In part 1, earlier today, I offered some background on Fort McAllister’s attackers and defenders. Looking now to the “moving pieces” we turn to King’s Bridge. At around 5 a.m. on the morning of December 13, 1864, the engineers stopped their repair work on the bridge to allow Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s division to cross. Within a few hours march, the division reached Joseph McAllister’s Strathy Hall plantation.
There Hazen posted guards, even though Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen had already ransacked the house. The infantry column pressed on to the turn off towards Genesis Point (just upstream from Fort McAllister). Nearing Hardwick, at the base of a peninsula formed by a wide “bow” of the Ogeechee River, a signal team went out to establish a station and communicate with the station at Cheves Rice Mill to the north. Hazen’s infantry continued on the road to Fort McAllister, skirmishing with Confederate outposts. Along the way they encountered several buried torpedoes on the roadway.
While Hazen’s men were marching, several other pieces were in motion (Some of the arrows are positioned to simplify the map):
To Hazen’s front, Kilpatrick’s cavalry withdrew from Genesis Point, where they’d pressed the fort’s pickets back. Kilpatrick spoke with Hazen, providing details of the Confederate dispositions. With that, Kilpatrick’s men split up into two columns. Colonel Eli Murray’s brigade moved into Liberty County, moving by way of Midway. Colonel Smith Atkins moved his brigade further south on Bryan’s Neck towards Kilkenny Bluff. The cavalry’s task was to seek out Federal blockaders in St. Catherine’s Sound, as a contingency against failure at Fort McAllister.
At Cheves’ Rice Mill, Major-Generals William T. Sherman and Oliver O. Howard arrived to take up an advance observation post. Captain James M. McClintock, at his signal station, observed Hazen’s movement and searched, without luck, for naval activity on the Ogeechee. Captain Francis DeGress maintained sporadic fire on Fort McAllister with no effect other than gain the Confederate’s attention.
The arrival of Captain William Duncan on the 12th prompted Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to start actively looking to establish positive contact with Sherman. Foster sent Lieutenant George Fisher, an experienced signal officer, to reconnoiter the rivers south of Fort Pulaski. Unfortunately, as Dahlgren noted in his diary entry for the 13th, the navy was simply stretched too thin. Not until the morning of the 13th was Fisher on board the tug USS Dandelion, a fine vessel but not the sort of warship Sherman looked for. Not knowing where Sherman’s men might be, they began searching along the Vernon River, and then into the Little Ogeechee River. Although the ship’s captain was wary of Confederate batteries, he did provide Fisher a skiff to get into some of the smaller creeks to a point opposite Fort McAllister. Hearing the sound of muskets across the marshes, Fisher:
… Looked about and saw, about thee miles northwest of where I was lying in the marsh, a flag upon the top of an old rice mill, but there being no air stirring, I was unable to make out of what nature it was. I could then indistinctly see persons through a broken part of the roof, one of whom, taking hold of the end of the flag, drew its folds out so that I could see our own glorious Stars and Stripes.
Fisher immediately made his way back to the tug and asked the captain to proceed up the Ogeechee. The time was around 2:00 p.m. with not much daylight left.
What had caused the musketry heard by Fisher was the arrival of Hazen’s lead elements at Fort McAllister’s outer line of defenses. Skirmishers fanned out and started to engage the fort’s garrison with a purpose. With the fort’s guns sitting above the parapets, instead of firing through embrasures, the Federal sharpshooters could harass the Confederate gunners and keep down their rate of fire.
Hazen needed time to deploy his division. He wanted to first encircle the fort, using nine regiments (three from each brigade), backed up with three more regiments in reserve. When all was in position, he’d launch a grand assault to overwhelm the defenders. Hazen, as he did in most operations, did well to keep his subordinates informed as to the plan, setup control measures to reduce mistakes, and, above all, provide as much information as was available about the situation.
The plan called for Second Brigade, arriving first at the fort, to form a line anchored on the river to their left. Next, First Brigade would sweep around to the far side of the fort and setup in position to assault from the south. Third Brigade would file in to fill the gap between. The problem was, for Second Brigade, a creek cut across the line of march. Thus the deployments were far too slow for Hazen’s, Howard’s, and Sherman’s likings.
While the infantry deployed, elsewhere the other parts of this “drama” were moving:
Kilpatrick’s cavalry moved to their new assignments. In Liberty County, Murray dispatched the 5th Kentucky Cavalry to Sunbury (near the old Revolutionary War post of Fort Morris). Likewise Atkins’ men reached Kilkenny Bluff. Both forces searched for a way to catch the eye of the blockaders.
Fisher, by then back on the Dandelion, moved through “Hell’s Gate” into the Ogeechee. The tug risked the big guns of Fort McAllister to a point just below a bend in the river. There Fisher began attempts to signal the station at the rice mill he’d seen.
The time was around 4:30 p.m. Tensions at Cheves’ Rice Mill ran high. The sun was setting low in the west. The planned assault of the fort was not yet ready. And the fleet had not been seen. In the words of more than one observer, Sherman was anxious if not outright nervous. But this was right when all the moving pieces converged to turn the day for the Federals. Observers at the rice mill noticed the smoke from the tug. Soon Fisher was sending a query:
Who are you?
McClintock, General Howard’s signal officer.
How can I get to you? What troops are at Fort McAllister?
We are now investing Fort McAllister with Hazen’s division.
What can we do for you? We are ready to render you any assistance.
Foster, General. Dahlgren, Admiral. Fisher, Lieutenant.
Can you assist us with your heavy guns?
Being only a tug-boat, no heavy guns aboard.
(And I’ve often wondered what Sherman’s real thoughts were, receiving that last line from a lowly lieutenant!)
The dialog cut short by Fisher’s last reply, McClintock now signaled to Hazen’s station: “It is absolutely necessary that the fort be taken immediately. The Stars and Stripes must wave over the battery at sundown. Sherman, General.” With that, Hazen knew he’d exceeded the time allowed for deployment. He had to go in even if Second Brigade was not in position:
With some of the luck which had followed the men throughout the march, Second Brigade fell into position just as the bugles sounded to start the charge.
The assault was not a forgone conclusion by any means. Nor was it simply a dash for the parapets. The troops first had to close several hundred yards of cleared ground. That reached, they had to wrestle through several layers of abatis and felled trees. Exiting that obstacle, there were mines planted. Then they had cross the ditch, breaking through the palisades in the way. (Recall the photos from the earlier post.)
But these were hardened veterans who’d seen many assaults of this type in the past. When the bugle sounded, they surged forward. With that, allow me to pause and break this post up for ease of reading. I’ll take up the assault and offer an assessment in part 3.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 753.)