Marching Through Georgia, December 13, 1864: The Taking of Fort McAllister, Part 1

Fort McAllister… a topic for which I cannot restrain myself to a single blog post, and I won’t!  My fascination with this battle dates back to my Army days. Being stationed a short drive from the battlefield, it was a “quick run.” Later, when tasked to provide a staff ride for our unit, I married my “ground research” with primary and secondary sources.  An ally in that task, Roger S. Durham, who was then working at the Fort Stewart Museum, has written the definitive work on Fort McAllister, with several chapters on the battle.  I cannot top that here.  Instead let me offer some background, the short version of the events, and along with that some of the points that I stressed for that tour (two decades ago).  So for “Part 1” today, let me provide some of that background.

Consider the “storyline” of this battle by components.  Let me start with the the parts in contact – Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s division and Major George A. Anderson’s garrison.  Hazen’s order of battle on paper was:

  • First Brigade, Colonel Theodore Jones: 55th, 116th, and 127th Illinois; 6th and 8th Missouri; 30th and 57th Ohio.
  • Second Brigade, Colonel Wells S. Jones: 111th Illinois, 83rd Indiana, 37th, 47th, 53rd, and 54th Ohio.
  • Third Brigade, Colonel John M. Oliver: 48th, 90th, and 99th Indiana; 15th Michigan; 70th Ohio.
  • Artillery: Battery H, 1st Missouri Light and one section of Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery.

The Federal force totaled ar0und 4,000. I don’t list Briagdier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry here.  But the cavalry played an important role early in the day.  The cavalry pressed within a mile of Fort McAllister and, while denying Anderson any information of what was going on, was able to pass valuable information about the fort’s layout and defense to Hazen.  After Hazen moved up, Colonel Eli Murray’s force moved south into Liberty County.  Colonel Smith Atkins’ Brigade moved to Kilkenny Bluff.  There they would attempt to reach the blockaders operating in St. Catherine’s Sound.

On the balance, Major Anderson had about 200 men within the confines of Fort McAllister.  The fort contained three 10-inch columbiads, one 8-inch columbiad, one 42-pdr gun, one 32-pdr rifled gun, four 32-pdr smoothbores, one 24-pdr howitzer, two 12-pdr Napoleons, six 6-pdr guns, two 12-pdr mountain howitzers, and one 10-inch mortar. Anderson’s garrison included a platoon of  infantry under Captain George Nicoll (25 men), two companies of the 1st Georgia Reserve Regiment (D and E), and Captain Nicholas Clinch’s Light Artillery Battery.

The fort had shrugged off attacks by the monitors, carrying the heaviest ordnance around, in 1863.  But the heavy guns in the fort faced the river. The land-facing sides featured the smaller caliber guns.  And those were mounted en-barbette, or on firing platforms looking over the parapet.  This exposed the gunners to fire from attackers, a point not lost on Kilpatrick and in his report to Major-General William T. Sherman on December 12.

FortMcAllister

However, while the guns were not placed to maximize firepower, there were several obstacles placed to make any attacker pause.  Thanks to the photographers who arrived at the fort after the battle, we know how those looked.  From the perspective of the Federal troops advancing at the fort:

Notice the open expanse of cleared ground, mostly sand.  Then a ring of abatis, in the form of felled trees with branches pointing out.

At passage points out of the abatis, Confederate engineers placed torpedoes or mines.  I cannot say this as an absolute certainty, but I think this photograph captures some of those:

Look to the right center at the two beams placed across what appears to be a path:

FtMcallisterObstacles1

See the objects between and beside the beams?  My speculation here (and that is all, so take it for what that’s worth) is that the beams were placed there to deter some absent minded wagoner from driving over the mines.  Though by the time these photos were taken, all should have been disarmed.  Maybe a precautionary measure?  (I know it to be modern practice to leave warning signs up around hastily cleared minefields just to keep those passing on the corridors.)

Once past the abatis the attackers had to traverse a deep ditch with palisades:

Keep in mind these are the “after” photos.  To get past these “sticks” the attackers had to break down passageways through the line of palisades… and then climb up the steep walls to the left of view.  I don’t know about you, but every time I look at this photo, I imagine my feet slipping on that sandy embankment.

The mortar battery had been pulled in by the time of the battle.  But the position of the earthworks and causeway leading to the battery remained intact.  Part of that is seen in this photo:

Once at the fort’s walls, the attackers assailing the rear-center of the fort faced a cross fire from the bastions:

To negate this cross fire, Hazen wanted to attack with three columns, with the aim to hit all along the rear wall of the fort.

Once over the walls, the defenders could fall back to magazines and behind traverses to fire upon the parade field:

Though I would quickly point out, in that event, the fort was lost already.  The defenders would only be trying to make the attacker pay a little more in blood for the victory.

The fort’s profile was generally good.  But there were places where the engineers had not improved the lines.  One of which was along the river, upstream side:

Here, at low tide, an attacker could rush up directly against the walls, with no abatis or palisades in the way.

I thought about offering some “then and now” views of the fort.  But will hold off pending a dedicated photo analysis post.  But you can get a “grand tour” of the fort as it looks today… from the air:

Having described the defenses of the fort and the “nut” which Hazen’s men had to crack, let me turn in the next post to a description of the operation – how Hazen moved up his command, his plan of attack, and some of the other “moving parts” that turned around as the plan was executed.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Marching Through Georgia, December 13, 1864: The Taking of Fort McAllister, Part 1

  1. Thanks to your detailed and enthusiastic recommendations a few years back, my wife and I decided to visit Fort McAllister on our way through Charleston and Savannah. It was everything that you promised and more. The bonus came when we returned to our downtown B&B that evening and found that we were billeted in the “town house” of … Maj. George Anderson.

    We are devouring every word & image that you post on this topic, so don’t hold yourself back…

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