Marching through Georgia, December 9, 1864: Pulling up bridges too soon; Battling with guard posts

For brevity in the previous post on Savannah’s fortifications, I’d held back discussion of the “outer” layer of defenses to the west – those of extended outposts placed along the likely avenues of advance.  These were isolated works, typically for one or two field artillery pieces.  The mission of these detached forces was to delay the Federal advance momentarily, all the while reporting back so authorities in Savannah knew where the Federals were moving.  On December 9, 1864, the leading elements of all the columns in Major-General William T. Sherman’s march ran up against these outposts.  Orders issued to both wings stressed “driving the enemy within his intrenchements.” However, this day would not be remembered for those actions, but rather for an incident occurring behind the Fourteenth Corps’ march.  For a change of pace, I’ll start with the actions on the right and work to the left:

Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders for the day to the Fifteenth Corps were specific to march times and movements.  Had to be. Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ corps was spread out from Jenks’ Bridge to the Canoochee on different roads.  Two different brigades had to cross the Ogeechee around Jenks’ Bridge in order to rejoin their respective divisions, making administrative moves.  But at the “business end” of the corps, First and Second Divisions, under the overall command of Brigadier-General William Hazen, were to force a crossing of the Canoochee and break the Gulf Railroad and attempt to take King’s Bridge from the west.  Fourth Division, under Brigadier-General John Corse, would drive past the canal and work towards King’s Bridge from the east.  Corse would also support laying a bridge over the Ogeechee, “even if it takes all the old houses in the neighborhood to do it.” Third Division, Brigadier-General John Smith, would fall in behind Corse.  And following Smith’s division, the Seventeenth Corps would slide to the left to continue along the railroad, heading for Station No. 2 (Pooler).

Hazen’s men woke on December 9 to find the Confederates in their front had departed.  So the Federals promptly crossed, then bridged, Canoochee. One brigade moved to the station at Fleming and tore up track there.  Another column, under the fast moving Colonel John Oliver, moved to King’s Bridge.  Oliver found King’s Bridge in flames, but managed to save part of it.  Leaving one regiment as a guard, he pushed on to the Gulf Railroad bridge downstream.

We received orders to destroy all trestles on the railroad; also the railroad bridge across the Ogeechee. We destroyed fourteen trestles, varying from 30 to 150 yards long, and the Gulf railroad bridge across the Ogeechee, a magnificent bridge 500 yards long; took 18 prisoners; finished our work at 9:30 p.m.

The modern version of the “magnificent” railroad bridge is visible from the King’s Bridge boat landing today:

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 127

A concrete span crosses the river where Oliver’s men fought fires to save part of the wooden bridge in 1864:

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 126

On the other side of the Ogeechee, Corse’s division ran up against heavy resistance from the start.  After pushing in skirmishers, the Federals found the Confederates behind a log breastwork supported by artillery, one of the detached outposts.  Flanking moves were slow developing due to the swamps and undergrowth.  With timely firing counter-battery firing from Battery H, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, Corse’s men were able to break the position:

The increased volley of musketry and sudden cessation of the enemy’s artillery, with the significant yelling of our men, indicated that the assault was in progress, and before I could reach the center, or [Brigadier-General Elliot] Rice could make the road, our troops were in the enemy’s works with quite a squad of prisoners and one piece of artillery as a trophy.

After pursuit, Corse’s men gained the railroad.  There they managed to obstruct the line in time to capture a train.  Before night fell, Corse had established contact with the other side of the Ogeechee at King’s Bridge.

The Seventeenth Corps also encountered a Confederate outpost in their advance.  Major-General Joseph Mower, with the lead division, reported:

We found the enemy in position behind and earth-work at the end of a causeway leading through a swamp, the swamp extending around on both their flanks. I detached one brigade, Brigadier-General [John] Sprague’s, with a section of artillery to engage the enemy in front, whilst I took two brigades… around the enemy’s right.  The troops waded through a cypress swamp to get to the enemy’s works. The enemy retired as we approached.

However, in retirement, the Confederates left behind an obstacle that infuriated the Federals.  As the troops moved up, a mounted officer’s horse stepped on a torpedo – killing the horse and seriously wounding the officer. Happening upon the scene, Sherman personally took charge and ordered a group of Confederate prisoners to clear the torpedoes.  In Sherman’s way of looking at things, if the enemy planted the mines on roadways, outside of the defensive works, this was a violation of the conventions.  As such, he would employ the prisoners in the dangerous task of removing the devices.

On the Twentieth Corps line of march, it was Colonel Ezra Carman who encountered the Confederate outposts:

December 9, moved out to the Monteith road, reaching the Monteith Swamp about noon, where the enemy had erected two earth-works across the road and felled the timber for some distance in front. Received orders to move up on the right of the road and endeavor to flank these works. I moved through the wood about three-quarters of a mile, where I found a rice field extending up to the left of their battery (our right). I formed the brigade in two lines across this field, advanced skirmishers, and moved forward. The enemy opened one piece of artillery on my skirmishers, but soon ceased and evacuated their fort. The ground being a rice swamp my progress was necessarily very slow, and they escaped, with the exception of three men captured by the Third Wisconsin Volunteers; encamped for the night.

This same pattern was repeated for the Fourteenth Corps, which was moving up the River Road, still trailing the rest of the columns… much to the displeasure of Major-General Jefferson C. Davis.  The corps had not completed the crossing of Ebenezer Creek until the early morning hours.  And with a mind to “shed” the body of escaped slaves who were following the column, Davis issued orders that no un-attached (as in not employed in the labor force used by the corps) blacks would be allowed to cross.  Staff officers enforced this order, to the chagrin of Major James Connolly who passed through early that morning.  Behind the last infantry regiments to cross, Federal cavalry sparred with Confederate cavalry closely pressing with a mind to catch the rear guard.

As ordered when the last soldiers crossed, the bridge over Ebenezer Creek was dismantled and burned.  Recognizing the situation, many of the escaped slaves began finding their own way across the creek.  Though many were stranded on the north side of the river as the Confederates converged, a sizable number reached safety.  But a few miles further south, the column had to cross Lockner Creek with a pontoon span.  The nature of that crossing meant that once the pontoons were drawn up, those stranded on the far side would find next to no way to cross.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry descended across Ebenezer Creek and stopped at Lockner, with no way across themselves to continue the pursuit.  He would later report, “The whole number of negroes captured from the enemy during the movement was nearly 2,000.”

Davis, reporting on his progress for the day, did not mention those he’d left stranded and to the mercy of the Confederates.  He did put emphasis on what was gained by pulling up the bridges, “I have destroyed the bridge behind me, and do not think I shall be troubled form the rear to-day.”  Indeed, the details of what happened at Ebenezer Creek barely receive notice in any of the official accounts of the day.  From the purely military aspect, Davis and others emphasized the close Confederate pursuit and pressure to move quickly.  Federal soldiers who witnessed the events wrote of the humanitarian disaster that occurred.  But we are, unfortunately, left with very few first hand accounts from either the former slaves who were stranded, or from the Confederates who captured them.

If Davis did gain some time by pulling up the bridges, that was promptly negated when his lead division ran into one of the Confederate outposts.  After deploying artillery and infantry, Brigadier-General James Morgan, of the lead division, held off attacking with the onset of nightfall. With those delays, it was Twentieth Corps, and not Davis’, which would close on the railroad and the banks of the Savannah River.

One final activity to touch upon for the day.  Closing a message to Howard on December 8, Sherman suggested a small party, by canoe, down the Ogeechee with the aim to establish contact with the blockading squadron.  On the night of December 9, Howard reported, “I have to-night sent Captain [William] Duncan and two scouts in a canoe down the river to attempt to communicate with the fleet.”  Duncan’s party would, after a couple of adventurous days, reach the blockaders off Ossabaw Sound.

Following the events of December 9, 1864 by way of markers, we have entries at Ebenezer Creek, Pooler, Burroughs, and King’s Bridge.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 121, 127, 149, 235, 410, 658, 661, 671.)


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