Author Archives: Craig Swain

Sacking Liberty County: “I pray not for revenge upon you, but I pray daily for deliverance from you”

Of all the areas visited by Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies on the March to the Sea (save perhaps Atlanta itself) Liberty County, Georgia had the worst experience. While other places along the march experienced “Yankees” for at most a few days, the foragers remained in Liberty County for nearly two months – from the arrival of Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick on December 13, 1864 until the departure of the armies from Savannah.   Before I discuss the impact this had on the civilians in the county, let me establish the nature of the military activities.

Mentioned in earlier posts, Kilpatrick’s cavalry began operations out of Midway on December 13.  Colonel Eli Murray, commanding the Cavalry Division’s First Brigade, described the Confederate reaction in his official report:

The rebel Colonel [Arthur] Hood, commanding the district composed of the counties of McIntosh, Liberty, and Screven [Wayne?], was greatly discomforted by our presence.  His men, stationed at Sunbery, Dorchester, Riceborough, and Station No. 3, were totally demoralized and fled, reckless of organization, to the Altamaha bridge, whenever attacked.

Further down the coast, the Navy also made patrols and raids on Confederate picket posts which further stretched the defenders thin. On December 15, Acting Ensign Walter Walton from the USS Dai Ching led a five boat expedition up the Big Satilla River searching for a Confederate force reported in the vicinity of Satilla Mills (Point #1 on the map below).   Walton encountered only mention of Confederate forces, indicating the coastal patrols had also withdrawn inland.

MarchDec18Liberty_Altamaha

Although a portion of Brigadier-General Alfred Iverson’s cavalry division would swing down a few days later, Confederate resistance in Liberty County from that point on was fleeting at best. Federals then went to work on several targets – the Savannah & Gulf Railroad, the Altamaha Bridge, and the lush forage across an area of rich plantations.   On the afternoon of December 13, the cavalry made calls on plantations around Riceboro (Point #2)

To destroy the railroad, the divisions of Brigadier-General William B. Hazen (Fifteenth Corps) and Major-General Joseph Mower (Seventeenth Corps) were given sectors.  Hazen’s men started their work on December 17 and covered from Walthourville (Point #3) back to the Ogeechee River.  For five days they worked over that twenty miles of rail in a methodical but relaxed pace.

Mower had to wreck the line from Walthourville out to the Altamaha River, to include the bridge (Point #4) near Doctortown.  Federal cavalry first struck for the Altamaha Bridge on December 14, but found the approach difficult.  So on December 17, Mower brought first and third brigades of his division along with a section from Battery C, First Michigan Artillery.  Working with Colonel Smith Atkins’ brigade of cavalry, Mower’s column reached a point eight miles from the bridge on December 18.  The following day Mower sent Atkins to destroy the bridge:

I directed him to destroy the bridge and a trestle-work leading to it. He succeeded in destroying the trestle-work, but it was found impracticable to approach the bridge, as the enemy had two redoubts on this side which it was impossible to get at, there being a deep swamp all around them. There were also two 32-pounder rifles on the opposite side of the Altamaha enfilading the bridge, and a locomotive, with a gun on it, which the enemy used at this end of the bridge. My orders being imperative to return in five days I was obliged to desist from the attempt at destroying the bridge, as it was utterly impossible to get at it without occupying at least two more days’ time. The destruction of the trestle-work, however, renders the bridge useless to the enemy. I therefore returned to camp, where I arrived on the 21st, having marched eighty miles and destroyed eighteen miles of railroad in five days.

The redoubts mentioned were those at Doctortown, on the southwest side of the river from the bridge.   Below is a view from the Confederate position looking towards the swampy bottom lands.  The railroad crosses Morgan Lake, an old river meander, about a mile east of the bridge.  It was there, and at several other points in the swamp, that Atkins burned the trestles.

Altamaha Br 3

My photo was taken in the mid-1990s.  There are some recent views of the site, taken during a reenactment in 2008, on Flickr.  But you get the gist of this action in one view. There was simply no way for the Federals to get at the far side of the bridge without making a lengthy detour.  For which, Mower had no time.

But Hazen’s and Mower’s were not the only infantry columns operating in Liberty County at that time.  Forager detachments from the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth Corps ranged through Liberty County beginning on December 16.  One of those parties, from Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps, ran into some of Iverson’s troopers at Hinesville (Point #5) that day.  Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Perrin, 7th Illinois Infantry, reported a mounted detachment from his command engaged there, resulting in one Confederate casualty.  But this proved to be the exception to the rule.  Most of the foraging parties met no resistance.

Offering a “bookend” to all these Army maneuvers, another Naval party, including 43 men and a boat howitzer, led by Acting Master I.A. Pennell of the USS Ethan Allen, went twenty miles up the Altamaha River on December 20 to attack a Confederate picket post (Point #6).  This foray encountered and captured a seven man detachment.  While waiting for the tides, a sixty man cavalry detachment arrived and attacked the sailors.  Pennell reported:

Soon as the tide flowed enough to float the launch within range, I threw shell and grape into the houses in which they were secreted, causing them to fall back to the woods, out of range.

With that, Pennell withdrew with his prisoners and seven escaped slaves, though he reported one man wounded due to a weapons accident.  The skirmish did indicate the Confederate cavalry had remained in force along the Altamaha, much to the detriment of those living north and east of the river.

One of the most prominent civilians in Liberty County was 55-year-old Mrs. Mary Anderson Jones Jones.  The widow of Reverend Dr. Charles Colcock Jones, she owned three plantations across the county.  When the Federals advanced into the county, she was in the process of hiding much of her property.  Instead she had to hold up at her Montevido Plantation outside Riceboro. There she and her family suffered through several waves of Federal foragers. In her journal entry for December 22nd, she wrote:

I have often said to the enemy: “I pray not for revenge upon you, but I pray daily for deliverance from you”; and always felt amid my deepest distress: “Oh, if my country was but free and independent, I could take joyfully the spoiling of my goods!”

The events of December 1864 and January 1865 would leave Liberty County in devastated and bare.  Though in some regards, it was turned over as if  a freshly plowed field.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 150, 372; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 136; Myers, Robert Manson, and Charles Colcock Jones. The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972, page 1233. )

Savannah’s Siege, December 18, 1864: “90 or 100 men, in small boats, to effect a lodgement”

Over the last couple of days, posts have focused at the operational, or theater, level to show the implications of orders coming down from Washington and Richmond.  While that was occurring, the tactical situation remained somewhat static.  But with some notable exceptions.  Let me run through those dispositions and movements for December 16 through 18, 1864, looking at the “big” map to start:

MarchDec18

Major-General William T. Sherman planned to have the siege guns borrowed from the Department of the South in place by December 20.  In the interim, he ordered preparations made for assaulting the works, including facines.

But the pressing matter, in Sherman’s mind, was the isolation of Savannah.  Hardee had boasted, in his reply to the surrender demand, of communications back to Richmond (which was true).  In an explanation to Washington, Sherman discounted this by pointing out Foster’s guns could range that line.  On December 17, Brigadier-General John Hatch, in command near Coosawhatchie, reported, “We got a battery in position last night bearing on the bridge; have not opened with it, as we hope to catch a train crossing this morning.”  But such was not good enough. Sherman was determined to get more from Foster… and Foster would push Hatch, replying on December 18:

I… am pleased that you have pushed your batteries up and, in a measure, stopped the running of the trains. I am not, however, fully satisfied with the damage we are doing them, and therefore want you to take the railroad, if you can, and destroy it; if you cannot do this, be sure and secure such an artillery fire as will destroy any train that attempts to pass.

Foster suggested a further move to the right, passing over Tullifinny Creek, to strike at Pocotaligo.

While waiting on the guns to get in place, both outside Savannah and on the Coosawhatchie, Sherman also inquired with subordinates in regard to possible demonstrations or flanking movements that might be performed (indicated with dashed lines on the map, and keyed).  One option (#1) was a demonstration against the Rosedew and Coffee Bluff Batteries by Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Along with that, Howard also explored a movement directly on the works at the extreme left of the Confederate lines.  Another (#2) would be a combined army-navy force up the Vernon and Burnside Rivers.  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was prepared to allocate mortar schooners and gunboats to this effort.  A third (#3 on the map) option was a movement against the causeway leading north from Savannah.  This last was less well defined in concept and would also be a joint operation.

Not everything focused on Savannah.  To the south, the Federal Right Wing, along with Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry, were working over Liberty County.  Leaving three regiments behind at Fort McAllister, Brigadier-General William B. Hazen assigned each brigade of his division to wreck a section of the Savannah & Gulf Railroad from Walthourville back to the Ogeechee.  Major-General Joseph Mower led two brigades of his division (Seventeenth Corps), accompanied by a section of Battery C, 1st Michigan Artillery, further down the line to destroy the bridge over the Altamaha River.  Recall the cavalry attempted to gain that bridge earlier only to find it too well defended.  By the evening of December 18, Mower destroyed the railroad up to a point eight miles short of the bridge.  These railroad wrecking operations were the main efforts in Liberty County.  Elsewhere cavalry and infantry foraged widely. In fact, over the next weeks, the Federals would practically clean out the county.  And while this was going on, the Navy staged several raids along the coast into adjacent counties.  (I’m planning a post aimed at the operations around Liberty County as there are some well documented military-civilian interactions and quite a bit of story to contemplate.)

However, it was along the Savannah River that Federal movements caught the most attention from Confederates.  On December 16, Colonel Ezra Carman received orders to cross his brigade from Argyle Island to South Carolina.  Scheduled for the 17th, those orders carried considerable caution.  Carman was to use only small boats until a perimeter was established on the far shore.  But most important, the orders had a leash attached, as Brigadier-General Alpheus S. Williams directed, “after you have crossed, you occupy and hold a position near the river, not attempting to advance far into the country.”

MarchDec18Argyle

Yet, before dawn on the 17th, that order was countermanded.  Instead, Carman was to send “90 or 100 men, in small boats, to effect a lodgement, if possible, and feel the enemy’s position.”  Williams went into detail to ensure Carman did not misunderstand the intent:

He [Williams] wishes him [Carman] to take only such force as can be readily brought back in the case the enemy is too strong for them.  He also desires that Colonel Carman will send reconnoitering parties up the island, to examine the country and channel, and see if a crossing can be effected farther up the river; it may, perhaps, be well to send a small boat or two with this party.  The two pieces of artillery will be put in position near the mill [on Argyle Island], as directed in the former order.  The general desires to have one-half of the flat-boats brought to this side of the island, the other half to be kept on the north side, in vicinity of the mill, where they can be sheltered as much as possible.

Carman responded by selecting Colonel William Hawley to command a detachment of the 3rd Wisconsin – who’d been at the vanguard of all these river operations – to make the trip back into South Carolina.  This must have seemed the extreme of caution for Hawley and Carman, as foraging parties had already crossed the river several times in the previous days.  Still, there were snags in this movement, perhaps vindicating Williams’ caution … or because of Williams’ caution – as Carman recorded in his official report:

December 17, I found it impossible to cross 100 men in small boats, not having enough for the purpose, and the low state of the tide not warranting the use of the large barges.  Nothing special occurred during the day, save a desultory fire on our position by a light battery of General Wheeler’s cavalry command, which had now taken up position on the South Carolina shore opposite us.

Carman maintained that “lodgement” on the 18th, “with slight shelling from General Wheeler’s guns.”  Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, with his Georgia cavalry reinforced by two sections of artillery, were busy keeping Carman’s lodgement contained.

As things stood on the evening of December 18, Sherman was just short – in some places just yards – of isolating Savannah from the rest of the Confederacy.  At the same time, the Confederates were just hours away from extracting themselves from that predicament.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 236, 734-5, 739, 750.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 17, 1864: “I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city….”

On December 17, 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman determined the time was right to formally press his opponent in Savannah, Lieutenant-General William Hardee.  So in the morning Sherman sent over a flag of truce with this message:

General William J. Hardee,
Commanding Confederate Forces in Savannah:

General: You have doubtless observed from your station at Rose dew 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 preposition 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. I inclose you a copy of General Hood’s demand for the surrender of the town of Resaca, to be used by you for what it is worth.

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
W. T. Sherman,
Major-General.

Inclosed was, as indicated, a copy of Lieutenant-General John. B. Hood’s demand presented to the Resaca garrison earlier in the year. The text of that read:

I demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of the post and garrison under your command, and should this be acceded to, all white officers and soldiers will be paroled in a few days. If the place is carried by assault no prisoners will be taken.

Hardee’s response, written in the afternoon of the 17th but not received until the following morning, read:

Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman,
Commanding Federal Forces, near Savannah, Ga.:

General: 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 your 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.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. J. Hardee,
Lieutenant-General.

Verbal volleys added to the growing amount of ordnance thrown by both sides on the lines outside Savannah.

As Hardee’s reply was making its way across the lines, he and General P.G.T. Beauregard were already making decisions as to how the evacuation of the city should be performed.  On the 18th Beauregard issued a memorandum which detailed anticipated troop movements.  Specifically, he earmarked portions of the Savannah garrison to man lines across South Carolina to include Charleston.  Major-General Lafayette McLaws was to take command of the defenses of James Island under the plan.  But not until the 19th did Hardee issue a confidential circular detailing the withdrawal.

Of course, neither side had a full measure of the other’s intentions as the sun sat on December 17.  But for all practical matters, the only question was if Hardee could extract his command before Sherman closed the door.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 737-8.)