Late on December 10, 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman’s headquarters issued Special Field Orders No. 130. Up front, these orders stated the general’s priorities:
The army having arrived before Savannah, will proceed to invest the place, and to open up communication with our fleet in Ossabaw and Wassaw Sounds.
In line with these priorities, the orders established zones for each wing of the army. Major-General Henry Slocum’s Left Wing held the line from the Savannah River to a point below the Georgia Central Railroad / Louisville Road corridor. In his zone, Slocum had responsibility for the destruction of railroads, to include the Charleston & Savannah and its bridge over the Savannah River. Likewise, Slocum had to be mindful of security of the army’s rear.
Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing was to “extend from General Slocum’s right to the Savannah River below the city….” or at least to towards the batteries at Thunderbolt on the east side of the city. Such looked possible on the maps on hand as of December 10. But the reality was that objective lay beyond marshes too difficult to cross. Captain Orlando Poe had the task of clearing up the matters with the maps.
Howard’s other objective, and one within the realm of possibility, was to make contact with the fleet blockading Savannah. To aid Howard, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kipatrick’s cavalry would slip from their position behind the Left Wing to cross the Ogeechee River behind Howard. The easiest location to establish contact with the fleet was by way of the Ogeechee River, with the ships off Ossabaw Sound. However, that required something to be done about the Confederate post at Fort McAllister.
To accomplish these tasks, first the Seventeenth Crops had to shift around to the right to make space for the late-arriving Fourteenth Corps. The Seventeenth Corps began movement at 7 a.m. Also starting movement that morning, the Fourteenth Corps used the road over Cherokee Hill and filed into the vacated spot. However, as must have seemed a pattern for the corps’ movement, at 6:15 p.m. that evening, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis complained “My trains are stuck in the mud for the balance of the night … it will be corduroyed by morning.” Even moving into the siege lines, Davis experienced delays.
Davis left behind Brigadier-General Absalom Baird to destroy the railroad bridge. Baird would report the bridge was inaccessible short of walking along the track, due to deep swamps. A Confederate battery on the far shore prevented any movement on the tracks. Even the elevated line running up to the bridge was hard to reach. “I found the trestle-work about fifteen feet high, built upon piles and through a swamp not passable except on bridges, which it would take days to build if we had the material.” But enough damage could be done that the line was rendered impassable by train. Baird had one other worry that day. Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, which had been pestering the column for the past week, appeared at Monteith. But the distraction proved temporary.
The Twentieth Corps spent a day closing up with the Confederate lines. Brigadier-General John Geary advanced that morning to reach the main line of fortifications. By 10 a.m. he had established a line across a rice field dike, generally covering the distance between the river and the Augusta Road. Geary described his sector:
My front line was concealed by the woods, with the exception of my left, which lay in open ground within 250 yards of a large work on the river-bank in which the enemy had seven heavy guns. In front of my entire line were open fields, affording a full view of the intrenchments held by the enemy. Immediately in front of these intrenchments were extensive rice fields flooded with water, and between the fields in my front and these flooded rice fields was a canal twenty-five feet wide and five or six feet deep, which also was filled with water. The sluice gates to these fields were all under control of the enemy, as was also the mouth of the canal, between which and my position was the large advanced work before mentioned as being in front of my left. Besides this one the enemy had in my front three other works, mounted with heavy guns, in their main line across the flooded rice fields. These guns all opened upon us, keeping up a steady fire throughout the day, but causing very few casualties. No reply was made by my artillery, but my skirmishers were advanced as far as possible and annoyed the enemy considerably.
This description, particularly the flooded rice fields, is typical for the terrain faced all along the lines outside Savannah. Geary also looked to Hutchinson’s Island opposite his position in the river. Scouts and staff officers reconnoitered the 900 acre island. Confederate sharpshooers took position to harass the Federals from the island.
Colonel Ezra Carman also paid attention to an island in the river. With orders to effect a reconnaissance of Argyle Island (not to be confused with placename by the same name in the Ogeechee River). Colonel William Hawley’s 3rd Wisconsin drew the assignment. But lack of boats hindered the operation. “Two companies of this regiment crossed to Argyle Island this night and six companies the following morning, leaving two companies to guard the Georgia shore and take care of a rice mill and contraband camp.”
On the Right Wing’s front, both corps adjusted their frontage on December 11. The Seventeenth began probing forward in the afternoon. So little being known of the terrain, Major-General Joseph Mower received orders to:
… send out three or four men in your front, to creep up as far as possible toward the enemy’s works, and ascertain the nature of the ground between you and the works. Should there be no swamps or creek in front of your left brigade, and the ground prove favorable for an advance, you will proceed to throw up to-night works for two batteries….
The poor maps even caused confusion at Sherman’s headquarters. At 2 in the morning, while reviewing Howard’s orders for the day, an inquiry went out, asking for a description of King’s Bridge and Dillon’s Ferry. “Neither is on the map.” Howard responded with a rough sketch and written description. The entire exchange underscores a problem adding complexity to the operation. Sherman and his staff simply did not know the lay of the land. In this haze, two divisions of the Fifteenth Corps, which had been situated astride the neck leading to Fort McAllister the day before, were moved instead on the north side of the Ogeechee. Behind them, only one pontoon bridge, at Dillon’s, was in place to re-cross the Ogeechee.
All the men of the 1st Missouri Engineers who could be spared from other tasks were assigned work at King’s Bridge that day. That was the best crossing site of the lower Ogeechee for access to Fort McAllister. However because of the swing of the tides, up to eight feet, it was not idea for pontoon bridging. The engineers went to work repairing the damage done by the Confederates to the 700 foot span.
Elsewhere along the Ogeechee, Howard directed Kilpatrick’s cavalry to Dillon’s and furnished pontoons for crossing the Canoochee River. Kilpatrick would report back later in the day with details of Fort McAllister’s garrison, gleaned from contrabands.
But the most significant development of the day was achieved by the Signal Corps. Captain James McClintock and Lieutenant Jacob Sampson established a signal station at Cheves’ rice mill on the Ogeechee River, opposite an ox-bow bend of the river.
From this point we obtained a good view of the rebel works on the Little Ogeechee, also part of the sound; and to the 13th a strict watch was kept during the day, while rockets were sent up at certain intervals through the night to attract, if possible, the attention of any vessel that might be in the sound near the mouth of the river.
Howard immediately saw the value of this station and ordered a battery of artillery and a regiment from First Division of Fifteenth Corps in order to secure the outpost. The means to contact the fleet was in place. Now the signal officers needed to catch the eye of the blockaders. And that was in the works.
That afternoon, the three man mission led by Captain William Duncan reached one of the blockaders. Received on board the USS Flag, the men were soon taken to Port Royal Sound by way of the tug USS Dandelion. By the next morning Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren could report the arrival of Sherman’s army on the coast. The next step would be to establish contact.
Another significant development for the situation took place in the Confederate lines that evening. Wheeler, as noted above, was still pressing the rear of the Left Wing. He had already diminished his forces by dismounting a brigade for service in the lines at Savannah. But at 6 p.m. he received a request from Lieutenant-General William Hardee to relocate to the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. Hardee was “apprehensive that the enemy may cross between the railroad bridge and the city on flats captured on the island plantations and get on his line of communication.” The general was also wary that Federals might try to link up with those pressing the railroad at Coosawhatchie. Hardee suggested that Wheeler, “cross the river and establish your headquarters at Hardeeville, or some other convenient locality.” Wheeler would leave one division – in reality a brigade strength formation – under Brigadier-General Alfred Iverson on the Georgia side. The rest of his command moved to South Carolina. This move should be considered in the light of Federal presence at Coosawhatchie. If nothing else, that “thorn” left the Confederate commanders wary. That concern, for the third time in the campaign, took Wheeler’s cavalry out of position to influence events.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 77, 235, 277, 676, and 689.)