, as we shall see, would have an important effect on events at Savannah.

Along the siege lines outside Savannah, the primary task was completing preparations for an assault on the Confederate works.  Major-General Oliver O. Howard had selected Brigadier-General Giles Smith’s division of Seventeenth Corps to force a lodgement, once Sherman gave the order to commence.  On the far right, Howard also ordered up a brigade from Brigadier-General William Hazen’s division, who were returning to camps at Fort McAllister, to reinforce their fellow Fifteenth Corps troops.  Everything pointed to a grant assault at some point in the near future.

Aside from this, Howard had time to deal with an administrative request.  To Major-General Peter Osterhaus, he responded:

General Corse requested the privilege of raising a negro regiment for his division for the purpose of pioneer duty, details for work in the quartermaster’s and commissary departments, &c. I will approve the raising of two negro regiments, one for each army corps, for the purposes above specified, and give the provisional appointments of such officers as the corps commanders may recommend, subject to the approval of the War Department. Each regiment must be denominated Pioneer Battalion, in conformity with Special Field Orders, No. 120, Military Division of the Mississippi, and must be paid as pioneers are now paid, should the War Department fail to approve my action.

On the Right Wing, Major-General Henry Slocum was likewise busy preparing for the anticipated assault.  Keeping Sherman’s headquarters informed, at 8 a.m. that day he wrote, “I am now fully prepared to execute any orders the general-in-chief may issue. All our batteries are finished, but the six 20-pounder guns have not yet come.”

Slocum’s subordinates examined the potential assault routes that day.  Brigadier-General James Morgan, commanding Second Division, Fourteenth Corps, provided an assessment of the ground in front of his line, prefacing, “I am sorry to say that I have no place from which one could be made with any reasonable hope of success.” Morgan continued on to say the roads leading up to the Confederate works were,

… commanded by a well-constructed fort, with abatis and other obstructions in front, the water of the swamp over and across the road for some eighty yards, depth not known. To advance a column by the flank upon this road without any ground for deployment, under a heavy fire, would be a useless destruction of life, without a corresponding advantage.

To deal with the canal, which crossed his sector, Morgan had foot bridges and fascines constructed.

On the Twentieth Corps sector, scouts from the 33rd Massachusetts sent forward scouts to assess the ground.  Corporal Robert Black reported back:

After arriving at the picket-line he started to about forty paces to the left of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad; advanced some seventy paces on clear ground without discovering any obstructions and no impediments, after which encountered large pine trees felled, ground uneven and no water; with some difficulty climbed over the felled trees and came to swampy ground, and still further on came to a pond varying from six to twelve feet in width, tried the depth of the pond by means of a pole and judged it to be some five feet deep with soft spongy ground, after which moved further to the left by creeping under and climbing over the fallen trees and found tolerable good ground, no water, but fallen timber, and as far as he could see it was all fallen timber–not trimmed.

Black estimated he reached a point 200 yards from the Confederate works before turning back.  Clearly those making the planned assault would have their work cut out for them.

Brigadier-General John Geary’s men improved the fortifications in their sector on the 20th.  Late in the evening the 30-pounder Parrotts arrived and were placed in position.  But while this was going on, Geary reported Confederate activity of note:

I ascertained this morning that the enemy had completed a pontoon bridge from Savannah across to the South Carolina shore, and notified the commanding general corps of the discovery.  This bridge was about two miles and a half from my left.

Wary of any Confederate withdrawal attempt, Geary asked his outposts to keep the bridge under observation.  But no significant activity was reported before nightfall.

Closing his 8 a.m. report, Slocum added, “I have a brigade on the South Carolina shore.” This was, of course that of Colonel Ezra Carman who’d turned a “lodgement” into a full on brigade perimeter in the rice fields.  Further advance was blocked by Wheeler’s men:

December 20, in obedience to orders from the brigadier-general commanding division to determine the position of Clydesdale Creek with reference to my line, I detailed twelve companies of the brigade, under immediate command of Colonel Hawley, Third Wisconsin Volunteers, and accompanied them myself. The force succeeded in reaching Clydesdale Creek with the loss of one man killed, and after erecting works for one regiment and posting therein two companies of Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers, an effort was made to strike the Savannah and Hardeeville road, but the enemy, anticipating the movement, had thrown a strong force in our front. Having a canal to cross under their fire if we advanced I ordered the detachment to withdraw.

Carman, like Geary, noticed signs the Confederates were withdrawing:

During the day a great number of vehicles of all descriptions were seen passing our front, moving from Savannah toward Hardeeville, which fact was reported to the headquarters of the division.

Later that afternoon, a Confederate gunboat shelled Carman’s position.  After firing some thirty rounds and killing one man, the gunboat fell back due to the tides. Nearing dusk, Carman reported clear indications the Confederates were pulling out:

At 4 p.m. the enemy were re-enforced by three regiments of infantry from Savannah. From 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. the noise of the retreating enemy could plainly be heard as they crossed the bridges from Savannah to the South Carolina shore.

The Confederate withdrawal was underway, with several keen observers on the Federal lines reporting the movement of wagons.  But the army’s chief was not in contact at that moment.  Nor was anyone looking forward to the prospect of fighting through the swamps, ponds, and abitis to get at the departing Confederates.   I’ll turn to the particulars of the Confederate withdrawal… or retreat if you prefer… in the next post.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 237, 279, 766, 769, 770-1 and 968.)