Marching Through Georgia, December 13, 1864: The Taking of Fort McAllister, Part 3

Sometime in the evening of December 13, 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman sent this message to Major-General Henry Slocum, commanding his Left Wing:

Take a good big drink, a long breath, and then yell like the devil. The fort was carried at 4:30 p.m., the assault lasting but fifteen minutes. The general signaled from this side to the fleet and got answers, and the vessels were seen coming up from the sound….

Later in his official report, Sherman differed mainly on the time of the assault, citing 5 p.m., continuing “I witnessed the assault from a rice mill on the opposite bank of the river, and can bear testimony to the handsome manner in which it was accomplished.”  And that short description is usually enough to pass for most mentioning the event.  Closer to the action, Brigadier-General William B. Hazen recorded:

The grounds to the right of the fort being marshy, cut through by deep streams, rendered the deployment of that part of the line slow and difficult, and was not completely effected till 4.45 p.m., at which time, every officer and man of the nine regiments being instructed what to do, the bugle sounded the forward, and at precisely 5 o’clock the fort was carried. The troops were deployed in one line as thin as possible, the result being that no man in the assault was struck till they came to close quarters. Here the fighting became desperate and deadly. Just outside the works a line of torpedoes had been placed, many of which were exploded by the tread of the troops, blowing many men to atoms, but the line moved on without checking, over, under, and through abatis, ditches, palisading, and parapet, fighting the garrison through the fort to their bomb-proofs, from which they still fought, and only succumbed as each man was individually overpowered.

Not to sound like I’m jumping on a modern commercial catch-phrase, but fifteen minutes is all it took.  But we see, in Hazen’s report, that inside those fifteen minutes was a storm of destruction.  Hazen mentioned the torpedoes for good reason.  Most of his 24 killed were due to those mines.  And the veterans who lived through those fifteen minutes remembered them long after the war.

In a letter to the National Tribune in 1901, John Scott, Company I, 116th Illinois wrote:

Being on the right of the line, we entered the fort on the lower side.  I was knocked down by one of the torpedoes, and a piece of the limb that was attached to the torpedo stuck in the corner of my left eye, which when I pulled it out caused the blood to flow.  I was soon covered with blood from head to foot.

Later, in 1907, Eli A. Weekley of Company B, 53rd Ohio wrote of his experiences somewhat dismissing the torpedoes, going as far to say none fired during the assault.  Well this sparked what we might call today a “flame war” with responses.  I would offer that the great service of Weekley’s letter was to bring forward some vivid accounts of what those fifteen minutes were like.  J.S. Horner, Company D, 30th Ohio responded to say:

I am certain he is mistaken in this statement … I remember very distinctly of jumping over a pile of fresh earth while on the charge.  The man just behind me jumped over it all right, but the man behind him struck the cap of the torpedo as he ran and it exploded and blew off his foot above the ankle joint leaving the bone bare of flesh for two or three inches above the joint. When I heard the report of the shell I looked back and saw the poor fellow as he fell back in the hole the torpedo made when it exploded.

L.C. Huffine, Company C, 30th Ohio provided a similar response affirming the injuries due to torpedoes, adding

When we got up close to the fort we saw the wires above ground, and the boys sang out, ‘Watch out!’ One exploded at the head of my company blowing off the leg of Comrade Hiram Rooney, Orderly Sergeant. He was only a few feet from me when the explosion came and my eyes were full of sand. When I could get the sand out of my eyes, I looked and saw the boys on top of the fort shooting down into it.

And C.C. Degman, Company F, 70th Ohio likewise added his view of the damage from the torpedoes.  But in his letter he also described the effort required to cross the ditch and break through the stakes planted there.

This was a serious obstacle, as the stakes could not be moved except in a few cases.  Some got thru the small openings, some were held up by comrades, and fell over, others were helped over by those on the other side.  Finally all were over, and then the command came from Col. [Henry] Phillips: “Forward, boys!”  They fired one volley and then, with bayonet in hand, leaped forward and in only a few minutes after the torpedo line had been passed were on top of the fort.

And I know that many readers will recognize the style and tone of the National Tribune, with which we must place a grain of salt (as we sometimes have to do with letters found in the Confederate Veteran, or as with any veteran’s magazine were accounts are offered decades after the events).  But there is the emphasis on the torpedoes.  All seemed to think them ghastly.  And of course at the time, Sherman agreed.  Upon seeing the injury done by those weapons, he insisted, for the second time in a week, that Confederate prisoners be employed in the disarming of the torpedoes.

As horrific as the obstacles were, the Federal casualties were small when compared to similar assaults on fixed positions – 24 killed and 110 wounded.  Part of the reason for this was indeed the faulty Confederate dispositions – the cannons en-barbette, gaps in the abitis, covered ground within musket range of the fort, and simply the small number of the garrison.  But we should not dismiss Federal success as a forgone conclusion.  Recall just over a week prior a similarly large Federal force was unable to break through at Honey Hill.  And many of the same men stopped at Cossawhatchie.  I submit the difference at Fort McAllister had to do with leadership.  Hazen ensured “every officer and man” knew what was needed.  He kept good communications with his superiors and with subordinates (with the possible exception of Second Brigade).  He used every bit of information and advice provided by Kilpatrick.  In fact, to the extent that Hazen’s attack might be called an “infantry” version of what Kilpatrick had suggested the night before.  In short, Hazen and his men deserved every accolade bestowed for success at Fort McAllister.

After the fort was taken, Sherman and Howard, along with some of their staff, crossed the Ogeechee and met with Hazen.  After a late dinner, the generals took to the water again in search of the fleet.  Soon they were on board the USS Dandelion. The next day Sherman would meet with Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren (in that order, as Foster awoke him in the very early hours of the morning).  The Ogeechee attained, Sherman needed it cleared and opened for transports to supply his army.  He was at that moment focused on the prize of Savannah.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 10, 110, and 704; National Tribune, September 12, 1901, page 3; March 14, 1907, page 6; June 20, 1907, page 6; July 11, 1907, page 6.)

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