Savannah’s Siege, December 19, 1864: “await orders for the attack” Sherman says

One of the hardest missions a military formation can perform is a withdrawal across a river in close contact with the enemy.  Such was the task for Lieutenant-General William Hardee on December 19, 1864.  As he and General P.G.T. Beauregard had already made the decision to evacuate the Savannah garrison.  They set the trigger for action on Federal movements – the moment any serious threat emerged, the evacuation would begin.  Such would satisfy the intentions expressed by authorities in Richmond, particularly to save the army.  For the plan to work, one important item had to be in place – a bridge over the Savannah River.  The escape route was not actually a single bridge, but rather a set of crossings and causeways into South Carolina, depicted in dark red on the map below, leading out of Savannah (ignore Carman’s blue lines for the moment):


Confederate engineers built a pontoon bridge from docks at West Broad Street (today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive… big “Oh, by the way”).  Reaching Hutchinson’s Island, a causeway over the rice fields connected to another bridge to Pennyworth Island. There another bridge reached the South Carolina shore.  A combination corduroy and causeway connected to the Union Causeway (I’m not 100% sure if the route was along the river as depicted on the map).  The engineering work suffered from delays as material was lacking.  Furthermore, egos among the engineers cause friction.  Eventually Beauregard would “use his stars” to push the work through that problem.  The bridge used rice barges and other watercraft found in Savannah. But it was a functioning bridge when completed late in the evening of December 19.

Major-General William T. Sherman was himself “using his stars” to deal with a tactical situation not up to his liking.  On the morning of December 19, he went down to King’s Bridge and caught a steamer to Port Royal in order to visit Major-General John Foster.  Sherman wanted a conference to see what more could be done to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  He left instructions for both wing commanders – Major-Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum – to “push the preparations for attacking Savannah with all possible speed, but to await orders for the attack.”

At King’s Bridge, Sherman noticed some difficulties with the detail provided to support offloading at the temporary port.  Brigadier-General John Sprague (Second Brigade, First Division, Seventeenth Corps) arrived to replace Colonel Benjamin Potts’ detail (First Brigade, Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps) at the bridge. Sprague did not detail sufficient troops for the job. So Sherman sent an “audible” addressing the problem:

On arrival at the bridge I found Colonel Potts’ brigade relieved by two regiments of General Sprague’s, containing less than 600 men. These are insufficient. I have ordered General Sprague back to his important post between Big and Little Ogeechee, and Colonel Potts’ brigade to remain for the present. As a permanent working party at King’s Bridge, the fairest way will be for each corps to send a regiment, of an average strength of 350 men, and each wing a working party of negroes, 100 each, to report to Colonel Beckwith, chief commissary. Please make your orders accordingly, and when they have arrived Colonel Potts’ brigade will be returned to its proper division. I may be absent, say, one or two days. You had better let General Sprague have a battery of four guns.

That was the directive. But before the order would circulate down the chain of command, Potts was in hot water with Major-General Frank Blair for not complying with orders.  More ink was wasted on January 19 resolving this matter than would be in dedicated to preparing the siege.  (I’ve always felt this episode deserved its own “staff ride stop” as an opportunity to show how administrative “audibles” can create unintended ripples.)

As the steamer taking Sherman to Port Royal entered the seaway, the general may have heard the sound of heavy artillery firing.  (My mistake, meant to put this paragraph in the entry for December 20.  Events detailed in this paragraph took place on that day!)  Lieutenant-Commander W.H. Dana on the USS Winona lead a force that included the USS Pawnee, USS Sonoma, and USS Flag up the Vernon River.  At 11:10 a.m., the Sonoma exchanged fire with Confederate batteries. Later in the afternoon, the gunboats moved closer and anchored “about 2¾ miles from Fort Beaulieu.”  The exchange of fire with Fort Beaulieu was brief, in the form of three 30-pdr Parrott rounds, but the Navy was starting the requested demonstrations.


Along the siege lines, Brigadier-General John Geary continued to advance preparations as directed.  Colonel Henry Barnum, commanding Third Brigade of Geary’s division, provided a detailed map with his report of the campaign showing the division sector:


After a morning conference at Twentieth Corps headquarters on the 19th, Geary continued preparations for the anticipated assault, “as soon as the heavy guns should be in readiness to open fire.”   Specifically:

Fort No. 1 was finished this evening. The details from First and Third Brigades continued work on the other forts during the night under a heavy artillery fire from the enemy. Several casualties occurred, among them Major [Myron] Wright, a most valuable officer, commanding the Twenty-nineth Ohio Volunteers, who was severely wounded by a shell.  Sloan’s battery of 3-inch rifled guns had already taken position in a work thrown up to the right of Fort No. 3 and in the open field.

Meanwhile, not far upstream from Geary, Colonel Ezra Carman was providing a perfect example of how to exceed orders and get away with it.  As ordered earlier, Carman sent a small detachment across to South Carolina on December 17.  Throughout the 18th he maintained and strengthened that position.  Orders for December 19 were to add more regiments to the “lodgement.”  So the remainder of the 3rd Wisconsin passed over, followed by the Second Massachusetts and Thirteenth New Jersey.

They landed without opposition and, advancing to and beyond Izard’s Mill, succeeded, after a slight skirmish, in securing a good position.  Deeming the force too inadequate to maintain its ground against the accumulating force of the enemy, the One hundred and seventh New York was sent over in the afternoon and succeeded in gaining an important point on the line.  So important did the enemy consider this position that they charged our forces with their cavalry

Not enough, Carman committed all of his brigade save a small rear guard.  In a message to his division commander, Brigadier-General Nathaniel J. Jackson, laced with “better to ask forgiveness than wait for permission” Carman reported on the developments:

I have the honor to report that the enemy have again opened upon our force across the river with artillery; and Colonel Hawley reporting that it was impossible to hold his position without more troops, I have moved the remainder of my brigade over, with the exception of three companies of the One hundred and fiftieth New York Volunteers, and have established my headquarters upon the South Carolina shore. I would also say that I need some intrenching tools if I am to remain there.

Carman got his entrenching tools and his brigade began to dig in to form a more a perimeter out of the “lodgement.”

The position occupied by the brigade was strong for defense, but the nature of the ground was such that an advance was difficult. It was a rice plantation, cut up by numerous dikes and canals, and the enemy had burned all the bridges over the canals and overflowed the whole plantation to a depth of eight to eighteen inches water, thus necessitating all our movements by the flank up these dikes, and they stood well prepared at these places to resist our advance. During the night I transported the two pieces of artillery across the river and put them in position in the center of the line. The line, as then formed and held by my brigade, was two miles and a quarter long, the left resting on the Savannah River near Izard’s Mill, the right on an inlet near Clydesdale Creek. During the night I caused earth-works to be thrown up at all the prominent points along the line, making my position as strong as possible.

Look at the first map above.  Carman’s men were very close to the pontoon bridge terminus on the South Carolina side (dark red).  His “lodgement” turned attack had provided Confederate commanders the trigger to start the evacuation of Savannah.  To protect the precious route out of the city, that evening Hardee dispatched around 650 men and six more artillery pieces to Major-General Joseph Wheeler in order to counter Carman’s thrust.

Carman had opened an opportunity to cut off the Confederate retreat.  But at that very moment the one man who could approve reinforcements to take advantage of the opportunity was on a steamboat heading into Port Royal.  Standing orders were “await orders for the attack.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 236, 279, 756, and 762; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 137.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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