Category Archives: American Civil War

Savannah’s Siege, December 17, 1864: Savannah to be defended, but not “to the sacrifice of the garrison”

Yesterday I focused on the correspondence between Major-General William T. Sherman and his superiors in Washington.  As we saw, Sherman’s orders governed his actions with respect to the siege of Savannah, and thus the overall success or failure of the March to the Sea.  Ordered to withdraw the armies and head for Virginia by boat, Sherman, quite properly, avoided any movements that might commit his force to a long siege.  Instead, he looked for a means to gain the surrender of Savannah without protracted or bloody effort.  The “down shift” of the siege efforts was, unfortunately, a byproduct of slow communications with Washington.  Within a few days, Sherman would receive a green light to push forward.

But none of this happened in a vacuum. On the Confederate side, decisions were also made in regard to the defense of Savannah.  Just as Sherman turned on word from Washington, the decisions for Confederates factored guidance from  authorities in Richmond.  Those on the ground in Georgia and South Carolina had to bring those in Richmond to understand the realities of the situation… apart from the wild speculations seen in the papers.

The crux of the matter was the question, “Should we hold Savannah?”  As Sherman’s columns neared the coast, Lieutenant-General William J. Hardee indicated he needed reinforcements if the intent was to hold the city.  In particular, in order to keep the corridor of communication open, Hardee requested, on December 4, 1864, 3,000 men for “the defense of the South Carolina railroad from Savannah to Charleston.”  Soon after that, as related earlier, the Federals pressed the railroad at Coosawhatchie.  Maj0r-General Samuel Jones came from Charleston to assume command of that threatened sector.  He also related the need for more men in order to hold open the corridor.

Into this situation, General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived in Charleston on December 7, after a round-about route, to take command of the forces opposing Sherman.  Among the first messages Beauregard passed to Hardee expressed caution:

Having no army of relief to look to, and your forces being essential to the defense of Georgia and South Carolina, whenever you shall have to select between their safety and that of Savannah, sacrifice the latter, and form a junction with General Jones, holding the left bank of the Savannah River and the railroad to this place as long as possible.

After meeting with Hardee on December 9, just before the Federals cut the railroad outside Savannah, Beauregard further cautioned:

It is my desire, after the consultation that has taken place, that you should hold this city so long as in your judgement it may be advisable to do so, bearing in mind that should you have to decide between a sacrifice of the garrison or city, you will preserve the garrison for operations elsewhere.

But this put Hardee in a predicament with multiple barbs to negotiate.  In the first place, to “hold” the city Hardee had to make preparations to keep his troops supplied in the city. Yet, that meant in the case evacuation was needed, those same stocks would need to be moved.  Another barb for Hardee was more that of appearances.  Earlier in the war, Confederate commanders were criticized for giving up cities and other strategic points when threatened.  With respect to Savannah, fresh in every mind was the surrender of Fort Pulaski in 1862.  The sense was Colonel Charles Olmstead had not given the appropriate level of resistance before surrendering the fort.  Hardee had to carefully weigh the situation, even given Beauregard’s cautionary notes.

As Sherman’s investment of Savannah developed, Beauregard pushed Richmond for reinforcements. On December 12, he wrote to General Samuel Cooper:

Lieutenant-General Hardee reports enemy developed in strong force along his entire front yesterday, and that he has been compelled to extend his lines. He asks for immediate re-enforcements.

And Beauregard was also quick to take steps ensuring the corridor out of Savannah was secured to the extent possible.  To Jones at Coosawhatchie, he wrote:

If the enemy be too strongly fortified in your front to be dislodged complete your own intrenchements, and send at once re-enforcements to New River, Red Bluff, and points east of Screven’s Ferry Causeway where enemy might land.

To those who’d been involved with the defense of South Carolina since late 1861, this was the “old game.”  The points mentioned were those protected in response to the Federal victory at Port Royal.  All previous efforts were deterred by posting forces at key points to dominate the narrow routes through the marshes.  Beauregard, who knew the sector well from his earlier tenure in command at Charleston, was effectively calling upon the old contingency plans.  But these were designed to protect against a foray from Hilton Head, not counting a threat from inland.  When Colonel Ezra Carman began pushing off Argyle Island, just such a threat was realized.  Directly opposing Carman’s probes into South Carolina was Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, commanding a brigade of Georgia cavalry under Major-General Joseph Wheeler.  On December 14, Young requested, and received, artillery to help check the Federals.

On December 13, as events unfolded at Fort McAllister, Beauregard received a response from President Jefferson Davis in regard to calls for reinforcements:

I have anxiously desired to send re-inforcements, but events have rendered it impracticable to add to those forwarded some time since.  Should a change of circumstances render it possible to do more no time will be lost in doing so.  Should the enemy’s fleet be detached for operations against Savannah the opportunity will be presented for our squadron at Charleston to assume the offensive, and perhaps to destroy his depot at Port Royal.

Given the state of the Charleston squadron, Davis clearly was moving pieces around the chess board that didn’t exist in reality.  At the same time, Cooper related a response from General Robert E. Lee regarding reinforcements, “As long as Grant retains his present force here I do not think [the Army of Northern Virginia] can be weakened.” Yet again the “not army enough” factor played into Confederate operations.

Back at the tactical level, on December 15, Hardee expressed stern warning to Jones:

Our occupation of Savannah depends on your ability to hold the railroad.  Whenever you are unable to hold the road I must evacuate. You must strengthen your position by throwing up works and by making strong abatis.  Inform me instantly if Foster is re-enforced by Sherman or otherwise.  I feel uneasy about my communications.

So let us follow the passing of the buck.  Richmond could offer no reinforcement, but wanted Savannah held.  Beauregard did not want to lose the garrison, but could not directly call for a withdrawal.  Hardee did not want to abandon Savannah without justification. And it fell to Jones to determine just when Savannah could not be held.  Into this came the “pass” which would guide (read “relieve”) those in local command to a tactical decision.  That came on December 17, from Cooper to Beauregard:

The spirit of your instructions to General Hardee relative to the defense of Savannah is approved.  It is hoped Savannah may be successfully defended, but the defense should not be too protracted to the sacrifice of the garrison.  The same remark is applicable to Charleston. We must rely upon your judgement to make the fullest possible defense consistent with the safety of the garrison.

More to the point, Davis, in a message directly to Hardee, directed “that you may then provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needed for the preservation of your army.”  This took Beauregard and Hardee off the horns of their dilemma.  Their prime task was to save the army.  With that in mind, Hardee and Beauregard examined the pressing threat from Agyle Island and made a decision that evening – Savannah would be evacuated.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 927, 940, 951, 953, 945, 962, and 963.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 16, 1864: “to take Savannah, if time will allow” Two messages that shape the campaign

Sometimes a campaign is decided by action, such as a daring assault or rapid march.  Other times, more often than not, a campaign turns on some written words, expressing intentions, which usher a chain of events.  Such is the case with the Savannah Campaign.  And those words were written down in two messages – one taken down in Savannah and the other in Washington.

From Major-General William T. Sherman’s perspective, the note he’d received in the evening of December 15, carried by Colonel Orville Babcock and dated December 6, shifted the ground under his feet.  An earlier message from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant hinted at follow-on campaigns through the Carolinas.  And it was more a solicitation of opinion, leaving Sherman free to attend to near term objectives, such as the capture of Savannah.  The second note, arriving in the night, was like a wet blanket on the fire.  Grant, less concerned about Savannah, wanted Sherman to move north, unless Sherman saw “objections to this plan.”

Sherman penned a lengthy response, which he sent on December 16.  While not direct objections, Sherman played the details of his compliance in such a way to offer subtle objections.  After acknowledging the receipt of both messages, Sherman explained his current dispositions:

… I have in person met and conferred with General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren, and made all the arrangements which I deemed essential to reducing the city of Savannah to our possession. But since the receipt of yours of the 6th I have initiated measures looking principally to coming to you with 50,000 or 60,000 infantry, and, incidentally, to take Savannah, if time will allow. At the time we carried Fort McAllister by assault so handsomely, with its 22 guns and entire garrison, I was hardly aware of its importance; but since passing down the river with General Foster and up with Admiral Dahlgren I realize how admirably adapted are Ossabaw Sound and Ogeechee River to supply an army operating against Savannah. Sea-going vessels can easily come to King’s Bridge, a point on Ogeechee River fourteen and a half miles west of Savannah, from which point we have roads leading to all our camps. …

Sherman over-rated the ability to resupply the armies by way of the Ogeechee, but he explained that foraging over the last month had collected ample supply.  Sherman went on to brag about the successful provisioning of the army during the march – doubling the number of cattle with the army, completely replacing worn out draft animals, and outfitting the cavalry with ample number of remounts.

To comply with Grant’s orders, Sherman dispatched his Chief Engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, to survey a defensive line across Bryan Neck, out from Fort McAllister.  But while waiting for transportation, Sherman would continue to menace Savannah.  In particular, he would get the siege guns in place to bombard the city.  However, Sherman did note his restraint in prosecuting the siege, specifically that operation proposed by Colonel Ezra Carman the previous day:

General Slocum occupies Argyle Island and the upper end of Hutchinson’s Island, and has a brigade on the South Carolina shore opposite, and he is very urgent to pass one of his corps over to that shore; but, in view of the change of plans made necessary by your order of the 6th, I will maintain things in statu quo till I have got all my transportation to the rear and out of the way, and until I have sea transportation for the troops you require at James River, which I will accompany and command in person.

Sherman suggested the best disposition for him to leave outside Savannah would be establishing Major-General John Foster with a force south of the Ogeechee.  He fretted over leaving his veteran infantry, but the cavalry under Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would stay.

Towards the end of his letter, Sherman turned to the pressing matters in Tennessee.  Sensing the situation outside Nashville was the cause of Grant’s orders, Sherman slighted Major-General George Thomas at the same time expressing hope for a positive outcome. “I know full well that General Thomas is slow in mind and in action, but he is judicious and brave, and the troops feel great confidence in him. I still hope he will out-maneuver and destroy Hood.”

Closing, Sherman again expressed his understanding of Grant’s orders and intent to comply, but added, “Our whole army is in fine condition as to health, and the weather is splendid; for that reason alone, I feel a personal dislike to turning northward.”

However, events in Nashville over December 15 and 16 caused Grant to reconsider his own orders of December 6.  Perhaps at the very moment Babcock arrived at King’s Bridge looking for Savannah, Grant sent a note to Major-General Henry Halleck in regard to Sherman:

Please communicate with Sherman, and direct him to send no troops from his army to Virginia until plan of campaign is fully agreed upon. My last instructions to Sherman contemplated his sending troops to operate against Richmond, retaining all his artillery, cavalry, and infantry sufficient to hold our base on the Atlantic secured by his campaign and to compel the enemy to retain there at least the force he now has against us. Also, that artillery can be sent from here to supply his wants.

The ground shifted under Grant’s feet!  Thomas’ initial success on December 15 indicated the beleaguered (from above and in front) Federal commander outside Nashville was prosecuting the successful turns long demanded by those in Washington.  Grant realized he had no need to leave Savannah off his list of priorities.  Without a single word from Sherman, Grant was then leaning back towards an operation through the Carolinas.

While Sherman was composing and forwarding his message of December 16, Halleck was sending a message refining Grant’s instructions, which I’ll quote in whole for effect:

Lieutenant-General Grant informs me that in his last dispatch sent to you he suggested the transfer of your infantry to Richmond. He now wishes me to say that you will retain your entire force, at least for the present, and with such assistance as may be given you by General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren, operate from such base as you may establish on the coast. General Foster will obey such instructions as may be given by you. Should you have captured Savannah, it is thought that by transferring the water batteries to the land side, that place may be made a good depot and base for operations on Augusta, Branchville, or Charleston. If Savannah should not be captured, or if captured and not deemed suitable for this purpose, perhaps Beaufort would serve as a depot. As the rebels have probably removed their most valuable property from Augusta, perhaps Branchville would be the most important point at which to strike, in order to sever all connection between Virginia and the Southwestern Railroad. General Grant’s wishes, however, are that this whole matter of your future action should be entirely left to your discretion. We can send you from here a number of complete batteries of field artillery, with or without horses, as you may desire. Also, as soon as General Thomas can spare them, all the fragments, convalescents, and furloughed men of your army. It is reported that Thomas defeated Hood yesterday near Nashville, but we have no particulars nor official reports, telegraphic communication being interrupted by a heavy storm. Our last advices from you was General Howard’s note announcing his approach to Savannah.

Grant was giving Sherman his own reins again.  And the suggestion was for Sherman to put pressure on the Carolinas, specifically Branchville.  What is important here in the context is that Halleck and Grant were receiving near real-time (for that day and age) updates from Nashville on which to base their decisions.  Meanwhile the lack of telegraph to Hilton Head meant those in Washington were working off a five day old note from Sherman’s command. And neither messages – that from Sherman, nor that from Halleck – would reach the intended readers for several more days.

In this gap of communications, Grant was uncharacteristically indecisive, even contradictory of himself.  That had an effect all the way down to a brigade commander who’d proposed a daring move which might have closed the Savannah Campaign with a loud note.  Instead, assuming caution, Sherman would look to other means in which to influence the tactical situation.  Knowing Foster’s troops would not be withdrawn, Sherman hoped to extract a deeper purchase at the Coosawhatchie.  The outcome of the Savannah Campaign was, I submit, determined by the words in Grant’s message of December 6 and confirmed by Sherman’s response on December 16.  Though successful in the end, the campaign’s result was less than what could have been.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 715 and 726-729.)

Supplies for Sherman’s Armies … to include whippletrees! Meigs’ unheralded role in the Savannah Campaign

Everybody is familiar with the cliche about amateurs studying tactics while the professional focus on logistics.  Sort of a quaint way of splitting off the conversation, as I can attest that professional military types tend to focus on all of the above.  With respect to the March to the Sea, there is again somewhat a series of ellipses in play – “Fort McAllister fell …  … Sherman was resupplied.”  And again, a lot had to happen in the middle of those ellipses.  The most prominent figure in that “middle” was this fellow:

Major-General Montgomery Meigs role as the Army’s Quartermaster-General is well known to Civil War enthusiasts.  But the nuts-and-bolts of his work is often overlooked as we delve into battles and campaigns.  Of course, none of those battles and campaigns would have been successful without his guiding hand to get supplies to the troops.  None was more apparent than the Savannah Campaign.

At the commencement of the campaign, Sherman’s intended endpoint was still up in the air.  Meigs met this with contingency planning.  He responded by staging supplies at Pensacola and Port Royal.  But as it became apparent Savannah was the destination, Meigs devoted transportation towards Port Royal, coordinating with Major-General John Foster in that regard.  Furthermore, Meigs initial estimates were based on 30,000 men.  By December 6, he’d increased that factor to 60,000.  He ordered forage sent in daily increments to support 30,000 animals.  And anticipating the need to re-equip the force, he forwarded a substantial amount of clothing and equipment:

Clothing.—30,000 sack coats; 30,000 trowsers; 60,000 shirts; 60,000 pairs drawers; 60,000 pairs socks; 100,000 pairs shoes and boots; 20,000 forage caps; 10,000 greatcoats; 20,000 blankets, unless this number has already been shipped; 10,000 waterproof blankets.

Equipage.–10,000 shelter-tents; 100 hospital tents; 10,000 knapsacks; 20,000 haversacks; 10,000 canteens; 2,000 camp kettles; 5,000 mess pans; 5,000 felling axes, two handles each; 1,000 hatchets, handled; 2,000 spades; 2,000 picks.

You will also send the following quartermaster’s stores:
Transportation.–Wheel harness for 400 mules; lead harness for 800 mules; 10,000 pounds bar-iron, assorted; 5,000 pounds steel; 1,000 pounds harness leather; 40 sets shoeing tools and 40 extra hammers; thread, wax, needles, awls, &c., for repairing harness; 500 pounds wrought nails; 20 buttresses; 200 horse rasps; 100 large files, assorted; 50 shoeing knives, extra; 4,000 pounds manilla rope, assorted; 15,000 bushels smith’s coal (this coal will be ordered from Washington); 200 extra wagon wheels; 50 extra ambulance wheels; 100,000 pounds horse and mule shoes; 10,000 pounds horse and mule shoe-nails.

If Sherman’s march failed, it would not be for want of a nail!  No detail escaped Meigs’ eye.  To Colonel Herman Biggs, Quartermaster in Philadelphia, he directed:

You will send to Port Royal, to Maj. C. W. Thomas, the following quartermaster’s stores (probably they can be taken on board one of the light-draught steamers built by Messrs. Cramp & Sons, which I suppose to be ready to sail): 50 extra king bolts; 500 linch pins; 200 wagon tongues; 400 extra whippletrees; 50 double trees, ironed ready for use; 100 coupling poles; 200 front hounds for wagons; 100 hind hounds for wagons; 200 mule hames, ironed ready for use; 200 mule collars; 500 wagon bows; 100 wagon whips; 1,000 open links, for repairing trace chains; 500 open rings; 100 water buckets.

Everything, to include those Whippletrees, if the need arose to move these supplies over rough roads and long distances.

On December 15, Meigs sent a message to Sherman, starting:

I congratulate you on your successful march. You have made the greatest and most remarkable marches of the war, and have demonstrated several times that an army can move more than twenty-five miles from a navigable river or railroad without perishing. We have been shipping supplies for you, and I hope that you will have abundance of all necessaries, though I have been somewhat uncertain as to your numbers.

After explaining the supplies stocked at Port Royal, Meigs went on to point out a deficiency which could not be resolved:

I presume that you have more animals now than when you started, and I desire to call your attention to the difficulty, as well as the expense, of furnishing a large army with forage on the Atlantic coast. With all the exertions of the forage officer of this department, with a practically unlimited command of money, he has not been able to accumulate at Washington and at City Point enough long forage for the armies in Virginia to meet a few days’ interruption by storm or ice. We can supply grain enough, but there is always a short supply of hay. … Still the armies complain of short allowance of hay. If you have more animals than you need for intended operations they should be sent off to some point where the country can subsist them, or else you will, I fear, lose many by the diseases resulting from constant feeding on grain without enough long forage.

Forage was already a concern outside Savannah, and opening the supply lines would not address the full need.

Another issue arose with the transportation between Port Royal and the Ogeechee.  Once teams cleared the obstructions and torpedoes (no small task, and one I’ll touch upon later), the Ogeechee was open for ships of light draft.  But for some time Foster had complained about lacking sufficient numbers of vessels of that type.  Until Savannah itself, or another deep water port were opened, Meigs prepared six steamers then on the Chesapeake for movement to Hilton Head. But those would not arrive for a week or more.  In the mean time, the existing fleet, in small numbers, was pressed into service.  For every load of rations, the steamers traveled down from Hilton Head to the Ogeechee, thence up the river.  From King’s Bridge, the supplies were transferred to wagons or barges for distribution throughout the line.  A time consuming task.

Yes, Sherman had established his “cracker line” of supply from the sea.  And, yes, Meigs had staged ample quantities of those supplies (save fodder) to support the force.  But there were still issues to resolve, as of December 15, 1864.  Many of these, of course, could be resolved much easier if the Federals had possession of Savannah and those fine, deep-water docks.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 637-8 and 715-6.)