Savannah’s Siege, December 17, 1864: Savannah to be defended, but not “to the sacrifice of the garrison”

Yesterday I focused on the correspondence between Major-General William T. Sherman and his superiors in Washington.  As we saw, Sherman’s orders governed his actions with respect to the siege of Savannah, and thus the overall success or failure of the March to the Sea.  Ordered to withdraw the armies and head for Virginia by boat, Sherman, quite properly, avoided any movements that might commit his force to a long siege.  Instead, he looked for a means to gain the surrender of Savannah without protracted or bloody effort.  The “down shift” of the siege efforts was, unfortunately, a byproduct of slow communications with Washington.  Within a few days, Sherman would receive a green light to push forward.

But none of this happened in a vacuum. On the Confederate side, decisions were also made in regard to the defense of Savannah.  Just as Sherman turned on word from Washington, the decisions for Confederates factored guidance from  authorities in Richmond.  Those on the ground in Georgia and South Carolina had to bring those in Richmond to understand the realities of the situation… apart from the wild speculations seen in the papers.

The crux of the matter was the question, “Should we hold Savannah?”  As Sherman’s columns neared the coast, Lieutenant-General William J. Hardee indicated he needed reinforcements if the intent was to hold the city.  In particular, in order to keep the corridor of communication open, Hardee requested, on December 4, 1864, 3,000 men for “the defense of the South Carolina railroad from Savannah to Charleston.”  Soon after that, as related earlier, the Federals pressed the railroad at Coosawhatchie.  Maj0r-General Samuel Jones came from Charleston to assume command of that threatened sector.  He also related the need for more men in order to hold open the corridor.

Into this situation, General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived in Charleston on December 7, after a round-about route, to take command of the forces opposing Sherman.  Among the first messages Beauregard passed to Hardee expressed caution:

Having no army of relief to look to, and your forces being essential to the defense of Georgia and South Carolina, whenever you shall have to select between their safety and that of Savannah, sacrifice the latter, and form a junction with General Jones, holding the left bank of the Savannah River and the railroad to this place as long as possible.

After meeting with Hardee on December 9, just before the Federals cut the railroad outside Savannah, Beauregard further cautioned:

It is my desire, after the consultation that has taken place, that you should hold this city so long as in your judgement it may be advisable to do so, bearing in mind that should you have to decide between a sacrifice of the garrison or city, you will preserve the garrison for operations elsewhere.

But this put Hardee in a predicament with multiple barbs to negotiate.  In the first place, to “hold” the city Hardee had to make preparations to keep his troops supplied in the city. Yet, that meant in the case evacuation was needed, those same stocks would need to be moved.  Another barb for Hardee was more that of appearances.  Earlier in the war, Confederate commanders were criticized for giving up cities and other strategic points when threatened.  With respect to Savannah, fresh in every mind was the surrender of Fort Pulaski in 1862.  The sense was Colonel Charles Olmstead had not given the appropriate level of resistance before surrendering the fort.  Hardee had to carefully weigh the situation, even given Beauregard’s cautionary notes.

As Sherman’s investment of Savannah developed, Beauregard pushed Richmond for reinforcements. On December 12, he wrote to General Samuel Cooper:

Lieutenant-General Hardee reports enemy developed in strong force along his entire front yesterday, and that he has been compelled to extend his lines. He asks for immediate re-enforcements.

And Beauregard was also quick to take steps ensuring the corridor out of Savannah was secured to the extent possible.  To Jones at Coosawhatchie, he wrote:

If the enemy be too strongly fortified in your front to be dislodged complete your own intrenchements, and send at once re-enforcements to New River, Red Bluff, and points east of Screven’s Ferry Causeway where enemy might land.

To those who’d been involved with the defense of South Carolina since late 1861, this was the “old game.”  The points mentioned were those protected in response to the Federal victory at Port Royal.  All previous efforts were deterred by posting forces at key points to dominate the narrow routes through the marshes.  Beauregard, who knew the sector well from his earlier tenure in command at Charleston, was effectively calling upon the old contingency plans.  But these were designed to protect against a foray from Hilton Head, not counting a threat from inland.  When Colonel Ezra Carman began pushing off Argyle Island, just such a threat was realized.  Directly opposing Carman’s probes into South Carolina was Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, commanding a brigade of Georgia cavalry under Major-General Joseph Wheeler.  On December 14, Young requested, and received, artillery to help check the Federals.

On December 13, as events unfolded at Fort McAllister, Beauregard received a response from President Jefferson Davis in regard to calls for reinforcements:

I have anxiously desired to send re-inforcements, but events have rendered it impracticable to add to those forwarded some time since.  Should a change of circumstances render it possible to do more no time will be lost in doing so.  Should the enemy’s fleet be detached for operations against Savannah the opportunity will be presented for our squadron at Charleston to assume the offensive, and perhaps to destroy his depot at Port Royal.

Given the state of the Charleston squadron, Davis clearly was moving pieces around the chess board that didn’t exist in reality.  At the same time, Cooper related a response from General Robert E. Lee regarding reinforcements, “As long as Grant retains his present force here I do not think [the Army of Northern Virginia] can be weakened.” Yet again the “not army enough” factor played into Confederate operations.

Back at the tactical level, on December 15, Hardee expressed stern warning to Jones:

Our occupation of Savannah depends on your ability to hold the railroad.  Whenever you are unable to hold the road I must evacuate. You must strengthen your position by throwing up works and by making strong abatis.  Inform me instantly if Foster is re-enforced by Sherman or otherwise.  I feel uneasy about my communications.

So let us follow the passing of the buck.  Richmond could offer no reinforcement, but wanted Savannah held.  Beauregard did not want to lose the garrison, but could not directly call for a withdrawal.  Hardee did not want to abandon Savannah without justification. And it fell to Jones to determine just when Savannah could not be held.  Into this came the “pass” which would guide (read “relieve”) those in local command to a tactical decision.  That came on December 17, from Cooper to Beauregard:

The spirit of your instructions to General Hardee relative to the defense of Savannah is approved.  It is hoped Savannah may be successfully defended, but the defense should not be too protracted to the sacrifice of the garrison.  The same remark is applicable to Charleston. We must rely upon your judgement to make the fullest possible defense consistent with the safety of the garrison.

More to the point, Davis, in a message directly to Hardee, directed “that you may then provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needed for the preservation of your army.”  This took Beauregard and Hardee off the horns of their dilemma.  Their prime task was to save the army.  With that in mind, Hardee and Beauregard examined the pressing threat from Agyle Island and made a decision that evening – Savannah would be evacuated.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 927, 940, 951, 953, 945, 962, and 963.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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