“If General Sherman comes from inland…”: Department of the South plans for Sherman’s arrival

One of the things I like about discussing the March to the Sea is how the discussion leads into the Charleston-Savannah front… which if you haven’t noticed is sort of a favorite of mine.  For example, while the troops of Sherman’s armies were making their way to Milledgeville on November 21, 1864, several senior commanders on the coast of South Carolina were already proposing operations to complement those marching through Georgia.

Writing to Washington, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren offered a summary of the tactical situation on the coast.  Quoting Major-General John Foster’s estimate of the Confederate force, he reported 4,000 defending Savannah and 5,000 at Charleston.  Then Dahlgren recited details about the defenses around Savannah, reminding the Secretary of the Navy that the ironclads had tested Fort McAllister during the winter months of 1863.  But the bottom line was these defenses were built to deter an attack from the ocean’s direction.  Lacking forces, there was little Foster’s command could do.  But the arrival of troops from the inland side would, of course, change that equation.  Dahlgren thus concluded:

The true attack is upon Savannah or Charleston, in force, while a column severs the communication connecting them by passing up any of the streams which run up from the sea and intersects the railroad.

If General Sherman comes from inland and follows this plan he will certainly take both cities with little effort, and a force from the seaboard could do this for him as he approaches.

That thought had occurred to others.  Writing the same day, Brigadier-General John Hatch, who’d just been reassigned back to command the Northern District (Folly and Morris Islands) outside Charleston, offered his suggestion to Foster:

You were kind enough to ask me for my views relating to the cutting of the railroad between Savannah and Charleston. In my letter of yesterday I stated that I thought it would be best to strike the road from Broad River. The more I examine it the better satisfied I am that that is the true point of operations. By landing where the road from Grahamville strikes the river, opposite Whale Island, a march of less than twenty miles puts you on the road at Gopher Hill. One regiment, with a battery detached, should take the road to the right and throw up intrenchments on the bank of the creek where the road from the Coosawhatchie divides. The main force would throw up a strong fort at Gopher Hill, which is probably a commanding position; a detachment could then be sent to Ferebeeville, to fortify there.

Hatch had served for some time in the department, and knew the area well.  Looking first to Port Royal Sound and the Broad River:


His proposed operations looked something like this on the map:


Once in place, Hatch felt the force could defend that lodgement and then some:

The line from Gopher Hill to Broad River would then be entirely free from molestation, and constant communication could be kept up with Hilton Head, and supplies furnished Sherman’s army, if Lee, abandoning Richmond, should come down to protect Charleston. I would not injure the road, as Sherman may desire to use it. I would get up to Hilton Head the two locomotives from Jacksonville, and have them put in repair, if they need it; also, all the cars and extra pairs of wheels. Of these latter, there is quite a number at Jacksonville and some at Fernandina. There are also at Fernandina spare parts of locomotives that may be found useful.

He even thought of the trains to run supplies!

Hatch figured to pull from the garrisons of Hilton Head, Beaufort, and other points to constitute the force needed for the operation. However there was one significant factor Hatch overlooked.  The Confederates considered that sector a “sensitive” spot. Particularly since just two years before the Federals attempted a similar operation in the same area.  Routes through the marshes were narrow and a small force could easily block a larger force moving inland.

But Hatch’s plan had merit.  As with many of the coastal operations, a strong force could accomplish a lot with surprise and fast movement.  Standing on that merit, the plan would, in a few day’s time, form the basis for the next major operation for the Department of the South.  The next day Foster issued orders for Hatch to proceed.  Unfortunately, it would not turn out to be an easy operation by any measure.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 517-8; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 56-7.)


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