On December 12, 1864, a fast steamer headed north out of Port Royal Sound. On board were messages from Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, both citing messages carried by Captain William Duncan from Major-General Oliver O. Howard. Word of Major-General William T. Sherman’s arrival at Savannah would bring some authoritative information for the newspapers which had been speculating upon speculation. More important, the news triggered actions at the bases in South Carolina and Georgia. At Hilton Head depots and on boats in Port Royal Sound were supplies of all sorts, all earmarked for Sherman’s men. But to get those supplies to Sherman, the Federals needed a port facility, even a small one. While the forces off shore might transport the goods, it was up to Sherman’s men to force a break in the Confederate coastal defenses through which those could flow. The focus thus turned to Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River.
But that is not to say the rest of the lines around Savannah were inactive. To the contrary, December 12 was a day of much activity. On the Savannah River, Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade supported the slow movement of the 3rd Wisconsin to Argyle Island. Having only one raft capable of carrying 12 men at a time, the process had taken nearly a full day, and was still not complete that morning. However, the Federal raft was not the only vessel plying the river that morning.
Earlier on December 10th, Flag-Officer William W. Hunter passed up the Savannah with the CSS Sampson and CSS Resolute, with orders to guard the Charleston & Savannah Railroad bridge. There, Hunter joined with the CSS Macon, which had been harassing the Federals on the march. On the 11th, Hunter received orders to destroy the bridge and retire to aid in defense of Savannah. After destroying the bridge that day, Hunter waited until 7 a.m. on the 12th to descend the river:
When opposite Argyle Island we obtained information from a man on shore that the Yankees were at a mill farther down, grinding. He stated that he did not think there was any artillery. As we went along we saw at the different places smoking ruins. After we passed the mill, at Tweedside, situated on a back river a short distance, where we saw the enemy, as above stated, we were opened upon by one or more light batteries of Parrott guns, posted upon a bluff in the bend of the river, which we had to approach head-on, and entirely commanding the channel, apparently supported by infantry, and about 1,000 or 1,200 yards distant.
The guns firing at Hunter’s gunboats were those of Captain Charles Winegar, Battery I, First New York Light Artillery. They were stationed at the Colerain plantation just below a sharp bend of the main river channel:
Winegar later reported:
On the morning of the 12th day of December, about 8 o’clock, the enemy’s gunboats made their appearance…. After an engagement of about three-quarters of an hour, from 2,400 to 2,700 yards, they were forced to retire up the river, leaving their tender behind disabled, together with her officers and crew, numbering about 30, our expenditure of ammunition being 138 rounds.
Although Hunter’s gunboats carried rifled 32-pdr guns and certainly had the weight of firepower to their advantage, the river channel prevented them from bringing that to bear.
Winegar was able to engage almost immune from any broadsides. Attempting to retire upriver, Hunter’s boats ran into each other. As result, the Resolute was disabled and drifted to Argyle Island. The vessel proved to be a valuable addition for the Federals and was soon employed transporting troops and forage across the river. Hunter, however, retired his remaining gunboats up to the cover of Wheeler’s Cavalry. Yet another combat force was taken off the map for the Confederates, unable to influence the events to follow.
Elsewhere along the lines the Federals continued to press up close to the Confederate lines in order to gain the measure of the defenses. The Right Wing continued to adjust lines due to the shift prompted by the late arrival of the Fourteenth Corps. Likewise the Fourteenth Corps had to develop their place in line. Though some commanders at the brigade and division levels saw opportunities and asked for permission to attack, none were granted. Very clear was Sherman’s intent, perhaps seasoned from experiences earlier in the war. Sieges were operations of patience and time. Sherman would act to ensure his army had plenty of both.
The one commodity that Sherman did worry about running low on was fodder for his animals. Orders went down on December 12 to dismount anyone not absolutely necessary for operations. Various men who’d mounted themselves during the march turned in horses. In addition, all those animals needed in supply operations would be centrally held. Typical were the orders for the Fifteenth Corps:
All the teams and cattle will be ordered up to their respective divisions, and will be parked and corralled with a view to the convenience of forage. As the article will become very scarce during our stay, the greatest economy in the use of it is recommended, and the collecting and distributing of the same must be well systematized within the divisions to prevent waste.
As for the troops, while many complained the columns still had plenty of issue rations – hardtack and such – for the men. Of course, the men were in preference to what Georgia had provided during the earlier weeks.
Further south, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick had Colonel Eli Murray’s brigade of cavalry slip over the Canoochee River. Murray reached McAllister’s plantation and pushed scouts out to within a couple miles of Fort McAllister.
Later in the day, Kilpatrick reported to Sherman:
I met the enemy’s picket near the railroad, and chased Major Anderson, the commanding officer at Fort McAllister, back to his fort. From one of his escort captured, I learn that the fort is garrisoned by five companies, two of artillery and three militia; in all, about 200 men none of whom, however, have ever been under fire. There is a deep broad ditch to cross on entering the fort, and considerable opposition no doubt, will be met with. There is a low swamp about one mile this side the fort; a battery of four guns covers the road leading through this swamp…
Kilpatrick went on to suggest his forces might force their way into the fort:
… by forcing this battery to retire, a charging party could follow it directly into the fort, and the affair would be over. I did not intend, general, to attempt the capture of the fort by a sudden dash, but I intended to deliberately storm the works. I have old infantry regiments, armed with Spencer rifles, who could work their way up to within easy range and force every man to keep his head beneath the parapet, and, finally, force my way into the fort–of course, I intended to maneuver my troops as infantry.
Sherman, however, wanted Kilpatrick to begin scouting further south and look to possibly making contact with the fleet at one of the other riverways along the coast. The cavalry chief took those orders and moved out the next day.
Opposite Fort McAllister, some distance away, the signal station at Cheves’ rice mill remained vigilant watching the Confederates while at the same time looking for the Federal fleet. Throughout the day, a section of 20-pdr Parrotts from Captain Francis DeGress’ Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, supported by part of Battery H, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, sparred with the Confederate gunners. Neither side did little more than annoying the other.
Instead of a cavalry rush, Sherman wanted to use the infantry to ensure the act was completed quickly. Howard detailed Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Brigadier-General William B. Hazen, for the task. The selection had significance. The core of that division were a few veteran regiments which had served in Sherman’s division at Shiloh back in April 1862. It had subsequently been part of Fifteenth Corps, under Sherman, during the Vicksburg Campaign. Among the division’s previous commanders was Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr., by then in charge of the Seventeenth Corps. Not only was the Second Division somewhat “Sherman’s own” but it embodied the long story that was the Western Theater. To battle honors that included Shiloh, Corinth, Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Resaca, Kennesaw, and Atlanta, the division would add another the next day – Fort McAllister.
Considering the March by way of Markers, today there are two entries discussing specific events on December 12. One at Port Wentworth discusses the gunboat-artillery fight. Another at Richmond Hill notes Kilpatrick’s scout.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 357, 685 and 698; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 357.)