Tag Archives: P.G.T. Beauregard

Savannah’s Siege, December 19, 1864: “await orders for the attack” Sherman says

One of the hardest missions a military formation can perform is a withdrawal across a river in close contact with the enemy.  Such was the task for Lieutenant-General William Hardee on December 19, 1864.  As he and General P.G.T. Beauregard had already made the decision to evacuate the Savannah garrison.  They set the trigger for action on Federal movements – the moment any serious threat emerged, the evacuation would begin.  Such would satisfy the intentions expressed by authorities in Richmond, particularly to save the army.  For the plan to work, one important item had to be in place – a bridge over the Savannah River.  The escape route was not actually a single bridge, but rather a set of crossings and causeways into South Carolina, depicted in dark red on the map below, leading out of Savannah (ignore Carman’s blue lines for the moment):


Confederate engineers built a pontoon bridge from docks at West Broad Street (today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive… big “Oh, by the way”).  Reaching Hutchinson’s Island, a causeway over the rice fields connected to another bridge to Pennyworth Island. There another bridge reached the South Carolina shore.  A combination corduroy and causeway connected to the Union Causeway (I’m not 100% sure if the route was along the river as depicted on the map).  The engineering work suffered from delays as material was lacking.  Furthermore, egos among the engineers cause friction.  Eventually Beauregard would “use his stars” to push the work through that problem.  The bridge used rice barges and other watercraft found in Savannah. But it was a functioning bridge when completed late in the evening of December 19.

Major-General William T. Sherman was himself “using his stars” to deal with a tactical situation not up to his liking.  On the morning of December 19, he went down to King’s Bridge and caught a steamer to Port Royal in order to visit Major-General John Foster.  Sherman wanted a conference to see what more could be done to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  He left instructions for both wing commanders – Major-Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum – to “push the preparations for attacking Savannah with all possible speed, but to await orders for the attack.”

At King’s Bridge, Sherman noticed some difficulties with the detail provided to support offloading at the temporary port.  Brigadier-General John Sprague (Second Brigade, First Division, Seventeenth Corps) arrived to replace Colonel Benjamin Potts’ detail (First Brigade, Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps) at the bridge. Sprague did not detail sufficient troops for the job. So Sherman sent an “audible” addressing the problem:

On arrival at the bridge I found Colonel Potts’ brigade relieved by two regiments of General Sprague’s, containing less than 600 men. These are insufficient. I have ordered General Sprague back to his important post between Big and Little Ogeechee, and Colonel Potts’ brigade to remain for the present. As a permanent working party at King’s Bridge, the fairest way will be for each corps to send a regiment, of an average strength of 350 men, and each wing a working party of negroes, 100 each, to report to Colonel Beckwith, chief commissary. Please make your orders accordingly, and when they have arrived Colonel Potts’ brigade will be returned to its proper division. I may be absent, say, one or two days. You had better let General Sprague have a battery of four guns.

That was the directive. But before the order would circulate down the chain of command, Potts was in hot water with Major-General Frank Blair for not complying with orders.  More ink was wasted on January 19 resolving this matter than would be in dedicated to preparing the siege.  (I’ve always felt this episode deserved its own “staff ride stop” as an opportunity to show how administrative “audibles” can create unintended ripples.)

As the steamer taking Sherman to Port Royal entered the seaway, the general may have heard the sound of heavy artillery firing.  Lieutenant-Commander W.H. Dana on the USS Winona lead a force that included the USS Pawnee, USS Sonoma, and USS Flag up the Vernon River.  At 11:10 a.m., the Sonoma exchanged fire with Confederate batteries. Later in the afternoon, the gunboats moved closer and anchored “about 2¾ miles from Fort Beaulieu.”  The exchange of fire with Fort Beaulieu was brief, in the form of three 30-pdr Parrott rounds, but the Navy was starting the requested demonstrations.


Along the siege lines, Brigadier-General John Geary continued to advance preparations as directed.  Colonel Henry Barnum, commanding Third Brigade of Geary’s division, provided a detailed map with his report of the campaign showing the division sector:


After a morning conference at Twentieth Corps headquarters on the 19th, Geary continued preparations for the anticipated assault, “as soon as the heavy guns should be in readiness to open fire.”   Specifically:

Fort No. 1 was finished this evening. The details from First and Third Brigades continued work on the other forts during the night under a heavy artillery fire from the enemy. Several casualties occurred, among them Major [Myron] Wright, a most valuable officer, commanding the Twenty-nineth Ohio Volunteers, who was severely wounded by a shell.  Sloan’s battery of 3-inch rifled guns had already taken position in a work thrown up to the right of Fort No. 3 and in the open field.

Meanwhile, not far upstream from Geary, Colonel Ezra Carman was providing a perfect example of how to exceed orders and get away with it.  As ordered earlier, Carman sent a small detachment across to South Carolina on December 17.  Throughout the 18th he maintained and strengthened that position.  Orders for December 19 were to add more regiments to the “lodgement.”  So the remainder of the 3rd Wisconsin passed over, followed by the Second Massachusetts and Thirteenth New Jersey.

They landed without opposition and, advancing to and beyond Izard’s Mill, succeeded, after a slight skirmish, in securing a good position.  Deeming the force too inadequate to maintain its ground against the accumulating force of the enemy, the One hundred and seventh New York was sent over in the afternoon and succeeded in gaining an important point on the line.  So important did the enemy consider this position that they charged our forces with their cavalry

Not enough, Carman committed all of his brigade save a small rear guard.  In a message to his division commander, Brigadier-General Nathaniel J. Jackson, laced with “better to ask forgiveness than wait for permission” Carman reported on the developments:

I have the honor to report that the enemy have again opened upon our force across the river with artillery; and Colonel Hawley reporting that it was impossible to hold his position without more troops, I have moved the remainder of my brigade over, with the exception of three companies of the One hundred and fiftieth New York Volunteers, and have established my headquarters upon the South Carolina shore. I would also say that I need some intrenching tools if I am to remain there.

Carman got his entrenching tools and his brigade began to dig in to form a more a perimeter out of the “lodgement.”

The position occupied by the brigade was strong for defense, but the nature of the ground was such that an advance was difficult. It was a rice plantation, cut up by numerous dikes and canals, and the enemy had burned all the bridges over the canals and overflowed the whole plantation to a depth of eight to eighteen inches water, thus necessitating all our movements by the flank up these dikes, and they stood well prepared at these places to resist our advance. During the night I transported the two pieces of artillery across the river and put them in position in the center of the line. The line, as then formed and held by my brigade, was two miles and a quarter long, the left resting on the Savannah River near Izard’s Mill, the right on an inlet near Clydesdale Creek. During the night I caused earth-works to be thrown up at all the prominent points along the line, making my position as strong as possible.

Look at the first map above.  Carman’s men were very close to the pontoon bridge terminus on the South Carolina side (dark red).  His “lodgement” turned attack had provided Confederate commanders the trigger to start the evacuation of Savannah.  To protect the precious route out of the city, that evening Hardee dispatched around 650 men and six more artillery pieces to Major-General Joseph Wheeler in order to counter Carman’s thrust.

Carman had opened an opportunity to cut off the Confederate retreat.  But at that very moment the one man who could approve reinforcements to take advantage of the opportunity was on a steamboat heading into Port Royal.  Standing orders were “await orders for the attack.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 236, 279, 756, and 762; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 137.)

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,

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,

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.)


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.)