A “favorable military position” on the Altamaha: Lake Bluff Battery

As with any railroad in the Confederacy, the Savannah, Albany & Gulf Railroad (SA&G RR) was a valuable asset.  The line ran south from Savannah then made a wide arch to the west.  When first chartered in 1847, the company intended to connect with Albany, Georgia.  Spur lines could bring in commerce from across southern Georgia and northern Florida, particularly cotton.  By 1853, the company added “Gulf” to its name reflecting a desire to draw in additional business with rail lines further west.  But in 1861 the lines hadn’t even reached Albany.  The western terminus of the line was at Thomasville.  On the map below, I’ve drawn the rail line in yellow.

SavAlbGulfRR

The orange lines are connecting railroads.  The dashed line extending south from the SA&G RR was a connecting line built later in the war to the Pensacola & Georgia.

For General P.G.T. Beauregard commanding the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the SA&G RR provided a means to rapidly shift troops to threatened points.  From a strategic perspective, the rail line was part of a patchwork of rails leading north to the front lines.  So Beauregard needed to defend that rail line.

South of Savannah the SA&G RR ran very close to the Atlantic Coast.  The line crossed two rivers (names in blue on the map) with enough depth to allow raiders from the coast to disrupt traffic.  Fort McAllister protected the Ogeechee River bridge (where, recall, the river’s depth was 13 feet).  But the Altamaha River bridge, where likewise river depths allowed navigation, was not protected. Confederate fears were not unfounded.  Federals frequently operated in the Altamaha Sound (and would raid the port of Darien at the river’s mouth in 1863, just 35 direct line miles southeast).    In December 1862, Beauregard gave the Altamaha some attention.  In a letter to Georgia Governor Joseph Brown, Beauregard wrote:

After full inquiry and mature consideration I decided a few days ago to obstruct the Altamaha River at a favorable military position, Lake Bluff, about 1 ½ miles below the Albany and Savannah Railroad.  The officer specially in charge of said work and protecting battery is Captain John Howard, Provisional Army of the Confederate States, under the general instructions of Capt. John McCrady.

Being further inland that the Ogeechee River bridge, the Altamaha crossing was among the swampy bottom lands.  The southwest end of the bridge reached Doctortown, which could service steamboats.  Downstream, Fort Barrington, a colonial era place-name, was at best a watch post.  The only decent high ground between was Lake Bluff.  On period maps, an island appears in the middle of the river channel at that point.

AltamahaDef

The two channels are a bit of a question mark to me.  There were at least three distinct bridges through the low lands in the Altamaha River bottom.  But Lake Bluff stood downstream of the divergent channels.  Between the bluff and Doctortown were several old river course scars forming lakes in the swamp.

Work commenced on the works in December.  By the first of February, Beauregard ordered “two rifled 24-pounders and one smooth-bore 24 pounder for the battery on the Altamaha,” pulled from the lines at Charleston.  (Of note, Beauregard authorized the replacement of these guns in the Charleston lines by 8-inch guns captured with the USS Isaac Smith.)  One senses some urgency in the orders, coming shortly after the Federal attacks on Fort McAllister, for the arming of the Lake Bluff Battery.  By March, the works had two rifled and two smoothbore 24-pounder guns.

Lake Bluff remained in place and manned through the end of the war, in a rather quiet sector.  Later, a battery at Doctortown supplemented the Lake Bluff Battery, oriented to protect the bridge itself.  When General William T. Sherman took Savannah in December 1864, he dispatched General Joseph Mower’s Division along with cavalry under General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to wreck the SA&G RR line to Doctortown.  The force destroyed part of the Altamaha bridge, but was unable to reach Doctortown.   Apparently the Federals either ignored Lake Bluff or the Confederates had repositioned the guns to defend Doctortown, as no mention of the works appears in reports.

However, one of the guns which defended the Altamaha survives today.  After the war, the railroad recovered a 24-pdr gun and shipped it to Waycross, Georgia.  It remains there today, guarding the Confederate memorial.

The railroad line still crosses the swamps of the Altamaha, sitting upon the old right of way.  Visitors can drive their way down to a boat ramp at Morgan Lake to see the modern railroad trestle.  The site of Doctortown is now a paper mill and generally off-limits without permission.  But hardy battlefield stompers might venture out on a boat through the waterways to visit where Lake Bluff Battery stood.

The pin mark is my estimate of the location.  Several years back, Morgan Lake was one of my frequent fishing spots.  I spent a number of days in pursuit of bass and catfish in that section of the river.  The pin mark is on one of the few “high” spots in that bottom land – and is right at the “1 ½ miles below the Albany and Savannah Railroad” mentioned by Beauregard.

As a side note, Confederate fears of a raid up the river to destroy the bridge echoed around in 1942.  Fearing German saboteurs or raiding parties from U-boats, a local defense force and coastguardsmen kept watch on the bridge during World War II.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 695 and 758)

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