“Ironclads when commanded by daring men can run… past our batteries”: Savannah defenses

For some time I’ve focused on the defenses of Charleston, as they were 150 years ago, and less so on Savannah.  Both cities were considered critical to the Confederate war effort, though Savannah received less attention than the South Carolina port.  The Georgia port’s defenses continued to evolve along the lines proposed by Beauregard in late 1862.  But pressing concerns through 1863 and 1864 meant that Charleston received most of the heavy ordnance sent from Richmond.  And some of the heavy guns in Savannah’s defenses went to address needs around Charleston.

Early in the summer of 1864, Major-General Lafayette McLaws, commander of the District of Georgia (which included Savannah), requested additional heavy guns.  McLaws’ request called for guns to be placed on Skidaway, Whitemarsh, and Wilmington Islands to the southeast of Savannah.  These islands were analogous to John’s Island at Charleston – in between the Federal and Confederate out-posts, but offering a route by which the Federals might advance on the city or other critical points (and the Federals had demonstrated an interest in these islands).

McLaws’ request moved around offices in Richmond until it landed on the desk of Major-General Jeremy F. Gilmer, Chief of the Engineer Bureau.  On August 11, 1864, he responded to McLaws by way of his commander, Major-General Samuel Jones. Gilmer approved the allocation of guns, with two 10-inch columbiads ordered from the Ordnance Bureau and four more when available in Richmond. Gilmer also suggested Macon’s foundry might provide 8-inch columbiads.

As Gilmer had been McLaws’ predecessor in the post at Savannah, and was intimately aware of the situation there, Jones requested input as to the defensive arrangements.  And Gilmer had lots of input. And his input reflected the Confederate experience, by late war, defending the coastlines:

First. To supply the works of the more advanced lines will be difficult when we consider the deficiency of water transportation at Savannah.

This particular evaluation had cycled through extremes.  General Robert E. Lee, during his time on the coast, believed advanced lines were a waste of resources.  General Beauregard, on the other hand, had pressed for more resources to deprive the Federals of lodgement (as happened at Morris Island).  Gilmer had agreed with Beauregard, but by the summer of 1864 leaned back to the problem of insufficient resources.  In this case transportation resources.

Second. Very recent experience at Mobile demonstrates that the enemy’s iron-clads when commanded by daring men can run the gauntlet past our batteries. When this happens our untried garrisons become demoralized, and think of safety only by evacuating the works. Thus your heavy guns are all lost and in the hands of the enemy. This demoralization is the more certain to take place when garrisons are on islands with which the communications are not easy or safe.

The ironclads performance at Charleston was lackluster at best. I think Gilmer’s assessment closer to true north than some of the Federal opinions.  Had there been a “damn the torpedoes” leader at Charleston, things might have been different in 1863.  And at this time 150 years ago, the Confederacy was already taking stock of what was invested, and soon to be completely lost, in the defenses at Mobile Bay.

Third. As the line of defenses for Savannah is necessarily an extended one the facilities for concentration so as to get promptly our forces at the threatened point should be carefully considered. The new line proposed will place the troops in such a position as to render rapid concentration impossible. The enemy can, therefore, break through at any point before we are prepared to resist.

Gilmer would have approved of the Harry S. Truman Parkway that today connects many of the outer suburbs of Savannah.

His last point touched more upon tactics, and means to make the most of what was on hand:

Fourth. Instead of changing the positions for the heavy guns as now established, I would propose to retain them as they are, adding strength to the batteries, and make the occupation of the more advanced line one of siege and field artillery, say 20-pounder Parrotts and good Napoleons, that can be drawn in when concentration becomes necessary, or moved along the line as circumstances may demand. In anticipation of establishing such batteries good crossings from the Isle of Hope to Skidaway, and from Whitemarsh to Wilmington, should be established by bridges or otherwise. This should be the first step toward the re-occupation of Skidaway or Wilmington, and in my judgment the heavy guns under no circum stances should be changed from their present positions before such communications are secured.

Gilmer offered this summary of his assessment:

The question which you present is not a new one, and it has received the careful study of the various officers who have been in command at Charleston and Savannah, and taking all the bearings of the subject and admitting all the objections to the existing line, I am of the opinion that it will be better to leave it as it is than to make one of greater development when your forces are so small. I advise, therefore, that the additional guns about to be sent to Savannah be added to the present armament of existing works, adding such strength to them as your means will enable you to do, and limit the occupation of the two islands in advance to field and siege artillery with proper supports, even this occupation to be made only when the crossings have been established.

The chief problem with Gilmer’s assessment was what he didn’t know.  He’d spent much of the last few months focused on the defenses of Atlanta.  In the middle of August 1864, he might predict that city would eventually fall.  But he could not foresee that by year’s end the threat to Savannah would come from land approaches, and not from the coast.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 605-6.)



Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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