December 21, 1864, found Major-General William T. Sherman was on the USS Harvest Moon, in the company of Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren and still in transit from Port Royal to his base at King’s Bridge on the Ogeechee River. Bad seas delayed passage, and necessitated a slower route closer to shore. Sherman remained disconnected from his headquarters or any subordinates while major events took place just a few dozen miles away in Savannah.
Before dawn pickets on Brigadier-General John Geary’s sector noticed the Confederates had ceased firing. Taking a queue from what he’d observed the day before and into the evening, Geary took an aggressive stance:
December 21, after 3 o’clock this morning the firing ceased, and my pickets advancing to the enemy’s line found them hastily retreating. Having possession of their line of works, with all their cannon in front of my own and the other divisions of the corps, I immediately sent a staff officer to notify the general commanding, and at the same time pushed forward rapidly in the direction of Savannah, hoping to overtake and capture a part of the enemy’s forces. My skirmishers deployed, and swept overall the ground between the evacuated works and the Ogeechee Canal from the river to the Augusta road, while my main body of troops marched rapidly by the flank through McAlpin’s plantation to the Augusta road and on into the city.
At around 4:30 a.m., Geary ran into a delegation from the city including the mayor. Geary sent word of this back through the lines, though the messenger had difficulty convincing the Federals still in their siege positions that he was a “Yankee” and the Confederates were indeed gone.
In the meantime my entire division entered the city of Savannah at early dawn, and before the sun first gilded the morning clouds our National colors, side by side with those of my own division, were unfurled from the dome of the Exchange and over the U.S. custom-house. Barnum’s brigade, which led in entering the city, was at once ordered to patrol it, reduce it to order and quiet, and prevent any pillaging or lawlessness on the part either of soldiers or citizens. My orders on the subject were very strict, and within a few hours this city, in which I had found a lawless mob of low whites and negroes pillaging and setting fire to property, was reduced to order; many millions of dollars’ worth of cotton, ordnance, and commissary stores, &c., which would otherwise have been destroyed, were saved to the United States Government, and the citizens once more enjoyed security under the protection of that flag which again waved over them, exactly four years since the passage by the State of South Carolina of the secession act.
Indeed, the significance of the date cannot be overlooked. Nor can Geary’s sense of responsibility as he took up position to restore order to the city. Later in the day official orders placed Geary in command of the city.
Geary’s division fanned out and occupied fortifications, depots, and other military facilities around the city. A detachment of the 29th Ohio reached Fort Jackson around mid-morning. After placing the American flag over the fort, they came under fire from the CSS Savannah, at anchor at Screven’s Ferry.
This caught the attention of Major John Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief. But the only guns around were 3-inch rifles of Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, under Captain Thomas Sloan. The battery engaged the ironclad, with little effect. And the ironclad was unable to return effective fire as lacking a good position and unable to elevate her guns. Sloan’s gunners, however, found other targets on the South Carolina shore. “One hundred and twenty rounds were expended on the morning of the 21sth endeavoring to drive off the enemy from a boat on the river, from which they were unloading supplies.” Captain Francis DeGress, 1st Illinois, Battery H, sent 20-pounder Parrott rifles up that afternoon to spar with the ironclad. But by nightfall neither those or heavier 30-pdrs had done any significant damage to the ironclad.
On the South Carolina shore, Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade was still in their extended “lodgement” threatening the Confederate line of retreat. Except now Carman opposed the entire Savannah garrison and was vastly outnumbered. Orders came at 7 a.m. to withdraw the brigade. Carman sent the 150th New York back to Argyle Island as a rear guard and commenced removing the artillery. But the same rough weather that delayed Sherman worked to hinder Carman’s passage of the river channel.
It was 2 o’clock before the artillery and stores could be got far enough away to warrant the withdrawal of the balance of the brigade; then it was withdrawn, followed by our skirmishers, the enemy pressing hard. The One hundred and seventh New York Volunteers crossed; then the enemy grew more bold, advancing at all points, but under cover of the numerous dikes they were held in check. At sunset the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers crossed, and Colonel Hawley, commanding Third Wisconsin, with’ the skirmish line, was left to the delicate task of withdrawing under cover of darkness. At 11 p.m. the skirmish line crossed and without the loss of a man captured.
Elsewhere on the Federal lines, as dawn broke units began to move over the former Confederate works. Brigadier-General John Corse’s division, on the far right end of the Federal line, advanced up to Fort Brown on the southeast perimeter of the city. On the Vernon River, Lieutenant-Commander W.H. Dana’s gunboats continued shelling the now empty Fort Beaulieu. “Expended 11 XI-inch shell, 19 30-pounder Parrott percussion, 6 howitzer shells. At 10 a.m. called away all boats, manned and armed them for assaulting.” Within a few minutes, the sailors were in the fort and had the U.S. flag flying.
Not until late afternoon, near dark, did an army steamer finally catch up with Sherman, who by then had transferred to Dahlgren’s barge to better make way in the shallow waters. The message from Lewis M. Dayton, Sherman’s Aide-de-Camp, read, dated the 21st at 9 a.m.:
I have sent you two dispatches via Fort McAllister in hopes of reaching you. General Slocum reports enemy gone from his front and he has got eight guns – this report at 4 [a.m.] He is also gone from this front and General Howard reports Leggett near the city, and no enemy. General Woods also got six guns. General Slocum is moving and General Howard the same and I have no doubt both are in Savannah now. I will ride with General Howard, at his request, and leave our camp until the matter is more definite and you make orders.
While Sherman was at sea, the entire situation changed. He now had full possession of Savannah, though his adversary had escaped in the night.
Dahlgren began concentrating his available forces at Tybee Roads. Even with the fall of Savannah, the ironclad that had defended the city remained a threat. Fearing the Savannah might still attempt a sortie, he brought up monitors. But the Savannah was not going anywhere.
The Confederate’s own torpedoes blocked her passage downstream. As the last forces were withdrawn from Screven’s Ferry, the crew of the ironclad abandoned ship. Shortly before midnight, a loud explosion signaled the end of the Savannah Campaign and the march to the sea. The CSS Savannah, just as Confederate Savannah itself, ceased to exist.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 279, 361 and 771; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 137.)