Marching Through Georgia, December 8, 1864: To the outskirts of Savannah

News traveled in 1864 as it does today.  News sources pick up stories from other outlets and reprint them.  But how fast did it travel in 1864?  Faster than you would think.  We all know about Lieutenant-General John Bell Hood’s failed attack at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864.  Word of that battle reached the front page of the New York Times the next day.  And by December 5, the Charleston Courier ran this bit of news, citing those articles as the source:

CharlstonCourierDec5_64_p1_c1_Franklin

The Courier followed up with a reprint of official dispatches also copied from northern newspapers, mentioning the disproportionate Confederate losses.  Savannah papers likewise carried the news, all attributed to New York papers. On December 7, some of these southern papers were in the hands of Major-General William T. Sherman, “A Savannah paper, 5th, says Hood attacked Thomas at Franklin and was defeated, with loss of 6,000 and 1,000 prisoners; Yankee loss, 500.  Copied from New York papers.”  Rather curious how the information came in a round-about way to Sherman’s hands.

Also copied from northern newspapers and posted in the Courier on December 8 was an editorial comparing Sherman’s march to that of Hood:

There is no parallel at all.  Sherman, with an immense, well equipped and well fed army, marches through a hostile country without any hostile force on his front, and goes toward a base where supplies and ammunition will meet him.  Hood, with a small army, marches away from a base without the hope of any other, and with an army in front abundantly able to fight him, and if be should march as far as Sherman will that distance will insure his complete destruction. – New York Herald, [November 30].

That was the news from the front to the home front on December 8, 1864… or should we say the reality of the day.

For his part on December 8, Sherman continued to close his armies towards Savannah and that base of supplies mentioned in the papers.  But the Left Wing continued to lag behind the Right Wing.  The last thing Sherman wanted was isolated columns that might invite a Confederate sortie from Savannah.  So “close up” was the order of the day.

MarchDec8

The Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, had the most distance to make up.  Lead elements of the corps stopped the night before just short of Ebenezer Creek near its mouth at the Savannah River.  To continue its line of march, the Fourteenth had to cross a deep swamp cut by several streams.  Overnight, pontooniers of the 58th Indiana Infantry began repairing the bridge span over the creek, which had been burned by retreating Confederates.  The pontooniers continued further south to put a string of bridges across Lockner’s Creek.  On either side of these crossing points, soldiers and freed blacks labored to lay corduroy roads.  All of these preparations took time.  And with that time spent, the corps fell further behind schedule.

Two Confederate actions contributed a little to the delay.  Continuing to press the Federals, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry struck the cavalrymen of Second Brigade of the Cavalry Division.  In a repeat of earlier actions, the Federal troopers fell back and formed a line in conjunction with the supporting infantry.   This blunted the Confederate jab, but notice was served.  The Federals had to carefully cross Ebenezer Creek, lest Wheeler catch them astride.

The other action by the Confederates was more a novelty than injury.  The gunboat C.S.S. Macon steamed up the Savannah River and lobbed a few shells at the Federals crossing at Ebenezer Creek.  Firing at long range, the effect was minor.  Colonel Robert Smith, commanding First Brigade, Second Division, Fourteenth Corps, related, “here a rebel gun-boat threw a few shells at our column, doing no damage.”

But the terrain and Confederate annoyances prevented Fourteenth Corps from covering much ground that day.  The lead regiments were only four miles past the bridges by nightfall.  Much of the corps remained on the north side of Ebenezer Creek that evening, guarding the trains.  And among the column was a large gathering of escaped slaves who continued, against the wishes of Davis, to follow.

West of Ebenezer Creek, the Twentieth Corps received orders to march towards Monteith, near the junction of the Charleston & Savannah and Georgia Central Railroads.  Leading the march was Brigadier-General John Geary’s division, commencing at 6 a.m. with orders to locate a “middle road” to Monteith.  After a few miles, Geary and his men discovered there was no “middle road” and they were in effect blazing their own path through the swamp:

The looked-for middle road was not found to-day. The roads were generally fair, although we crossed several small swamps. In them we found timber felled across the road. This was removed by our pioneers, without delaying the march more than thirty minutes at any one time. Most of our route to-day was through pine forests. We passed a number of plantation houses in these forests, and quite a large supply of potatoes, sugar cane, fodder, mutton, and poultry was obtained. It is worthy of note that the swamp water through this region is excellent for drinking purposes, being much superior to the well water. Weather to-day pleasant. Distance, thirteen miles.

The Seventeenth Corps continued their comparatively leisurely march south with an advance to Station No. 2 (Eden).  In front of them, First Division (Brigadier General John Corse) of Fifteenth Corps marched south with the aim to reach the Savannah & Gulf Railroad.  Corse met no opposition on this sortie. But as he neared the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal he found burned bridges.  As the large scale map does not show these place names, and they are important to the discussion, allow me to adapt this map of the area to point out the bridges:

MarchDec8a

Confederates burned Dillon’s Brige, which crossed the Ogeechee just north of the canal.  This prevented any junction with other Fifteenth Corps elements operating on the other side of the river.  Likewise the bridge over the canal was burned.  But the canal held up Corse only for a short time:

A new one was speedily constructed by the pioneer corps, and a portion of the Third Brigade crossed and threw up a tête-de-pont, and the Seventh Illinois Mounted Infantry moved out to reconnoiter the enemy’s position.  From citizens we ascertained that a force of the enemy had erected works at the junction of the Dillon’s Bridge road with the King’s Bridge and Savannah road.

Corse, though an aggressive commander, opted for discretion.  Though he had flanked the outer line of Savannah’s defenses, at the canal, any advance toward the city would wait until the other forces closed up.

On the other side of the Ogeechee, while Third Division, Fifteenth Corps protected the trains at Jenks’ Bridge, the other two divisions probed for crossings of the Canoochee River (in what is today Fort Stewart Military Reservation).  Reporting late in the day, Major-General Peter Osterhaus indicated the road through Fort Argyle (a colonial-era fort, which endured by placename) to Dillon’s Bridge was impassable.   All the bridges over the Canoochee were burned.  And a Confederate force with artillery opposed any crossing. But he hoped to effect a crossing once the pontoons were brought up.  Considering the ground beyond the river, Osterhaus added:

The description which I received of the road beyond the Cannouchee is anything but inviting; the only good road seems to be the one from King’s Bridge (above the mouth of Cannouchee), seven miles of which are planked.  King’s Bridge is burned, an so is every other bridge across the two streams.

So for the moment, 150 years ago, the Fifteenth Corps had advanced as far as they dared.  But they were looking at the two “gates” to Savannah from the west – King’s Bridge and the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal.

Tracing the march by way of markers, entries for today are located at Springfield, Eden, Guyton, and Fort Stewart.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 126, 185, 275-6, 652, and 659-60.)

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