On the morning of February 22, 1864, a small skirmish broke out on Whitemarsh Island, outside Savannah, Georgia. The action was the result of a Federal raid aimed to capture working parties employed at that time by the Confederates to build defenses on the island. As a point of reference, let me pull in one of the maps from last year’s look at the defenses of Savannah in early 1863:
As noted in the original post, the map depicts fortifications that existed in December 1864. And I highlighted the 1863 fortifications in yellow. The works at Causten’s Bluff were renamed Fort Bartow later that year. Looking to the east (right) of that work, across St. Augustine Creek, the Confederates had not defended Whitemarsh Island at that time. During the fall of 1863 and winter of 1864, the Confederates hastily worked to resolve that deficiency and build a buffer to block any Federal advance from Fort Pulaski.
In order to complete those works, the Confederates relied on impressed negros and requisitioned slaves. In mid-February 1863, a force of several hundred worked on the island under guard of a small detachment of infantry from the 57th Georgia Infantry. Two bridges connected Whitemarsh to the mainland. One spanned St. Augustine Creek to Oatland Island. A second connected Oatland with Whitemarsh. Over these bridges ran a road (shown in yellow below) connecting down to Turner’s Rock at the south end of Whitemarsh. While Fort Bartow kept the first bridge well protected, the second was defended by a section of J.A. Maxwell’s battery.
(Note: as with the other map sheet, this depicts works, roads and bridges that existed by December 1864. Those not shown in read were not in place at the time of the skirmish. Furthermore the second road and bridge onto Whitemarsh were not complete at the time of the skirmish.)
Brigadier-General Raleigh E. Colston commanded Savannah’s defenses at this time. Lieutenant-Colonel William R. Pritchard commanded the sector including Fort Bartow and Whitemarsh Island. The primary infantry force there, the 57th Georgia, gave Colston and Pritchard some headaches. Some men from the regiment insisted they had not yet been exchanged after Vicksburg and were thus still on parole.
The Federal plan was to first attack and isolate the Confederates on Whitemarsh by seizing and destroying the bridge to Oatland. A second landing near Gibson’s Point would then move up, drive off the infantry, and capture the labor force. Captain George Hooker led companies B, D, E. H, I, and K of the 85th Pennsylvania Infantry to accomplish the first objective. Captain Robert P. Hughes led the remainder of the 85th landing at Gibson’s. The 4th New Hampshire Infantry would follow that force. Overall command fell to Colonel Joshua B. Howell. To reach these objectives, the force used surf boats with guides recruited from escaped slaves. At least two Army steamers supported the operation, and they too had escaped slaves as pilots.
Hooker’s boats were able to reach Whitemarsh undetected, due to the morning mist. They were only discovered when landing near a picket post along the road. The pickets fell back to the bridge and warned Lieutenant C.B. Richardson commanding the section there. The presence of the earthworks and artillery came as a surprise to Hooker. His guide had escaped the previous spring and didn’t know about the defensive position. Still, the Pennsylvanians got within 100 yards of the guns before chased back by canister. Lieutenant John E. Michener of Company K led the initial charge, then found himself too far forward to retreat. He and two others were taken prisoner.
Around that time, Hughes force landed at Gibson’s. As they landed, Captain Lucien Tucker at the Gibson House alerted Captain James S. Turner commanding the detachment at Turner’s Rock (as would be appropriate). While the detachment at Gibson’s gave a brief skirmish, Turner arrayed his force to defend against the advance. Meanwhile, having been alerted to the Federal landings, the remainder of the 57th Georgia began movement to Whitemarsh.
The Federal plan had unraveled at that point. With the bridge to Oatland intact, there was no way to halt reinforcements from the mainland. Hooker received orders to pull back to his boats. Although half of the 4th New Hampshire had arrived at Gibson, Howell decided to withdraw everyone back to the boats.
Colston reported one killed, one wounded, and eleven captured from the Confederate forces engaged. Of the captured men, he wrote, “Seven of the latter belong to an Irish company, from which many desertions have lately taken place, and from the position of this company it is more than probable that these men went to the enemy voluntarily.” Some of the men in the 57th Georgia refused to go into action, claiming again they were still on parole. That matter was dealt with by the Confederate command in the following days.
Federal casualties were also light, with only a handful of wounded and four captured. They withdrew back to Fort Pulaski with nothing to show but the honor of having driven in the pickets. Almost immediately on their return, the 4th New Hampshire loaded on transports bound for Jacksonville, Florida. The 85th Pennsylvania, however, returned to Hilton Head.
The most important result of this skirmish was to prompt the Confederates to double their efforts fortifying Whitemarsh Island. The Federals had reached a point just a few miles from Savannah, after all. As elsewhere, a tentative Federal effort solicited an outpouring of resources as a preventative. Any option for the Federals to return in force and break down the front door to Savannah was thus thwarted.
(Sources: OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 361-4; Luther S. Dickey, History of the Eighty-fifth regiment Pennsylvania volunteer infantry, 1861-1865, New York: J.C. & W.E. Powers, 1915, pages 297-302; Samuel Wilkinson, Daily account of Samuel Wilkinson while in the United States Service, unpublished, entries for February 21 and 22, 1864.)