Savannah’s Siege, December 18, 1864: “90 or 100 men, in small boats, to effect a lodgement”

Over the last couple of days, posts have focused at the operational, or theater, level to show the implications of orders coming down from Washington and Richmond.  While that was occurring, the tactical situation remained somewhat static.  But with some notable exceptions.  Let me run through those dispositions and movements for December 16 through 18, 1864, looking at the “big” map to start:


Major-General William T. Sherman planned to have the siege guns borrowed from the Department of the South in place by December 20.  In the interim, he ordered preparations made for assaulting the works, including facines.

But the pressing matter, in Sherman’s mind, was the isolation of Savannah.  Hardee had boasted, in his reply to the surrender demand, of communications back to Richmond (which was true).  In an explanation to Washington, Sherman discounted this by pointing out Foster’s guns could range that line.  On December 17, Brigadier-General John Hatch, in command near Coosawhatchie, reported, “We got a battery in position last night bearing on the bridge; have not opened with it, as we hope to catch a train crossing this morning.”  But such was not good enough. Sherman was determined to get more from Foster… and Foster would push Hatch, replying on December 18:

I… am pleased that you have pushed your batteries up and, in a measure, stopped the running of the trains. I am not, however, fully satisfied with the damage we are doing them, and therefore want you to take the railroad, if you can, and destroy it; if you cannot do this, be sure and secure such an artillery fire as will destroy any train that attempts to pass.

Foster suggested a further move to the right, passing over Tullifinny Creek, to strike at Pocotaligo.

While waiting on the guns to get in place, both outside Savannah and on the Coosawhatchie, Sherman also inquired with subordinates in regard to possible demonstrations or flanking movements that might be performed (indicated with dashed lines on the map, and keyed).  One option (#1) was a demonstration against the Rosedew and Coffee Bluff Batteries by Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Along with that, Howard also explored a movement directly on the works at the extreme left of the Confederate lines.  Another (#2) would be a combined army-navy force up the Vernon and Burnside Rivers.  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was prepared to allocate mortar schooners and gunboats to this effort.  A third (#3 on the map) option was a movement against the causeway leading north from Savannah.  This last was less well defined in concept and would also be a joint operation.

Not everything focused on Savannah.  To the south, the Federal Right Wing, along with Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry, were working over Liberty County.  Leaving three regiments behind at Fort McAllister, Brigadier-General William B. Hazen assigned each brigade of his division to wreck a section of the Savannah & Gulf Railroad from Walthourville back to the Ogeechee.  Major-General Joseph Mower led two brigades of his division (Seventeenth Corps), accompanied by a section of Battery C, 1st Michigan Artillery, further down the line to destroy the bridge over the Altamaha River.  Recall the cavalry attempted to gain that bridge earlier only to find it too well defended.  By the evening of December 18, Mower destroyed the railroad up to a point eight miles short of the bridge.  These railroad wrecking operations were the main efforts in Liberty County.  Elsewhere cavalry and infantry foraged widely. In fact, over the next weeks, the Federals would practically clean out the county.  And while this was going on, the Navy staged several raids along the coast into adjacent counties.  (I’m planning a post aimed at the operations around Liberty County as there are some well documented military-civilian interactions and quite a bit of story to contemplate.)

However, it was along the Savannah River that Federal movements caught the most attention from Confederates.  On December 16, Colonel Ezra Carman received orders to cross his brigade from Argyle Island to South Carolina.  Scheduled for the 17th, those orders carried considerable caution.  Carman was to use only small boats until a perimeter was established on the far shore.  But most important, the orders had a leash attached, as Brigadier-General Alpheus S. Williams directed, “after you have crossed, you occupy and hold a position near the river, not attempting to advance far into the country.”


Yet, before dawn on the 17th, that order was countermanded.  Instead, Carman was to send “90 or 100 men, in small boats, to effect a lodgement, if possible, and feel the enemy’s position.”  Williams went into detail to ensure Carman did not misunderstand the intent:

He [Williams] wishes him [Carman] to take only such force as can be readily brought back in the case the enemy is too strong for them.  He also desires that Colonel Carman will send reconnoitering parties up the island, to examine the country and channel, and see if a crossing can be effected farther up the river; it may, perhaps, be well to send a small boat or two with this party.  The two pieces of artillery will be put in position near the mill [on Argyle Island], as directed in the former order.  The general desires to have one-half of the flat-boats brought to this side of the island, the other half to be kept on the north side, in vicinity of the mill, where they can be sheltered as much as possible.

Carman responded by selecting Colonel William Hawley to command a detachment of the 3rd Wisconsin – who’d been at the vanguard of all these river operations – to make the trip back into South Carolina.  This must have seemed the extreme of caution for Hawley and Carman, as foraging parties had already crossed the river several times in the previous days.  Still, there were snags in this movement, perhaps vindicating Williams’ caution … or because of Williams’ caution – as Carman recorded in his official report:

December 17, I found it impossible to cross 100 men in small boats, not having enough for the purpose, and the low state of the tide not warranting the use of the large barges.  Nothing special occurred during the day, save a desultory fire on our position by a light battery of General Wheeler’s cavalry command, which had now taken up position on the South Carolina shore opposite us.

Carman maintained that “lodgement” on the 18th, “with slight shelling from General Wheeler’s guns.”  Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, with his Georgia cavalry reinforced by two sections of artillery, were busy keeping Carman’s lodgement contained.

As things stood on the evening of December 18, Sherman was just short – in some places just yards – of isolating Savannah from the rest of the Confederacy.  At the same time, the Confederates were just hours away from extracting themselves from that predicament.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 236, 734-5, 739, 750.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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