December 1864 – “The employment of slaves in the army should be guarded with the greatest caution”: Arming slaves in South Carolina?

As the last days of 1864 passed, the situation in South Carolina turned ever more desperate.  The “invader” had always been along the coast, as blockaders or the Federal garrisons on the islands.  But with the fall of Savannah, a large army was in position to cross into the state. If even a hope of defense was to be mounted, South Carolina needed troops.  Yesterday I mentioned correspondence between Governor Andrew MacGrath and Richmond, in which the governor stated he was reorganizing the militia.  Running in the Charleston Courier on December 31, 1864 were special orders from MacGrath relating legislation passed in this regard:

The Legislature of South Carolina has declared that all free white men between the ages of sixteen and sixty years, not already in Confederate service, shall be liable to militia service.

The city of Charleston requires for its defense all within its limits who are between these ages. This service is for the defense of our state.  It cannot be declined except by those who are unwilling to defend that State whose forces protect them….

For this service there are no exemptions: none will be allowed except under special circumstances.  Certificates of disability, or other causes, consequence of which exemptions have been hitherto granted, will not be regarded…. If there are company not true to our State, they have no proper place among those who now prepare for its defense.

But the state needed more than just able and willing free whites.  Earlier in the month the State Legislature passed an act revising the system to requisition slave labor for work on the defenses.  This had been a long running issue between the state and military authorities (and as I’ve written before, there were never enough slaves employed for the work required).  The act allowed for impressment of up to one-tenth of the state’s male slaves from the ages of 18 to 50 years.  The term of impressment would last up to twelve months.  While thus employed, the slaves would receive rations, clothes, shoes, and a hat.  The owners would be paid $11 per month.  To comply with this regulation, owners were instructed to transport their slaves to centralized collection points.  The Commissioner of Roads, state agents, and local sheriffs were empowered to enforce this law.  As with previous laws governing the impressment of labor, the state, and not the Confederate authorities, were enforcing the rules.

But there was one measure that South Carolinians remained reluctant to adopt.  Governorn MacGrath had referenced proposals made in Richmond with respect to arming slaves. The Legislature’s Committee on Confederate Relations took up discussion of the matter.  On December 27, their report appeared in the Charleston papers.


The committee reported:

That, in their opinion, the employment of slaves in the army should be guarded with the greatest caution. That this practice has become a regular one in the armies of our enemy, is scarcely an argument for its introduction among us; for it is clear that every slave captured and so employed in the military services of the United States is to them a positive gain, adding to their strength in one department and detracting nothing from their resources in any other, while with us the labor thus secured to one branch of the service is a positive withdrawal of the same amount of labor from the equally important field of supply and production.  And your Committee are further of opinion that it is a matter of very doubtful expediency to intrust the wagon-trains of an army entirely to negro teamsters. …

The committee approved continuing the practice of employing slaves for military projects. But only within the established constructs – impressment with compensation.  Beyond that, the Committee said:

But in thus consenting to the use of negro labor to the extent and for the purpose indicated it is with the distinct understanding that such slaves shall be employed in duties other than those which are the province of the soldier, and that in all such employment their service status shall be clearly and steadily preserved; for your Committee cannot but express their decided disapproval of the plan recommended by the President in his recent message, by which the Confederate Government is to become the purchaser of forty thousand negros, who are to be declared free at the expiration of their term of service.

Emphasis above is mine.  The Committee justified this stance:

Your Committee can find nowhere in the Constitution the slightest shadow of power, either express or implied, to make such purchase or declare such emancipation, and they are satisfied it is in direct violation of its spirit, which wisely and explicitly commits all the social and domestic relations and institutions of the Southern people to the care and charge of the individual States.

The report went on to observe that emancipation under the system proposed by the Confederate government rested “on no principle, and to offer no practical advantages.”  Among the objections raised was the status of freedmen after the war.  “If emancipated as freedmen, they would either have to be employed in the dock-yards, arsenals and other industrial establishments of the Government, or they would have to be remanded to the States whence they were taken.”  So, regardless of what was being said in Richmond, at the state level, emancipation was not an acceptable measure… even with the world crashing all around.

Closing the report, the Committee offered several resolutions, of which three are worth mention here:

Resolved, That if, in the opinion of those authorized and competent to decide the employment of slaves in the army as laborers, servants, hospital attendants, teamsters, or cooks will contribute to the military efficiency of the Confederate forces, the State will cheerfully and promptly furnish the quota which may be required; Provided, That in the discharge of such service, the servile status of the negro be maintained.

Resolved, That this State cannot consent to the proposition by which slaves so employed shall be purchased and declared free by the Confederate Government upon expiration of their term of service, because the creation of such as class would involve the most delicate and dangerous questions as to the rights of the General Government on subjects belonging to the exclusive control of the individual States.

Resolved, That the plan recommended by the President, even if otherwise unobjectionable, confers its privileges unequally and unjustly and would compel, on the part of the State, in departure from the spirit and tenor of its steady and consistent domestic legislation for near half a century.

There you have the Doctrine of States Rights in play.  Be it this Committee in 1864 or the Secession Convention in 1860, the expression is clear – the State’s powers were above those of the central government, Federal or Confederate… and also above any individual, inalienable, rights. There are many conclusions to draw from the Committee’s report. Not the least of which is that Confederate Emancipation was not at any point, in conception or execution, equivalent to that offered by the United States starting on January 1, 1863.

(Citations from Charleston Mercury, December 27, 1864, page 1, columns 2-3; Charleston Courier, December 31, 1864, page 1, column 1.)

Watching for an ironclad sortie at Charleston, Dahlgren hoped to “capture the whole”

With the fall of Savannah, attention in the Department of the South turned to Charleston.  Among some Federal leaders there was concern the Confederates might feel the situation desperate enough to try a “go for broke” attack.

Throughout late November and early December 1864, there was some concern of a Confederate boat attack on Morris Island, along the lines of that proposed by Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley. But when Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig returned from leave, he discounted such rumors.  Reporting to Major-General John Foster, he indicated all was routine around Charleston.  However, Schimmelfennig did direct repairs to defensive arrangements which had been neglected.  In particular on December 26, he directed “dry brush to be piled up in front of the forts and batteries on [Morris Island] where the ground admits, at a distance of from 200 to 300 yards.…”  This brush, placed out past musket distance from the fortifications, would be set on fire in the event of a Confederate attack.  The intent was, with the brush so far out in front of the works, for it to illuminate the ground directly in front of the works and leave the attackers silhouetted and easy targets.

At the same time, the Navy was concerned the Charleston Squadron, chiefly the ironclad rams CSS Charleston, CSS Palmetto State, CSS Columbia and CSS Chicora, would sortie out of Charleston in an attempt to break the blockade.  After all, the CSS Savannah was preparing to make just such a breakout when Savannah fell.  Shortly after Christmas, Captain Gustavus H. Scott, senior officer on the blockade outside Charleston, suggested to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren that the Confederates were preparing for a breakout.  In response, Dahlgren took a break from matters at Hilton Head to visit the old front at Charleston.

Dahlgren felt secure the monitors on blockade duty at that time were sufficient to deal with the threat.  But he did remind the Navy Department that several of the monitors had been on station for quite some time.  That in mind, along with the growing possibility of an engagement, Dahlgren asked for replacements, “otherwise there is no small risk that one or two may become unserviceable.”

Coordinating with Schimmelfennig on December 29, Dahlgren downplayed any concerns:

Though I felt no apprehension as to the ability of the force here to maintain control of the anchorage, and even capture the rebel ironclads if they ventured out, yet, as I might be drawn in some other direction at the time, it seemed due to the perfect security of General Sherman’s base that no means should be omitted.  I have, therefore, reinforced the division, there are now seven monitors here, which I think places the question beyond doubt.

Seeking to coordinate for the contingency, Dahlgren related some of his thinking to the commander ashore:

In case the ironclads venture out, my plan will be to draw them as low down this anchorage as they will come, so as to make sure of the capture of the whole by making retreat impossible.

In such an event, will you please cause some of your heavy guns to be turned seaward, and scour the water with grape so as to clear out the torpedo boats which might be troublesome when engaged with the rams.

Having seen the defenses of Savannah up close, and concerned the Confederates might further improve the defenses of Charleston, Dahlgren added:

The rebels will, no doubt, endeavor to increase the obstructions in the harbor, and some grape or mortar shells at night from your guns near Johnson and the Middle Ground would stop them.  The naval battery will assist in this if you think proper.

After seeing the works about Savannah and the obstructions in the rivers (Savannah, Tybee, Vernon, and the Ogeechee), I am satisfied it was impregnable to any force in any direction save where it was assailed by General Sherman.

To Captain Scott, Dahlgren provided detailed contingency plans on December 31.  Scott was told to ensure the monitors and blockaders act in consort in the case of attack, and not as single units.  Particularly, Dahlgren wanted no monitors “separated from the main body before they can receive assistance.”  Altering the normal arrangements, Dahlgren specified that:

At night, if the weather is suitable, four monitors are to be pushed in advance, the other three in reserve at a convenient distance, and two of them may be allowed to draw fire under one boiler at a time to clean and repair, but even these vessels should be made available if an attack is made.

To counter torpedo boats and laying additional obstructions, Dahlgren called for alert picket boats (though without mention of a picket boat captured earlier in the month).  In the event of a torpedo boat attack, the monitors and the land batteries were to “scour the water with grape at intervals.”

In the event the ironclads moved out of the harbor, Dahlgren’s orders to Scott reflected the intentions voiced to Schimmelfennig:

It will be an object to draw them as much as possible under the fire of our land batteries, and to avoid exposing the monitors to their batteries…. The lower down the channel they can be drawn into action the less probable it will be that any escape.  If high up and beaten, they will find protection under their own batteries on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.

A sound plan.  But not one that would see a need. The Confederate squadron in Charleston was bottled up for similar reasons the Savannah Squadron had been doomed weeks before.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 819; ORN Series I, Volume 16, pages 151-4.)

“Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls”: Grim assessment from Governor MacGrath

Andrew Gordon MacGrath was among the leading secessionists in 1860.  Having resigned his position as a US District Court Judge after the 1860 elections, he played a role in the South Carolina secession convention.  Later he served briefly as the state’s Secretary of State.  And when the Confederacy was formally established, MacGrath was for all practical purposes re-instated to his judgeship, though for a “C.S.” instead of a “U.S.” district. At a rather ominous moment in the state’s, and the Confederacy’s, history, on December 18, 1864, the South Carolina General Assembly named MacGrath the Governor of South Carolina.

Within days of MacGrath’s assumption of the office, Savannah fell.  And the Federal forces there were poised to move into South Carolina next.  As his predecessor, MacGrath appealed to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond for assistance.   On Christmas Day, 1864, he sent a lengthy letter, by way of Colonel Henry Buist, to the Confederate president.  After opening pleasantries, MacGrath put in perspective what the loss of Savannah meant to South Carolina:

The fall of Savannah has, of course, very much affected the people of this State. The question which naturally presents itself is, why the force which penetrated Georgia cannot penetrate South Carolina. And at this moment it is not an unwillingness to oppose the enemy, but a chilling apprehension of the futility of doing so, which affects the people. I am endeavoring, and I will remove that chill and dispel that apprehension; but upon you must I rely for that material aid which will assist the people of the State to make good their determined opposition. As rapidly as it can be done I am reorganizing the militia; its effective force I cannot yet estimate–I hope larger than has been supposed. If you will send us aid (although for the moment it falls short of effectual aid), if it be that aid which now foreshadows other aid to come, that spirit can be vitalized which when aroused to a certain extent supplies the place of numbers, and is of itself strength.

So, after over three years of war at its doorsteps, South Carolina’s militia was still unorganized for defense of the state?  Recall the correspondence from the previous winter in which authorities in Richmond called into question the state’s practices in regard to conscription and recruiting for state regiments.

Having explained the measures he would take, MacGrath then requested support from Richmond.  Specifically he wanted the South Carolina brigade from the Army of Northern Virginia, and if possible the services of Major-General Joseph Kershaw.  But MacGrath knew the release of those troops was contingent on the list of priorities.  So he advanced is argument that Charleston was the most important of those priorities:

You, of course, are much better informed of the number of troops on our coast and in the city of Charleston than I am. You are also aware of the necessities at other points which may control you; but it is considered that the force on the coast is not sufficient to make effectual resistance to General Sherman. If that is so, Charleston falls; if Charleston falls, Richmond follows. Richmond may fall and Charleston be saved, but Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls. If now I urge upon you the concentration of all available strength for the defense of Charleston I will be acquitted of all selfish consideration when I venture to remind you that two years ago, when it seemed as if then a necessity was about to arise in which you would be forced to decide between Charleston and Richmond, I gave you then the assurance of my support, however feeble, in sustaining you in the destruction of Charleston if it would accomplish the end we then desired. Now, however, I presume that, as between these places, there is no doubt that, if unable to save both, Charleston is that which from every consideration we must prefer to save.

Tastes like a cold cup of coffee in the morning for those who’ve grown fond of “Lee’s Lieutenants.” The notion that Richmond was not the cornerstone of the Confederacy?  That it could be sacrificed?  What a difference perspective makes!

MacGrath again pressed for men to defend South Carolina:

To save it we must have troops. It is in this connection that I must bring also to your attention the vital consequence of attending at once to Branchville as a place to be fortified and to which troops should be sent. Its strategic importance I am sure is too manifest to require from me any urgency in bringing it to your notice. There are no works there which are of the slightest consequence. I understand surveys are now making; it is difficult to understand why they were not made before this time. You will not understand from this that I wish to indulge in censure or criticism, but to indicate to you that a position of the utmost consequence is not prepared for resistance to the attempt which may be reasonably supposed will be made to possess it. If that attempt should be successful our future will be greatly clouded.

From that point, MacGrath also picked at an “interfearance” of the Confederate government into the state.  Specifically he noted the number of “detailed men” working in important positions supporting the war effort, and thus except from militia service.

It matters little how they may be, except in this respect: that their absence from all appearance of military service by so much diminishes the influences with which I am now attempting to quicken and excite our people not only to effective resistance, but to that confidence in the success of that resistance which will assist me in my efforts and sustain them in their conduct.

MacGrath asked for a “show.” He wanted the detailed men to appear on public parade so their service was clearly shown to the people.  This, he felt, would undercut criticism and demonstrate no favoritism was in play.

Closing, MacGrath wrote:

These suggestions I make to you with the conviction that you will assist me in every way to develop now all of our resources to aid you in the task that is before you and us. There are other matters concerning which I will at an early day communicate with you.

MacGrath had inherited a problem.  And the nature of the problem was not altered as the office-holder changed.  There was little he, or Davis, could do to forestall the advance that would step forward from Savannah.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 986-8.)

Opening Savannah: Federal efforts to clear obstructions to the port

Once ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Allies put effort towards establishing port facilities.  Artificial harbors and over-the-beach delivery were helpful but inefficient.  What the allies needed was a deep water port where those fine Liberty ships could dock and disgorge supplies.  Cherbourg, captured weeks after the initial landings, was supposed to be the solution.  However, that port remained closed until mid-July due to mines and obstructions.  Most of the port was not cleared until September.  Leaving a closer examination of the logistics for a day when I have an “other” blog, let us just say opening Cherbourg to ocean going vessels was a necessary prerequisite for the offensives up to the German border.

In December 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman faced a similar issue with respect to Savannah, Georgia.  To resupply his army (or transport them elsewhere as Grant had briefly considered), Sherman needed port facilities.  And as it was in 1944, the preference was a dock-side accessible to ocean-going vessels.  Problem was, after three years of war, the main channels into the city were blocked by obstructions and torpedoes.  Furthermore, the left bank (South Carolina shore) of the Savannah River was still Confederate.  So while the exchanges over “Christmas gifts” played well in the papers (and likewise have given historians a nice place to conclude their coverage of the campaign), such was meaningless while barriers to the port of Savannah remained.

A temporary solution was, of course, using the Ogeechee River as had been planned during the short siege. During the days of mid-December 1864, when the dock at King’s Bridge was the only option for resupply, Federal engineers and naval officers directed efforts to clear the river.  In that task, they encountered a mix of  pike obstructions and torpedoes opposite Fort McAllister.


The clearing of these obstructions required careful work.  In some cases, crews in row boats secured lines around the obstructions.  Using those lines, the tugs or other vessels would then back the posts out of the mud.  In other cases, the best option was to cut the posts down.  The process was made more difficult by the need to handle the torpedoes with care.  By December 16, just three days after the fall of Fort McAllister, Federal steamers passed upriver to King’s Bridge.

Although the Ogeechee was open, as evidenced by ships in the photo above taken by Samuel Cooley from Fort McAllister, the shallow river only permitted vessels of light draft – drawing less than 12 feet – to pass.  The Federals were already desperately short on such light vessels.  The few that were allocated would work the route between Hilton Head, where the larger vessels could unload, and King’s Bridge.  While the dock there was useful for resupply, it was far too small for supporting the armies in Savannah along with the civilian population.

Shortly after the fall of Savannah, attention turned to opening the city docks themselves.  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was rightfully impressed with the Confederate defensive works, insisting to all that the Navy would have had great difficulty forcing its way up the Savannah River.  On December 22, just after the Confederate withdrawal, he took the opportunity to examine the obstructions in the Savannah River up close:

Arrived near the obstructions at 4 p.m. and anchored.  Truly, a formidable barrier; almost impassible and irremovable, save by great labor. Made up of coffers or cribs of heavy timber, filled with sand or brick, or stone and sand.

The obstructions mentioned appear on Captain Orlando Poe’s map of Savannah:


Though absent from the annotations are sets of Federal obstructions, closer to Fort Pualski, designed to keep the Confederates in Savannah.  Those too would need to be removed.

Clearly Sherman needed an alternative to the city docks while the Savannah River was cleared.  Who best to find such an alternative port?  The US Coast Survey had that lane.  On December 24, Assistant Charles Boutelle, of the Coast Survey, brought the USS Bibb up Wassaw Sound and Wilmington River to Thunderbolt, southeast of Savannah.  The location had been the site of a Confederate battery and also had been an active entrance for blockade runners.  To Sherman, Boutelle reported:

Vessels drawing 15 feet and under can come up to this place now, entering at Wassaw Sound.  The river has been dragged for torpedoes and none have yet been discovered. The monitors Sangamon, Captain Young, and the Passaic, Captain Fillebrown, are now close beside the work at Turner’s Rocks, and will be at anchor at this place in a few hours.  I have my vessel at work sounding and putting up marks for navigation, and will anchor here to-night. I respectfully recommend making this place your present depot for large vessels.  A short wharf, 100 feet long, will suffice for vessels of deep draft, and materials for its construction are near at hand.

Looking to a large scale map, the Thunderbolt location offered several other advantages not mentioned by Boutelle.  Most importantly, proximity to Savannah should the garrison come under attack.


Writing to Major-General John Foster the next day, Boutelle offered more details,  indicating he had marked the channel to the docks.  The rise and fall of the tides was only seven feet, and the least water at low tide was ten feet.  Boutelle noted there was a good road from Thunderbolt to Savannah, closing:

I have recommended to General Sherman to use this place as a transportation depot, and in an interview with him last night understood him to say that he would do so. What glorious news all round!

While Thunderbolt was not a permanent solution, the facilities there greatly eased the logistic problems for Sherman. There are some excellent areal views of the site as it appears today at  The presence of a large marina certainly vindicates Boutelle’s optimistic report.  But more re-assuring as to the choice came only days after Boutelle’s report.  On December 28, a blockade runner passed up the Wilmington River only to find that during her passage the city had fallen to the Federals.  Certainly if the runners saw Thunderbolt as a proper port of call, the Federals could too!

Sherman, however, stressed the need to open the Savannah River.  He wrote to Dahlgren on December 26, in that regard, saying “I am very anxious to do, even at considerable expense of labor and money, as I desire to avoid lightering and transshipment, if possible.”  Toward that end, Sherman ordered details drawn from his armies and the ever-busy Captain Orlando Poe to assist the Navy.  Still, the work was slow.  On January 8, 1865, Dahlgren reported to the Department of the Navy,

A steam tug, with divers and boats with men from the vessels present, have  only been able to clear a passage of 75 to 100 feet, though they have worked hard for a week. Very little idea can be formed of this barrier without examining it.

The side-wheel gunboat USS Pontiac was able to pass up river around that time.  At least some sea-going vessels could then dock at Savannah.  But several more weeks would pass before the port was completely open.  Even into the post-war years, the government would issue several contracts for companies to clear the debris left behind in the Savannah River (most notably the salvage of Confederate rams).

Certainly the capture of Savannah was a great victory worth lauding.  But to turn that victory into more than movements on a map, the Federals needed the port opened.  In that regard, Savannah was not completely “won” until well into 1865.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 808-9; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 146, 149, 163, and 363.)

“That the occupation of Georgia … is in accordance with our wishes….”: Resolution from citizens of Liberty and Tattnall Counties

Often lost in the high level interpretation of the Civil War is the wide spectrum of opinions and attitudes throughout the south with respect to secession and the Confederacy as a whole.  It defies any short treatment, and is subject to the context of place and time.  And even lengthy treatments are discussions of fine shadings among the colors.  As the war drew to a close, a significant number of southerners were simply willing to accept the situation and move on.  One ready example of such reached Major-General William T. Sherman’s desk around this time 150 years ago.

Around Christmas 1864, a group of citizens from Liberty and Tattnall Counties met and passed these resolutions:

When dominant political factions become so corrupt as to prefer the destruction of the General Government to their own overthrow as mere parties, and in support of such preference set at defiance the authority of such General Government, and finally actually inaugurate a war for the destruction of the same, we deem it the right and duty of all men living in the country where such parties are formed, who desire to continue loyal to their Government, to resist if possible all attempts to make them take up arms against the same; but if not able to make an open resistance, then we deem it not at all dishonorable to evade stealthily such unnatural, unlawful, and treasonable measures, nor do we deem it dishonorable to aid in the same or any other manner the open defenders of our cause.

Be it therefore resolved, That we, the undersigned citizens of Liberty and Tattnall Counties and the State of Georgia, either deserted from the army of the so-called Confederate States at home, in violation of the conscript law thereof, or by reason of our old age, will never aid in carrying on this wicked rebellion against our Government.

Resolved, That we will band together, under the leadership of some suitable person, in order that we may better defend our lives and our property against the execution of barbarous threats and orders uttered and issued against us by rebel leaders.

Resolved, That the occupation of Georgia by the Federal army is in accordance with our wishes, and that we will render any assistance in our power to said army that may [be] asked.

Resolved, That we are opposed to the principle of secession, and look upon all who support said principle as traitors to our Government.

Resolved, That hereafter, as heretofore, we will recognize the Constitution of the United States, and that alone, as the supreme law of our land, to which, though temporarily suspended here, we steadily look for that protection which, as American citizens, we are entitled to enjoy.

Resolved, That two members of this meeting be appointed to proceed as soon as practicable with a copy of these resolutions to the nearest Federal camp.
We do solemnly swear that we will not divulge to any one at all not present at this meeting anything connected therewith, or transpired thereat, without the full consent and approbation of the chairman thereof, so help me God.

Be it resolved, That the penalty will be death for any person who reveals any part of the above obligation or resolution or proceeding of this meeting that has been transacted, or may hereafter be transacted at any subsequent.

The following-named persons will act to form resolutions for this meeting to be governed by: P. J. Standfield, A. J. Pagett, Asa Barnett, J. E. Beasly, Jno. S. Long.

The record does not show individual names, other than those nominated to represent, or the numbers.  Of those representatives, the names include planters and middle-class merchants.  As indicated in the resolutions, these men had supported the Confederacy in one way or another during the preceding years.

To this resolution, Sherman responded on December 28, 1864:

Gentlemen: I have a copy of the resolutions adopted by you. They are surely strong enough and patriotic enough. I will aid you all possible, and do all in my power to encourage you and defend you in your course. I do think we have been at war long enough for truth to reveal itself. We are fellow-countrymen and bound by every principle of honor and honesty to maintain and defend the Union given us by Washington, and that is all I aim at, and the moment Georgia resumes her place in the Union and sends Representatives to Congress she is at once at peace, and all the laws both national and State are revived. If you will stay at home quietly, and call back your sons and neighbors to resume their peaceful pursuits, I will promise you ammunition to protect yourselves and property. If rebel soldiers do any of you violence I will retaliate, and if you will bring your produce to Savannah I will cause it to be protected in transitu, and allow it to be sold in market to the highest bidder, and our commissary will buy your cattle, hogs, sheep, &c. It would be well to form a league, and adopt some common certificate, so that our officers and soldiers may distinguish between you and open rebels. I will be glad to confer with any of your people, and will do all that is fair to encourage you to recover the peace and prosperity you enjoyed before the war.

Sherman must have felt some satisfaction with this exchange.  An objective of his campaign through Georgia was to convince citizens of the Confederacy that the war was a losing proposition.  He hoped they would abandon the Confederacy.  The resolutions from Liberty and Tattnall Counties in late December of 1864 seemed to confirm that strategy was successful.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 827-8.)

Poe’s plan for the garrison, defense of Savannah reflected Sherman’s operational scheme

During the days after Christmas in 1864, residents of Savannah were just becoming acquainted to life under Federal occupation. Even the troops in Savannah were still setting up, having transitioned over the span of barely two weeks from a light order field army, to siege operations, and finally to winter quarters of sorts.  Yet Major-General William T. Sherman was already looking to the next campaign.  The details of such were still in the air somewhat, but clearly the armies which had crossed Georgia would not remain garrisoned around Savannah.  Such a large body of healthy, veteran troops would move to press the Confederates in other sectors.

But Savannah was too good a port for the Federals to abandon entirely.  Sherman’s plan was to leave the minimum garrison possible in Savannah as his forces moved out on the next expedition.  Good, well positioned defenses were the key to reducing the manpower allocated to the garrison to a minimum.  Toward that end, Sherman asked his chief engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, to survey the area in and around the city.  On December 26, 1864, Poe offered his brief report:

In accordance with your instructions, I have the honor to submit the accompanying rough sketch of plan for the defense of this city. I have reduced the garrison to the lowest probable limit; a smaller one would render it difficult to use any part of it for such offensive operations as might be desirable. The proposed line will be so close to the city that some of the buildings will have to be torn down, and in case of attack all parts of the city will be under artillery fire. Still, the presence of the women and children of the enemy within our lines will render such a fire extremely improbable; and should it be decided by the enemy that they ought to bombard the city, all stores and other valuable property will be quite secure at or near the levee. It is proposed to hold Fort Jackson only because a temporary occupation of it by the enemy would cause us serious inconvenience; to destroy it would require much labor, and even then its site would remain, which would be as detrimental to our interests as the fort itself. Fort Boggs should be dismantled, and so much of it as can give a fire upon the city should be destroyed, because, being an inclosed work, an enemy might effect a lodgment and hold it for a limited time, much to our annoyance. All the remainder of the enemy’s old line, being open to the rear, can do us no injury, and can therefore stand as it is. It is a good line, but too extensive for any garrison that will probably be left in the city; it would require 15,000 men to man it completely. The accompanying sketch does not show the character of the works proposed, but merely the approximate position of the line. The line of works should consist of a system of detached redoubts, in defensive relations, which could be connected by infantry parapet at our leisure.

Poe’s map is lost somewhere between 1865 and today.  But the line of works he mentions here does appear on the map submitted for the Official Records (that surveyed by Poe to accompany Sherman’s report):


The inner blue line, well back of the old Confederate works, is that built under Poe’s supervision.  As Poe suggested, the line is very close to the city itself, much closer than the Confederate line.   It also covers the rear of those former works rendering them useless for any attacker.  Most of the ground between the new Federal line and the old works was open field… rice fields with defensive qualities well known to the Federals at that time.

As Poe mentioned, the exception to all this arrangement was Fort Boggs, and would need be dismantled.  I would offer that the work towards that goal was not completed with vigor.  Remains of the fort appeared on maps right up into the 20th century, and traces of the line there are visible today.

Fort Jackson… Old Fort Jackson to all… remained as an outpost.  Far too much effort to tear down the brickwork.  The fort also served as a communication link and control point downriver to Fort Pulaski.

Poe’s line would require less than 10,000 men.  Sherman sought to pull troops from the Department of the South, but Foster was already too thin.  Further he hoped to allocate invalid troops (who were not capable of field duty) from the Department of Mississippi, for this duty.  Thus a call back to Nashville for troops originally from the Armies of Tennessee and Georgia (Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Twentieth Corps) for the task.  But this was both impractical and would provide far too troops for the task.  The ultimate solution was to pull troops from Virginia – Second Division, Nineteenth Corps under Brigadier-General Cuvier Grover from the Army of the Shenandoah.  Grover received orders for transit to Savannah in early January, and was able to relieve Brigadier-General John Geary on January 19, 1865.  (The movement took place in just over two weeks.  A fine example of the operational mobility possessed by the Federals in the later stages of the war.)

One portion of Poe’s report that I would call out for thought:  “Still, the presence of the women and children of the enemy within our lines will render such a fire extremely improbable….”  Somewhat a twist of circumstances here with a Federal officer offering the presence of civilians would preclude indiscriminate firing.  Was this to say the Confederates would never fire upon the civilians?  I would not go that far.  The precise military tone of Poe’s assessment continued in the second half of the sentence, “… and should it be decided by the enemy that they ought to bombard the city, all stores and other valuable property will be quite secure at or near the levee.”   So it was not so much that the Confederates would not fire on a city filled with civilians, but that their guns could not hit anything of importance.  In short, bombarding the city under those circumstances was not considered worthwhile.   Such, of course, was very apparent to any Confederate threatening Savannah, as their generals had shrugged off a similar threat from Sherman just over a week earlier.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 811-12.)

December 26, 1864: “The city of Savannah… will be held as a military post” – Military jurisdiction over the hostess city

If I were better at photo-editing, I’d have Sherman’s face here over that of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch:

On the day before Christmas, while communicating with Major-General Joseph Wheeler in regard to citizens requesting to pass through the lines, Major-General William T. Sherman wrote, “No provision has been made for the families in Savannah, and many of them will suffer from want – and I will not undertake to feed them.”  Sherman wanted no more refugees to pass into Savannah. Furthermore, Sherman added, “If your pickets fire on our boats, I will clear Savannah and river of all unfriendly parties.”  So much for the holiday spirit!  Those civilians left in Savannah might have expected a harsh, desperate winter lay ahead.

But on December 26, 1864, Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 143 from his headquarters at Savannah:

The city of Savannah and surrounding country will be held as a military post and adapted to future military uses; but as it contains a population of some 20,000 people who must be provided for, and as other citizens may come, it is proper to lay down certain general principles that all within its military jurisdiction may understand their relative duties and obligations.

I. During war the military is superior to civil authority, and where interests clash the civil must give way, yet where there is no conflict every encouragement should be given to well-disposed and peaceful inhabitants to resume their usual pursuits; families should be disturbed as little as possible in their residences, and tradesmen allowed the free use of their shops, tools, &c.; churches, schools, and all places of amusement and recreation should be encouraged, and streets and roads made perfectly safe to persons in their pursuits. Passes should not be exacted within the line of outer pickets, but if any person shall abuse these privileges by communicating with the enemy, or doing any act of hostility to the Government of the United States, he or she will be punished with the utmost rigor of the law. Commerce with the outer world will be resumed to an extent commensurate with the interests of the citizens, governed by the restrictions and rules of the Treasury Department.

II. The chief quartermaster and commissary of the army may give suitable employment to the people, white and black, or transport them to such points as they may choose where employment can be had, and may extend temporary relief, in the way of provisions and vacant houses, to the worthy and needy, until such time as they can help themselves; they will select, first, the buildings for the necessary uses of the army, next, a sufficient number of stores to be turned over to the Treasury agent for trade stores; all vacant storehouses or dwellings and all buildings belonging to absent rebels will be construed and used as belonging to the United States until such times as their titles can be settled by the courts of the United States.

III. The mayor and city council of Savannah will continue, and exercise their functions as such, and will, in concert with the commanding officer of the post and the chief quartermaster, see that the fire companies are kept in organization, the streets cleaned and lighted, and keep up a good understanding between the citizens and soldiers; they will ascertain, and report to the chief commissary of subsistence as soon as possible, the names and number of worthy families that need assistance and support. The mayor will forthwith give public notice that the time has come when all must choose their course, viz., to remain within our lines and conduct themselves as good citizens, or depart in peace. He will ascertain the names of all who choose to leave Savannah, and report their names and residence to the chief quartermaster, that measures may be taken to transport them beyond the lines.

IV. Not more than two newspapers will be published in Savannah, and their editors and proprietors will be held to the strictest accountability, and will be punished severely in person and property for any libelous publications, mischievous matter, premature news, exaggerated statements, or any comments whatever upon the acts of the constituted authorities; they will be held accountable even for such articles though copied from other papers.

These orders governed the Federal occupation of Savannah.  Contrary to fears and concerns expressed in the days before the city’s capture, Sherman did not plan to lay waste to the city.  Instead, the focus was on maintaining order and security. Brigadier-General John Geary, appointed military commander of Savannah, setup a headquarters downtown at the Central Railroad Bank Building, next to the US Custom House.  “Office hours for ordinary business from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.”   Within weeks, the City of Savannah was passing proclamations lauding the fair-hand of Geary’s administration.

Contrary to Sherman’s Christmas Eve note, plans were made to support the population of the city.  Most of that effort came by way of what we’d call today a “Non-Governmental Organization” or NGO.  Julian Allen, acting as an agent between Savannah and northern cities, made appeals through the respective Chambers of Commerce in New York and Boston.  Through Allen’s efforts, aid began to flow into Savannah. The city sold rice left behind by retreating Confederates for other foodstuffs.  (Allen, incidentally, was a Polish immigrant. Often cited as a Federal colonel, that rank appears to be tied to his service in Europe.  I will plan to explore this part of the story in more detail in a later post.)

Arguably, occupied Savannah had an easier winter of 1865 than Richmond or Charleston… probably better than any city left in the Confederacy at that time!  What can we attribute the change of policy, from December 24 to December 26?  Did Sherman’s heart warm, like the Grinch, over Christmas Day?

No so fast.  There were two separate audiences in the correspondence considered.  To Confederate authorities, Sherman gave a cold and uncompromising front.  He was also using the situation, pointing out it was Confederate citizens, which those authorities were charged with the care of, who were going to suffer if the situation deteriorated.  The Christmas Eve message to Wheeler had served notice – the Confederates had abandoned their “charge” to the mercy of the Federals AND the behavior of the Confederates would determine the measures taken to govern those abandoned charges.

But to the citizens of Savannah, the message was different.  Notice Orders No. 143 carried no requirement for oaths of allegiance.  So long as order was maintained and nothing interfered with military operations, the occupation would avoid harsh measures.  The Federals had learned from occupation of Confederate cities earlier in the war.  Savannah’s occupation was, for the most part, without incident.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 796, 800-1 and 812-3.)