During the days leading up to the Confederate evacuation of Savannah, Confederate leaders in the department began organizing the next line of resistance, anticipating future moves of Major-General William T. Sherman. The loss of Savannah did reduce the number of points the Confederates had to defend. But at the same time, a large Federal force operating on the Atlantic coast brought other points into range, thus complicating plans. Furthermore, the nature of Sherman’s operations, particularly by not garrisoning and holding points in central Georgia, brought the expectation that Confederate or state forces would reoccupy that left in the wake of the march.
After conferring with General P.G.T. Beauregard on December 20, 1864, Lieutenant-General William Hardee issued a circular outlining proposed troop movements as part of the Savannah evacuation. After reviewing the circular, Beauregard endorsed the plan, recording his concern about the manpower available:
Maj. Gen. G. W. Smith’s command (about 2,000 men) being sent to Augusta, will leave of the troops coming from Savannah about 6,500, which, added to those under the immediate command of Maj. Gen. Sam. Jones, on the line of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad (say about 5,500, exclusive of those in and around Charleston), makes about 12,000 troops. Of these he thinks there should be about 2,500 to guard the left bank of the Combahee, with about 1,000 in reserve at a central point between the Combahee and Ashepoo; about 3,500 in the Fourth Sub-District, with about 1,000 of them in reserve at or near Adams’ Run and Green Pond, and about 5,000 in the Second and Third Sub-Districts, in addition to those already there.
Beauregard, from his experiences earlier in the war, knew the railroad line was critical to facing any Federal threat from the coast. Using that railroad, a strong mobile reserve could react to enemy advances. However, as of December 22, the Savannah garrison was still spread across the neck between the Savannah and Broad Rivers. Though guarded by a screen of cavalry, those troops had to be moved quickly or risk, again, encirclement. The map below roughly depicts the locations of Federal (blue) and Confederate (red) positions as of that date, from Savannah to Charleston. The thick red line, with pointer, indicates the withdrawing Savannah garrison.
Beauregard’s intention was to establish a new line anchored on the coast at the Combahee River (in orange). This line would pass all the way up to the Savannah River in Barnwell County, South Carolina, thus covering both Augusta and Charleston.
On December 22 the circular, approved by Beauregard, became Special Field Orders No. 17 from Hardee’s headquarters. The orders moved Major-General G.W. Smith’s Georgia troops, by way of Charleston and Augusta, back to Georgia. The North Carolinians under Major-General Lafayette McLaws would move to Charleston, while the general himself took command of the Pocotaligo-Combahee sector from Major-General Samuel Jones (who would resume duties in Charleston). Major-General Ambrose Wright, joined by the South Carolina reserves and militia, moved to Fourth Military District, replacing Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson, around Adams Run and Green Pond. The artillery batteries withdrawn from Savannah would fall under Colonel A.J. Gonzales, long time artillery chief of the department, but be parceled out to support points in contact with the Federals.
To Major-General Joseph Wheeler, commanding the cavalry screen, Hardee instructed:
Major-General Wheeler’s cavalry corps (that part of it east of the Savannah River, and the remainder should it come up) will guard the crossing of the Savannah and New Rivers and the landings east of Screven’s Causeway until forced by the enemy to retire. General Wheeler will then guard and defend the country between the Savannah River and the defensive line of the Combahee and the right flank of that line, resting at or near Barnwell Court-House.
This would set a screen in front of the new defensive line desired by Beauregard. However, it also gave up the remaining portions of Beaufort County, and parts of Barnwell County, to any advance of the Federals. Addressing that, Hardee’s orders stipulated, in Paragraph XI:
As the cavalry retires before the enemy it will drive off all cattle, sheep, and hogs not necessary for its consumption, and impress and send to Charleston, to be turned over to engineer department, all negroes capable of bearing arms; all mills, boats, buildings that may be used by the enemy for military purposes, and all rice, corn, and other provisions not necessary for the subsistence of the cavalry, and not absolutely needed for the consumption of the owners, their families, and slaves, will also be destroyed.
Of note are the instructions with respect to slaves – either they would be withdrawn by their masters or turned over to the government for labor. As opposed to allowing them to be employed or, as specifically called out, armed by the Federals. Paragraph XII allowed the cavalry to requisition property:
All wagons and teams (with drivers) on plantations about to fall into the hands of the enemy, and which are not required by the owners for the removal of their own property, will be impressed for the use of the army.
Throughout November and December, Wheeler’s men operated under similar “scorched earth” instructions in Georgia. Arguably those did little to slow Sherman’s march, but did much to anger the local population. Already there were repercussions working through political channels in regard to Wheeler’s operations. Those in South Carolina were already concerned about these drastic measures.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 970 and 975-6.)