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.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 15, 1864: Slocum, Carman propose moving to the left

Under the classical definition of siege the attacker is required to surround a point or at least dominate all means of access into or out of the point.  But from the military standpoint, the siege begins with an investment, in which the attacker works to isolate the target, be that a city or other position held by the enemy.  In the Civil War context, with an investment complete, the attacker could formally demand the surrender.  Often just the threat of investment could prompt the defender to flee.

Returning from his visit with Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren on the USS Harvest Moon, Major-General William T. Sherman had these formal terms on his mind.  He felt, after the briefing from Major-General John Foster in regard to the Coosawhatchie sector, that he could make a case that investment had been achieved.  All routes on the Georgia side of Savannah were held by Sherman’s men.  Foster could, at least, bombard the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  That situation was the basis for the “on the map” argument that the Federals had an investment of Savannah.

Sherman spelled out his intent in messages to both Major-Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum, his wing commanders.  To Slocum, at around 2 p.m. on December 15, he wrote:

General Foster has 5,000 men near the Charleston railroad, north of Broad River, and near enough to the railroad to command it, so that he feels sure that cars cannot pass either way; but he has been unable to reach the railroad itself with his men, on account of the enemy’s force. The gun-boats and General Howard occupy all other avenues of approach to Savannah connecting with your right. Now, if you can close the Savannah River to navigation, and also get a force over the Savannah River to threaten in flank any dirt road leading out of Savannah, between the city and Coosawhatchie, the investment of the city will be complete and the enemy will have no escape.

Sherman went on to explain that he wanted to move up siege artillery as quickly as possible.  By using the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, the guns could be transported directly to the Left Wing’s position.  In addition, Sherman wanted Slocum’s

…batteries, which are nearest to the city, prepared to execute the foregoing plans, and he wants you to write him in full to-night any ideas that may have been suggested by your closer observation of the ground in your immediate front….

Slocum took a queue from this message.  Upon receipt at 5 p.m. he responded:

The heavy guns can be used to advantage in my front.  From my extreme left I can shell the city with the 3-inch gun.  I think I can safely place a force on the Carolina side of the river and gradually work my way opposite the city.

The artillery positions mentioned were in Brigadier-General John Geary’s sector.  However, as of that date, while Geary reported the Confederate fired an average of 300 rounds per day, he’d restrained the response back to sharpshooting.

However, it was on the Savannah River itself that most of the activity of the day took place.  Colonel Ezra Carman had slowly worked the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry across to Argyle Island.  On December 15, Carman pushed over the 2nd Massachusetts.


This move gave the Federals firm possession of the island.  Along with the two captured Confederate gunboats, this effectively sealed off the Savannah River upstream of Savannah, as intended by Sherman.  Furthermore, the Federals had possession of stores of rice and several rice mills.  But after going over to observe the progress himself, Carman was not satisfied with just rice.   Already he had patrols across the river onto the South Carolina side, meeting little resistance. He saw an opportunity. The road leading north out of Savannah, the Union Causeway through the ricefields and marshes, seemed within reach.

Returning to the mainland, Carman went to press his case up the chain of command.  At the 20th Corps headquarters he addressed both Brigadier-General Alpheus S. Williams and Slocum.  Impressed, Slocum agreed to reinforce the effort with the rest of Carman’s brigade and Battery I, 1st New York Artillery.  He also sent a report to Sherman at 9 p.m.:

I have two regiments on the Carolina shore north of Clydesdale Creek. To-morrow morning the remainder of the brigade, three additional regiments will endeavor to take the line from Clydesdale Creek to a point on the Savannah River opposite to Cruger’s Island, with orders to intrench on that line and feel forward toward the causeway road. With your consent I will try to place a division on the line marked 2 on the inclosed diagram. It will be necessary to move with some caution on that side; and, to render the position entirely safe, it may be necessary to throw an entire corps over, with instructions to intrench strongly.

Here is the map Slocum attached:


Clearly Slocum was ready to jump in with both boots.  If he followed by moving the Twentieth Corps, Howard would need to shift the right wing to the north as compensation.  But Slocum did practice some self restraint:

I shall go no further than to send a brigade over to take the line marked 1 until I hear from you; but I have no fear of placing a corps on that side; and this done the fate of the city is sealed.

Slocum did relate one concern.  The Confederates has, as of the day before, moved a gunboat up the Back River (to a point indicated as “B” on his map) to shell the Federal positions.  The Federal guns could not reply to this.

There is one additional point which escaped Slocum’s or Carman’s assessment (even when Carman detailed these events post-war).  The Confederates maintained several positions along the Union Causeway.  These were batteries erected years earlier fearing threats from Hilton Head.  While not substantial fortifications, these were sufficient to control the narrow means of access to the causeway.  Not to say these were unassailable. But that is to say the effort would require detailed planning (of the sort that brought success at Fort McAllister).

Sherman received Slocum’s note at around 11 p.m. In a response sent shortly after, he authorized the movement, but limited to only one brigade,

… and instead of threatening south toward the Union Causeway, rather let it threaten eastward toward the road marked as running up toward Augusta on the east side of the Savannah River, seemingly threatening in flank the movement of troops attempting to escape from Savannah.

Sherman promised to explain his intent in person the next day.  But, “A messenger is just arrived from General [Ulysses S.] Grant with dispatches of importance.” The message, carried by Colonel Orville Babcock, began:

On reflection since sending my letter by the hands of Lieutenant [William] Dunn* I have concluded that the most important operation toward closing the rebellion will be to close out Lee and his army. You have now destroyed the roads of the South, so that it will probably take three months, without interruption, to re-establish a through line from east to west. In that time I think the job here will be effectually completed. 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, and, at the same time, so threaten the interior that the militia of the South will have to be kept at home. With the balance of your command come here by water with all dispatch.

Grant indicated Sherman was to move north in person to command his forces.  The message was sent in context of the rising frustrations with Major-General George Thomas at Nashville.  Though he left some room to be convinced otherwise, Grant wanted Sherman close to him for a final push in Virginia.

With Grant’s message, Sherman faced an entirely new situation.  The armies that had arrived outside Savannah could not become engaged in siege operations, lest they become pinned down.  The last things these new orders would allow would be a flanking operation into South Carolina.  More than anything the Confederates could do, the change in tone from the General-in-Chief put a damper on what Carman might do north of the city.

Note – The message sent by way of Lieutenant Dunn was that awaiting Sherman at Hilton Head, sent on December 3 and received on December 14 while with Foster and Dahlgren.  The message sent by way of Babcock was sent on December 6 and as mentioned above, received on December 15.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 636 and 718-21.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 14, 1864: Though not marching, the march was not “over”

In some high-level discussion of the events of late 1864, you will see the March to the Sea concluded with something like “Sherman’s men stormed Fort McAllister… … … then he gave Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.  The End.”  But a week passed between the storming of Fort McAllister and the surrender of Savannah.  And a lot happened in that interval.  Indeed, Major-General William T. Sherman might have considered Savannah “already gained” as of the evening of December 13, but even he knew better than to proclaim it so.  Writing to Washington at his first opportunity, he took the time to explain his overall scheme, “… if General Foster will prevent the escape of the garrison of Savannah and its people by land across South Carolina, we will capture all.”  Sherman planned to bring up siege guns, from Major-General John Foster’s ample ordnance yards at Hilton Head and then demand the surrender of Savannah.

But that would take time, which for the moment Sherman had plenty of.  Aside from bringing up the heavy guns, Sherman needed to replenish his supplies, particularly fodder for the animals.  And for a siege, even a short one, the armies would need munitions stockpiles beyond what was carried on the march.  In addition, there were some movements needed on the periphery in order to maintain the hold on Savannah.  Looking at the pieces as they sat on the “big map” on December 14:


Foster had a division of troops confronting the Charleston & Savannah Railroad at Coosawhatchie, where Major-General Samuel Jones’ scratch force managed to cling to the line. However, I must stress again, that link, while important, was not the only passage way out for the Savannah garrison.  But it was somewhat a “leaning domino” in the situation.

Major-General Joseph Wheeler maintained a vigilant screen on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.  His presence, it was hoped, would prevent a Federal dash north to link up with Foster.  At that moment, a regiment or so from Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade, were occupying Argyle Island.  Though small, this was a threat towards the Confederate escape route from Savannah.  However, it seemed, as the week went on, Carman was the only Federal leader to appreciate that opportunity.

To the south of the Savannah siege lines, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry were roaming freely across Bryan, McIntosh, and Liberty Counties.  Colonel Smith Atkins men had established contact with the Navy in St. Catherine’s Sound.  Kilpatrick reported the vessel to be the USS Octorara.  But that cannot be true, as that vessel was in Mobile Bay at the time.  Rather it was the USS Fernandina which was assigned that section of coastline.   Though Kilpatrick suggested establishing a base of supply on the Medway River, that was overtaken by events on the Ogeechee to the north.

Kilpatrick’s other brigade, under Colonel Eli Murray, occupied the historic community of Midway as columns advanced in several directions.  The 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry rode down the Savannah & Gulf Railroad with an aim to destroy the bridge over the Altamaha River.  Colonel Thomas Jordan, commanding the regiment, “found the enemy (two regiments of infantry and artillery) too strongly posted to attack them.” Instead Jordon burned several smaller trestles and bridges running through the swamps leading to the river.


In the lines outside Savannah, Brigadier-General John Geary’s men were active along the Savannah River.  On the 13th, Geary complained about Confederate sharpshooters operating on Huchinson’s Island.  He sent a detachment of the 134th New York, under Major William Hoyt, to clear the upper end of Huchinson’s Island that afternoon.  To complete the coverage of his river flank, Geary brought up Battery E, Pennsylvania Light artillery, under Captain Thomas Sloan, and their 3-inch rifles.   The battery occupied a position low on the river bank, but with a clear view of the river channel, Huchinson’s Island ricefields, and the South Carolina shore.  Throughout December 14th, the Confederates bombarded the lines in Geary’s sector.  At 10 a.m. “one of the enemy’s gun-boats came up on the high tide in Back River, the other side of Hutchinson’s Island….”  This caused several casualties, but with the change of tides, the gunboat withdrew.

Elsewhere along the lines, the troops of both sides settled in to the monotony which epitomizes a siege.  Other than local reconnaissance and small adjustments to lines, very few were willing to press a general engagement.  Federal veterans of the long summer months outside Atlanta were content to let the situation develop. Typical of the activity during this stage is that recorded by Brigadier-General John Corse, Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps:

No effort was made to assault the enemy’s lines, which were separated from ours by the north branch of the Little Ogeechee and the rice swamps that abound on either bank of that stream.

Another reason for Federal inactivity on December 14th was the absence of two-thirds of the senior commanders.  Although Major-General Oliver O. Howard returned to his headquarters that day, Sherman spent the night on board Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren’s flagship USS Harvest Moon.  This set a pattern repeated over the next week, which would put Sherman afloat more than on dry land.  Such would leave him somewhat detached from the day-to-day operation of the armies.  However this was for the most part unavoidable.  The one “lose string” that Sherman needed to bring in was Foster’s operations.  And at the same time, Sherman needed to be in position to best correspond with superiors up north.  But his time afloat would leave a void not compensated by the presence of his two wing commanders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 128, 278, 388, 701-2.)