Savannah’s Siege, December 17, 1864: “I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city….”

On December 17, 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman determined the time was right to formally press his opponent in Savannah, Lieutenant-General William Hardee.  So in the morning Sherman sent over a flag of truce with this message:

General William J. Hardee,
Commanding Confederate Forces in Savannah:

General: You have doubtless observed from your station at Rose dew that sea-going vessels now come through Ossabaw Sound and up Ogeechee to the rear of my army, giving me abundant supplies of all kinds, and more especially heavy ordnance necessary to the reduction, of Savannah. I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied; and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts, and shall await a reasonable time your answer before opening with heavy ordnance. Should you entertain the preposition I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, and the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army–burning to avenge a great national wrong they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war. I inclose you a copy of General Hood’s demand for the surrender of the town of Resaca, to be used by you for what it is worth.

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
W. T. Sherman,
Major-General.

Inclosed was, as indicated, a copy of Lieutenant-General John. B. Hood’s demand presented to the Resaca garrison earlier in the year. The text of that read:

I demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of the post and garrison under your command, and should this be acceded to, all white officers and soldiers will be paroled in a few days. If the place is carried by assault no prisoners will be taken.

Hardee’s response, written in the afternoon of the 17th but not received until the following morning, read:

Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman,
Commanding Federal Forces, near Savannah, Ga.:

General: I have to acknowledge receipt of a communication from you of this date, in which you demand “the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts,” on the ground that you have “received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot into the heart of the city,” and for the further reason that you “have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison can be supplied.” You add that should you be “forced to resort to assault, or to the slower and surer process of starvation, you will then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and will make little effort to restrain your army,” &c. The position of your forces, a half a mile beyond the outer line for the land defenses of Savannah, is, at the nearest point, at least four miles from the heart of the city. That and the interior line are both intact. Your statement that you “have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison can be supplied” is incorrect. I am in free and constant communication with my department. Your demand for the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts is refused. With respect to the threats conveyed in the closing paragraphs of your letter, of what may be expected in case your demand is not complied with, I have to say that I have hitherto conducted the military operations intrusted to my direction in strict accordance with the rules of civilized warfare, and I should deeply regret the adoption of any course by you that may force me to deviate from them in future.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. J. Hardee,
Lieutenant-General.

Verbal volleys added to the growing amount of ordnance thrown by both sides on the lines outside Savannah.

As Hardee’s reply was making its way across the lines, he and General P.G.T. Beauregard were already making decisions as to how the evacuation of the city should be performed.  On the 18th Beauregard issued a memorandum which detailed anticipated troop movements.  Specifically, he earmarked portions of the Savannah garrison to man lines across South Carolina to include Charleston.  Major-General Lafayette McLaws was to take command of the defenses of James Island under the plan.  But not until the 19th did Hardee issue a confidential circular detailing the withdrawal.

Of course, neither side had a full measure of the other’s intentions as the sun sat on December 17.  But for all practical matters, the only question was if Hardee could extract his command before Sherman closed the door.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 737-8.)

 

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