Savannah’s Siege, December 14, 1864: Though not marching, the march was not “over”

In some high-level discussion of the events of late 1864, you will see the March to the Sea concluded with something like “Sherman’s men stormed Fort McAllister… … … then he gave Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.  The End.”  But a week passed between the storming of Fort McAllister and the surrender of Savannah.  And a lot happened in that interval.  Indeed, Major-General William T. Sherman might have considered Savannah “already gained” as of the evening of December 13, but even he knew better than to proclaim it so.  Writing to Washington at his first opportunity, he took the time to explain his overall scheme, “… if General Foster will prevent the escape of the garrison of Savannah and its people by land across South Carolina, we will capture all.”  Sherman planned to bring up siege guns, from Major-General John Foster’s ample ordnance yards at Hilton Head and then demand the surrender of Savannah.

But that would take time, which for the moment Sherman had plenty of.  Aside from bringing up the heavy guns, Sherman needed to replenish his supplies, particularly fodder for the animals.  And for a siege, even a short one, the armies would need munitions stockpiles beyond what was carried on the march.  In addition, there were some movements needed on the periphery in order to maintain the hold on Savannah.  Looking at the pieces as they sat on the “big map” on December 14:


Foster had a division of troops confronting the Charleston & Savannah Railroad at Coosawhatchie, where Major-General Samuel Jones’ scratch force managed to cling to the line. However, I must stress again, that link, while important, was not the only passage way out for the Savannah garrison.  But it was somewhat a “leaning domino” in the situation.

Major-General Joseph Wheeler maintained a vigilant screen on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.  His presence, it was hoped, would prevent a Federal dash north to link up with Foster.  At that moment, a regiment or so from Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade, were occupying Argyle Island.  Though small, this was a threat towards the Confederate escape route from Savannah.  However, it seemed, as the week went on, Carman was the only Federal leader to appreciate that opportunity.

To the south of the Savannah siege lines, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry were roaming freely across Bryan, McIntosh, and Liberty Counties.  Colonel Smith Atkins men had established contact with the Navy in St. Catherine’s Sound.  Kilpatrick reported the vessel to be the USS Octorara.  But that cannot be true, as that vessel was in Mobile Bay at the time.  Rather it was the USS Fernandina which was assigned that section of coastline.   Though Kilpatrick suggested establishing a base of supply on the Medway River, that was overtaken by events on the Ogeechee to the north.

Kilpatrick’s other brigade, under Colonel Eli Murray, occupied the historic community of Midway as columns advanced in several directions.  The 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry rode down the Savannah & Gulf Railroad with an aim to destroy the bridge over the Altamaha River.  Colonel Thomas Jordan, commanding the regiment, “found the enemy (two regiments of infantry and artillery) too strongly posted to attack them.” Instead Jordon burned several smaller trestles and bridges running through the swamps leading to the river.


In the lines outside Savannah, Brigadier-General John Geary’s men were active along the Savannah River.  On the 13th, Geary complained about Confederate sharpshooters operating on Huchinson’s Island.  He sent a detachment of the 134th New York, under Major William Hoyt, to clear the upper end of Huchinson’s Island that afternoon.  To complete the coverage of his river flank, Geary brought up Battery E, Pennsylvania Light artillery, under Captain Thomas Sloan, and their 3-inch rifles.   The battery occupied a position low on the river bank, but with a clear view of the river channel, Huchinson’s Island ricefields, and the South Carolina shore.  Throughout December 14th, the Confederates bombarded the lines in Geary’s sector.  At 10 a.m. “one of the enemy’s gun-boats came up on the high tide in Back River, the other side of Hutchinson’s Island….”  This caused several casualties, but with the change of tides, the gunboat withdrew.

Elsewhere along the lines, the troops of both sides settled in to the monotony which epitomizes a siege.  Other than local reconnaissance and small adjustments to lines, very few were willing to press a general engagement.  Federal veterans of the long summer months outside Atlanta were content to let the situation develop. Typical of the activity during this stage is that recorded by Brigadier-General John Corse, Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps:

No effort was made to assault the enemy’s lines, which were separated from ours by the north branch of the Little Ogeechee and the rice swamps that abound on either bank of that stream.

Another reason for Federal inactivity on December 14th was the absence of two-thirds of the senior commanders.  Although Major-General Oliver O. Howard returned to his headquarters that day, Sherman spent the night on board Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren’s flagship USS Harvest Moon.  This set a pattern repeated over the next week, which would put Sherman afloat more than on dry land.  Such would leave him somewhat detached from the day-to-day operation of the armies.  However this was for the most part unavoidable.  The one “lose string” that Sherman needed to bring in was Foster’s operations.  And at the same time, Sherman needed to be in position to best correspond with superiors up north.  But his time afloat would leave a void not compensated by the presence of his two wing commanders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 128, 278, 388, 701-2.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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