On this day in 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns reached the main line of defenses outside Savannah. For the most part, I’ve been able to use large scale maps to provide a general description of the movements of the columns during the march. For December 10th, that map would look like this:
The general plan of movement is there. But as we follow along the march in the closing phase (as in the last “hours” of the march, as we might think of it), the narrative needs to focus down to the tactical level. The large scale map doesn’t show the Confederate defenses or the extent of marshes, swamps, and rice fields which lay in the path of the Federals. For that, let me turn again to Captain Orlando Poe’s map (Oh… by the way… 150 years ago today his survey teams were starting work on said map). Looking to the western approaches I’ve highlighted the major avenues of approach:
Broad brush, there were two main corridors. First corridor was due west of the city. On the Federal left, the Augusta Road and Charleston & Savannah Railroad joined near Monteith Station and followed parallel paths toward the city. Those routes joined the Georgia Central and Louisville Road. From there, crossing a couple of important creeks and the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, the route led directly to Savannah. Corridor two was southwest of the city and included the Ogeechee Road (to King’s Bridge) and the Savannah & Gulf Railroad.
Overlay on top of that the Confederate dispositions:
Major-General Gustavus W. Smith had his Georgia militia, roughly 2,000 strong, on the right flank close to the river. Smith’s line covered the first corridor. Recall these were troops who’d defended Macon, then traveled by rail to Savannah (some fighting at Honey Hill). They were supported by twenty cannons:
Major-General Lafayette McLaws’ Division covered from the Canal to the Ogeechee Road. The 4,000 men of McLaws’ command included a North Carolina brigade, rushed from the Wilmington defenses, and the famous Kentucky Orphan Brigade. McLaws also had a formidable arrangement of 29 cannons:
To the left of McLaws, the division of Major-General Ambrose R. Wright covered the approaches down to the Little Ogeechee River and Middle Marsh. Wright commanded a varied force of state troops – militia, home guard, and reserves, bolstered with artillery. Looking close at the snip below, you’ll notice Poe’s terrain annotations indicating the terrain advantage:
The square-hatched areas were rice fields. The marshes are shown with dash-hatched areas. Notice how Wright’s left, though hanging out in the air on the “big” map, was actually anchored on a vast expanse of marsh. Likewise to get at Wright’s front, Federals had to cross rice fields and marshes. Just “getting at” the defenses would be a chore into itself.
To the left of Wright, Major Alfred Hartridge’s battalion held a series of outposts against any attempt to cross the series of tidal rivers to the south (chiefly the Little Ogeechee and Vernon rivers).
Sherman’s orders for the day stressed the need to close up to the main Confederate defensive line, but without becoming too heavily engaged. He wanted to consolidate his armies in front of those lines. He, and many of his men, had experienced sieges of Vicksburg and Atlanta. Everyone knew well the need to find weaknesses in the line before committing to the positions for siege. This was a day of “feeling” for the enemy’s works.
On the left flank and center of the advance, three corps approached the first corridor from different directions:
The Seventeenth Corps approached, as they had been for well over a week, down the Georgia Central Railroad. Advancing from Pooler that morning, the Corps soon encountered Confederate artillery at McBeth Battery.
The Twentieth Corps march took the road from Monteith. The 1st and 3rd Divisions bypassed the railroad station and proceeded up the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. The 2nd Division marched with the corps’ wagons to Monteith Station and then picked up the rear of the march.
The Fourteenth Corps, still lagging behind after delays in the swamps, paused when reaching the railroad to allow Twentieth Corps to pass. Third Division, under Brigadier-General Absolam Baird, moved to the left and proceeded to destroy the railroad back to and including the bridge over the Savannah River.
The Fifteenth Corps continued to advance in columns to close on the Confederate line:
Underscoring the need for improved maps, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders for the 10th had the Third and Fourth Divisions moving against points which either did not exist or were unreachable without boat:
First, Major-General Osterhaus, commanding Fifteenth Army Corps, will direct Brig. Gen. J. E. Smith, commanding Third Division, to push his division forward toward a point marked on the map as Beverly, reconnoitering and feeling for the enemy by the plank and other roads leading into Savannah. Second, he will direct Brigadier-General Corse, commanding Fourth Division, to continue his reconnaissance toward a point marked Hermitage, carefully feeling toward Savannah by all the roads in his front leading thereto.
While “Beverly” and “Hermatige” appear on the large-scale map that Howard was using, these placenames were not included on Poe’s smaller scale map (finished after the campaign). To reach the area of “Beverly” Smith’s division would need to traverse two major rice fields and a marsh while crossing Forest River (a tributary of the Little Ogeechee). Corse would need to cross open water and marshes to reach “Hermitage” which was in the vicinity of Coffee Bluff.
Amid this mental fog (and there was a “real” fog that day coming off the marsh), Smith’s division moved by way of the canal tow-path to a point opposite McLaw’s line. Corse made headway up the Ogeechee Road, but likewise found no way through the Confederate lines.
With contact established all along the Confederate front, the Federals quickly went about erecting their own fortifications. Again, many of the men in the ranks had earlier experience in similar situations. These veterans did not need orders to start erecting breastworks. Long gone were the early days of the war when commander and private alike shunned the shovel.
Two episodes of note occurred during the movement up to the Confederate lines. In Twentieth Corps sector, foragers fanned out down to the Savannah River that day. One of those teams ran into the Confederate navy. As reported by Colonel Ezra Carman, the brigade commander:
A forage party under command of Captain [H.A.] Gildersleeve, One hundred and fiftieth New York Volunteers, this day captured the rebel dispatch steamer Ida on the Savannah River, taking thirteen prisoners, among whom was Colonel Clinch, of General Hardee’s staff. The steamer was burned by Captain Gildersleeve, he not being able to hold it on account of rebel gun-boats on the river.
With the railroads severed and the Federals along the river, the only way for communication (and resupply) of Savannah was by way of the Union Causeway, leading to the road to Hardeeville, South Carolina.
On the Seventeenth Corps sector, Sherman himself accompanied the march. Major Henry Hitchcock, his aide, recorded a close call with Confederate artillery. Sherman stopped at a frame farmhouse not far from the advance. While the staff conducted business in the yard of the house, Sherman wandered off several times to observe or just to keep to himself. At times Hitchcock went out to tend to the general, only to see him wander off again.
After twenty or thirty minutes saw General again quietly start off down the road along which troops had been steadily passing to the front and deploying on right of road and now [Brigadier-General Mortimer] Leggett’s division were coming up and deploying to the left of it. Following him at once and before long overtook him, say 100 yards from the house. Had hardly done so when – just after report of cannon ahead to which I had paid no attention though loud and near, certainly not over 800 yards off, – saw him stop quickly, look forward and upwards, and step one side; at same moment heard loud rush and wizzing in air over and in front of us, very like noise of a rocket, understood that easily, looked for the shell (as I supposed it) but “couldn’t see it” – saw, however, very decided and rapid movements of men near us in and on side of road, – concluded to “git” myself, but no shelling was near, and so, expecting the shell to strike and burst concluded to risk its striking me, but to dodge the pieces if possible, and thereupon went down on the sand into a gracefully recumbent posture; the next moment heard the shot strike the ground heavily somewhere near, but “didn’t see it” still.
Hitchcock recovered and rejoined Sherman. “As I joined him, he said quietly – ‘This place is not safe, they are firing down the road – we had better go back.’ So we went back….” Hitchcock was convinced that Sherman had indeed dodged the projectile simply by gauging it’s flight.
For the day, Hitchcock recorded one other point in his diary:
Didn’t march our fifteen miles today, nor ten miles either – if we had, “Savannah serait prise.” How long will it take us to get the last five of our “300 mile march”?
Already in motion, Sherman had plans to achieve those last five miles. Attention would turn to Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee.
For this installment, following the march to the sea, I’ll say there are no specific entries to cover the day’s activities. But I’ll mention several of those around Savannah in the upcoming days.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 235 and 669; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, pages 169-70. )