Savannah’s Siege, December 20, 1864: “The noise of the retreating enemy could plainly be heard”

For Lieutenant-General William Hardee, December 20, 1864 was a day of anticipation.  Had the pontoon bridge across the Savannah River been ready before dusk the day before, he would have started the evacuation of Savannah.  Instead, he looked to keep up the appearances of holding the city for just one more day and then evacuate under the cover of darkness.  For his plan to work, he had to keep open the one corridor out of Savannah.  To Major-General Joseph Wheeler, who’s men were protecting the bridge and causeway on the South Carolina side, Hardee implored, “The road to Hardeeville must be kept open at all hazards; it is my only line of retreat.”

Most of the Federals, however, were focused on other things than the road to Hardeeville.  Major-General William T. Sherman arrived in Port Royal Sound early on December 20.  Meeting most of the day with Major-General John Foster, the two looked for ways to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  Brigadier-General John Hatch, in command of the force on Deveaux’s Neck opposing the railroad near Coosawhatchie, reported his progress that day:

Yesterday morning I put three rifled guns in the marsh, 900 yards from the small railroad bridge, and damaged it so much that no trains have passed since.  The ground is so bad that I can not get the 30-pounders there. I have a platform laid down for one 30-pounder that will reach the railroad at a range of 1,300 yards. Am not firing now, as we are out of all kinds of ammunition, except that for our muskets; have sent to [Hilton Head] for more, but no attention is paid to our requisitions, or no transportation is furnished to bring it up.

Hatch indicated he was going to stage a feint at a point closer to Hilton Head and then attempt to flank the Confederates with a move across the Coosawhatchie River.  Likely Sherman reviewed this report while with Foster.  Before departing, Sherman promised to transfer some of his veteran troops to aid Hatch.  But that would take some time, and the first “allotment” of that would be the time required for Sherman to transit back to his headquarters to cut the orders.  As he left Hilton Head that afternoon, bad weather was brewing up causing even more delays.  The delayed transit, as we shall see, would have an important effect on events at Savannah.

Along the siege lines outside Savannah, the primary task was completing preparations for an assault on the Confederate works.  Major-General Oliver O. Howard had selected Brigadier-General Giles Smith’s division of Seventeenth Corps to force a lodgement, once Sherman gave the order to commence.  On the far right, Howard also ordered up a brigade from Brigadier-General William Hazen’s division, who were returning to camps at Fort McAllister, to reinforce their fellow Fifteenth Corps troops.  Everything pointed to a grant assault at some point in the near future.

Aside from this, Howard had time to deal with an administrative request.  To Major-General Peter Osterhaus, he responded:

General Corse requested the privilege of raising a negro regiment for his division for the purpose of pioneer duty, details for work in the quartermaster’s and commissary departments, &c. I will approve the raising of two negro regiments, one for each army corps, for the purposes above specified, and give the provisional appointments of such officers as the corps commanders may recommend, subject to the approval of the War Department. Each regiment must be denominated Pioneer Battalion, in conformity with Special Field Orders, No. 120, Military Division of the Mississippi, and must be paid as pioneers are now paid, should the War Department fail to approve my action.

On the Right Wing, Major-General Henry Slocum was likewise busy preparing for the anticipated assault.  Keeping Sherman’s headquarters informed, at 8 a.m. that day he wrote, “I am now fully prepared to execute any orders the general-in-chief may issue. All our batteries are finished, but the six 20-pounder guns have not yet come.”

Slocum’s subordinates examined the potential assault routes that day.  Brigadier-General James Morgan, commanding Second Division, Fourteenth Corps, provided an assessment of the ground in front of his line, prefacing, “I am sorry to say that I have no place from which one could be made with any reasonable hope of success.” Morgan continued on to say the roads leading up to the Confederate works were,

… commanded by a well-constructed fort, with abatis and other obstructions in front, the water of the swamp over and across the road for some eighty yards, depth not known. To advance a column by the flank upon this road without any ground for deployment, under a heavy fire, would be a useless destruction of life, without a corresponding advantage.

To deal with the canal, which crossed his sector, Morgan had foot bridges and fascines constructed.

On the Twentieth Corps sector, scouts from the 33rd Massachusetts sent forward scouts to assess the ground.  Corporal Robert Black reported back:

After arriving at the picket-line he started to about forty paces to the left of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad; advanced some seventy paces on clear ground without discovering any obstructions and no impediments, after which encountered large pine trees felled, ground uneven and no water; with some difficulty climbed over the felled trees and came to swampy ground, and still further on came to a pond varying from six to twelve feet in width, tried the depth of the pond by means of a pole and judged it to be some five feet deep with soft spongy ground, after which moved further to the left by creeping under and climbing over the fallen trees and found tolerable good ground, no water, but fallen timber, and as far as he could see it was all fallen timber–not trimmed.

Black estimated he reached a point 200 yards from the Confederate works before turning back.  Clearly those making the planned assault would have their work cut out for them.

Brigadier-General John Geary’s men improved the fortifications in their sector on the 20th.  Late in the evening the 30-pounder Parrotts arrived and were placed in position.  But while this was going on, Geary reported Confederate activity of note:

I ascertained this morning that the enemy had completed a pontoon bridge from Savannah across to the South Carolina shore, and notified the commanding general corps of the discovery.  This bridge was about two miles and a half from my left.

Wary of any Confederate withdrawal attempt, Geary asked his outposts to keep the bridge under observation.  But no significant activity was reported before nightfall.

Closing his 8 a.m. report, Slocum added, “I have a brigade on the South Carolina shore.” This was, of course that of Colonel Ezra Carman who’d turned a “lodgement” into a full on brigade perimeter in the rice fields.  Further advance was blocked by Wheeler’s men:

December 20, in obedience to orders from the brigadier-general commanding division to determine the position of Clydesdale Creek with reference to my line, I detailed twelve companies of the brigade, under immediate command of Colonel Hawley, Third Wisconsin Volunteers, and accompanied them myself. The force succeeded in reaching Clydesdale Creek with the loss of one man killed, and after erecting works for one regiment and posting therein two companies of Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers, an effort was made to strike the Savannah and Hardeeville road, but the enemy, anticipating the movement, had thrown a strong force in our front. Having a canal to cross under their fire if we advanced I ordered the detachment to withdraw.

Carman, like Geary, noticed signs the Confederates were withdrawing:

During the day a great number of vehicles of all descriptions were seen passing our front, moving from Savannah toward Hardeeville, which fact was reported to the headquarters of the division.

Later that afternoon, a Confederate gunboat shelled Carman’s position.  After firing some thirty rounds and killing one man, the gunboat fell back due to the tides. Nearing dusk, Carman reported clear indications the Confederates were pulling out:

At 4 p.m. the enemy were re-enforced by three regiments of infantry from Savannah. From 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. the noise of the retreating enemy could plainly be heard as they crossed the bridges from Savannah to the South Carolina shore.

The Confederate withdrawal was underway, with several keen observers on the Federal lines reporting the movement of wagons.  But the army’s chief was not in contact at that moment.  Nor was anyone looking forward to the prospect of fighting through the swamps, ponds, and abitis to get at the departing Confederates.   I’ll turn to the particulars of the Confederate withdrawal… or retreat if you prefer… in the next post.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 237, 279, 766, 769, 770-1 and 968.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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