Sometimes a campaign is decided by action, such as a daring assault or rapid march. Other times, more often than not, a campaign turns on some written words, expressing intentions, which usher a chain of events. Such is the case with the Savannah Campaign. And those words were written down in two messages – one taken down in Savannah and the other in Washington.
From Major-General William T. Sherman’s perspective, the note he’d received in the evening of December 15, carried by Colonel Orville Babcock and dated December 6, shifted the ground under his feet. An earlier message from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant hinted at follow-on campaigns through the Carolinas. And it was more a solicitation of opinion, leaving Sherman free to attend to near term objectives, such as the capture of Savannah. The second note, arriving in the night, was like a wet blanket on the fire. Grant, less concerned about Savannah, wanted Sherman to move north, unless Sherman saw “objections to this plan.”
Sherman penned a lengthy response, which he sent on December 16. While not direct objections, Sherman played the details of his compliance in such a way to offer subtle objections. After acknowledging the receipt of both messages, Sherman explained his current dispositions:
… I have in person met and conferred with General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren, and made all the arrangements which I deemed essential to reducing the city of Savannah to our possession. But since the receipt of yours of the 6th I have initiated measures looking principally to coming to you with 50,000 or 60,000 infantry, and, incidentally, to take Savannah, if time will allow. At the time we carried Fort McAllister by assault so handsomely, with its 22 guns and entire garrison, I was hardly aware of its importance; but since passing down the river with General Foster and up with Admiral Dahlgren I realize how admirably adapted are Ossabaw Sound and Ogeechee River to supply an army operating against Savannah. Sea-going vessels can easily come to King’s Bridge, a point on Ogeechee River fourteen and a half miles west of Savannah, from which point we have roads leading to all our camps. …
Sherman over-rated the ability to resupply the armies by way of the Ogeechee, but he explained that foraging over the last month had collected ample supply. Sherman went on to brag about the successful provisioning of the army during the march – doubling the number of cattle with the army, completely replacing worn out draft animals, and outfitting the cavalry with ample number of remounts.
To comply with Grant’s orders, Sherman dispatched his Chief Engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, to survey a defensive line across Bryan Neck, out from Fort McAllister. But while waiting for transportation, Sherman would continue to menace Savannah. In particular, he would get the siege guns in place to bombard the city. However, Sherman did note his restraint in prosecuting the siege, specifically that operation proposed by Colonel Ezra Carman the previous day:
General Slocum occupies Argyle Island and the upper end of Hutchinson’s Island, and has a brigade on the South Carolina shore opposite, and he is very urgent to pass one of his corps over to that shore; but, in view of the change of plans made necessary by your order of the 6th, I will maintain things in statu quo till I have got all my transportation to the rear and out of the way, and until I have sea transportation for the troops you require at James River, which I will accompany and command in person.
Sherman suggested the best disposition for him to leave outside Savannah would be establishing Major-General John Foster with a force south of the Ogeechee. He fretted over leaving his veteran infantry, but the cavalry under Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would stay.
Towards the end of his letter, Sherman turned to the pressing matters in Tennessee. Sensing the situation outside Nashville was the cause of Grant’s orders, Sherman slighted Major-General George Thomas at the same time expressing hope for a positive outcome. “I know full well that General Thomas is slow in mind and in action, but he is judicious and brave, and the troops feel great confidence in him. I still hope he will out-maneuver and destroy Hood.”
Closing, Sherman again expressed his understanding of Grant’s orders and intent to comply, but added, “Our whole army is in fine condition as to health, and the weather is splendid; for that reason alone, I feel a personal dislike to turning northward.”
However, events in Nashville over December 15 and 16 caused Grant to reconsider his own orders of December 6. Perhaps at the very moment Babcock arrived at King’s Bridge looking for Savannah, Grant sent a note to Major-General Henry Halleck in regard to Sherman:
Please communicate with Sherman, and direct him to send no troops from his army to Virginia until plan of campaign is fully agreed upon. My last instructions to Sherman contemplated his sending troops to operate against Richmond, retaining all his artillery, cavalry, and infantry sufficient to hold our base on the Atlantic secured by his campaign and to compel the enemy to retain there at least the force he now has against us. Also, that artillery can be sent from here to supply his wants.
The ground shifted under Grant’s feet! Thomas’ initial success on December 15 indicated the beleaguered (from above and in front) Federal commander outside Nashville was prosecuting the successful turns long demanded by those in Washington. Grant realized he had no need to leave Savannah off his list of priorities. Without a single word from Sherman, Grant was then leaning back towards an operation through the Carolinas.
While Sherman was composing and forwarding his message of December 16, Halleck was sending a message refining Grant’s instructions, which I’ll quote in whole for effect:
Lieutenant-General Grant informs me that in his last dispatch sent to you he suggested the transfer of your infantry to Richmond. He now wishes me to say that you will retain your entire force, at least for the present, and with such assistance as may be given you by General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren, operate from such base as you may establish on the coast. General Foster will obey such instructions as may be given by you. Should you have captured Savannah, it is thought that by transferring the water batteries to the land side, that place may be made a good depot and base for operations on Augusta, Branchville, or Charleston. If Savannah should not be captured, or if captured and not deemed suitable for this purpose, perhaps Beaufort would serve as a depot. As the rebels have probably removed their most valuable property from Augusta, perhaps Branchville would be the most important point at which to strike, in order to sever all connection between Virginia and the Southwestern Railroad. General Grant’s wishes, however, are that this whole matter of your future action should be entirely left to your discretion. We can send you from here a number of complete batteries of field artillery, with or without horses, as you may desire. Also, as soon as General Thomas can spare them, all the fragments, convalescents, and furloughed men of your army. It is reported that Thomas defeated Hood yesterday near Nashville, but we have no particulars nor official reports, telegraphic communication being interrupted by a heavy storm. Our last advices from you was General Howard’s note announcing his approach to Savannah.
Grant was giving Sherman his own reins again. And the suggestion was for Sherman to put pressure on the Carolinas, specifically Branchville. What is important here in the context is that Halleck and Grant were receiving near real-time (for that day and age) updates from Nashville on which to base their decisions. Meanwhile the lack of telegraph to Hilton Head meant those in Washington were working off a five day old note from Sherman’s command. And neither messages – that from Sherman, nor that from Halleck – would reach the intended readers for several more days.
In this gap of communications, Grant was uncharacteristically indecisive, even contradictory of himself. That had an effect all the way down to a brigade commander who’d proposed a daring move which might have closed the Savannah Campaign with a loud note. Instead, assuming caution, Sherman would look to other means in which to influence the tactical situation. Knowing Foster’s troops would not be withdrawn, Sherman hoped to extract a deeper purchase at the Coosawhatchie. The outcome of the Savannah Campaign was, I submit, determined by the words in Grant’s message of December 6 and confirmed by Sherman’s response on December 16. Though successful in the end, the campaign’s result was less than what could have been.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 715 and 726-729.)