Opening Savannah: Federal efforts to clear obstructions to the port

Once ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Allies put effort towards establishing port facilities.  Artificial harbors and over-the-beach delivery were helpful but inefficient.  What the allies needed was a deep water port where those fine Liberty ships could dock and disgorge supplies.  Cherbourg, captured weeks after the initial landings, was supposed to be the solution.  However, that port remained closed until mid-July due to mines and obstructions.  Most of the port was not cleared until September.  Leaving a closer examination of the logistics for a day when I have an “other” blog, let us just say opening Cherbourg to ocean going vessels was a necessary prerequisite for the offensives up to the German border.

In December 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman faced a similar issue with respect to Savannah, Georgia.  To resupply his army (or transport them elsewhere as Grant had briefly considered), Sherman needed port facilities.  And as it was in 1944, the preference was a dock-side accessible to ocean-going vessels.  Problem was, after three years of war, the main channels into the city were blocked by obstructions and torpedoes.  Furthermore, the left bank (South Carolina shore) of the Savannah River was still Confederate.  So while the exchanges over “Christmas gifts” played well in the papers (and likewise have given historians a nice place to conclude their coverage of the campaign), such was meaningless while barriers to the port of Savannah remained.

A temporary solution was, of course, using the Ogeechee River as had been planned during the short siege. During the days of mid-December 1864, when the dock at King’s Bridge was the only option for resupply, Federal engineers and naval officers directed efforts to clear the river.  In that task, they encountered a mix of  pike obstructions and torpedoes opposite Fort McAllister.


The clearing of these obstructions required careful work.  In some cases, crews in row boats secured lines around the obstructions.  Using those lines, the tugs or other vessels would then back the posts out of the mud.  In other cases, the best option was to cut the posts down.  The process was made more difficult by the need to handle the torpedoes with care.  By December 16, just three days after the fall of Fort McAllister, Federal steamers passed upriver to King’s Bridge.

Although the Ogeechee was open, as evidenced by ships in the photo above taken by Samuel Cooley from Fort McAllister, the shallow river only permitted vessels of light draft – drawing less than 12 feet – to pass.  The Federals were already desperately short on such light vessels.  The few that were allocated would work the route between Hilton Head, where the larger vessels could unload, and King’s Bridge.  While the dock there was useful for resupply, it was far too small for supporting the armies in Savannah along with the civilian population.

Shortly after the fall of Savannah, attention turned to opening the city docks themselves.  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was rightfully impressed with the Confederate defensive works, insisting to all that the Navy would have had great difficulty forcing its way up the Savannah River.  On December 22, just after the Confederate withdrawal, he took the opportunity to examine the obstructions in the Savannah River up close:

Arrived near the obstructions at 4 p.m. and anchored.  Truly, a formidable barrier; almost impassible and irremovable, save by great labor. Made up of coffers or cribs of heavy timber, filled with sand or brick, or stone and sand.

The obstructions mentioned appear on Captain Orlando Poe’s map of Savannah:


Though absent from the annotations are sets of Federal obstructions, closer to Fort Pualski, designed to keep the Confederates in Savannah.  Those too would need to be removed.

Clearly Sherman needed an alternative to the city docks while the Savannah River was cleared.  Who best to find such an alternative port?  The US Coast Survey had that lane.  On December 24, Assistant Charles Boutelle, of the Coast Survey, brought the USS Bibb up Wassaw Sound and Wilmington River to Thunderbolt, southeast of Savannah.  The location had been the site of a Confederate battery and also had been an active entrance for blockade runners.  To Sherman, Boutelle reported:

Vessels drawing 15 feet and under can come up to this place now, entering at Wassaw Sound.  The river has been dragged for torpedoes and none have yet been discovered. The monitors Sangamon, Captain Young, and the Passaic, Captain Fillebrown, are now close beside the work at Turner’s Rocks, and will be at anchor at this place in a few hours.  I have my vessel at work sounding and putting up marks for navigation, and will anchor here to-night. I respectfully recommend making this place your present depot for large vessels.  A short wharf, 100 feet long, will suffice for vessels of deep draft, and materials for its construction are near at hand.

Looking to a large scale map, the Thunderbolt location offered several other advantages not mentioned by Boutelle.  Most importantly, proximity to Savannah should the garrison come under attack.


Writing to Major-General John Foster the next day, Boutelle offered more details,  indicating he had marked the channel to the docks.  The rise and fall of the tides was only seven feet, and the least water at low tide was ten feet.  Boutelle noted there was a good road from Thunderbolt to Savannah, closing:

I have recommended to General Sherman to use this place as a transportation depot, and in an interview with him last night understood him to say that he would do so. What glorious news all round!

While Thunderbolt was not a permanent solution, the facilities there greatly eased the logistic problems for Sherman. There are some excellent areal views of the site as it appears today at  The presence of a large marina certainly vindicates Boutelle’s optimistic report.  But more re-assuring as to the choice came only days after Boutelle’s report.  On December 28, a blockade runner passed up the Wilmington River only to find that during her passage the city had fallen to the Federals.  Certainly if the runners saw Thunderbolt as a proper port of call, the Federals could too!

Sherman, however, stressed the need to open the Savannah River.  He wrote to Dahlgren on December 26, in that regard, saying “I am very anxious to do, even at considerable expense of labor and money, as I desire to avoid lightering and transshipment, if possible.”  Toward that end, Sherman ordered details drawn from his armies and the ever-busy Captain Orlando Poe to assist the Navy.  Still, the work was slow.  On January 8, 1865, Dahlgren reported to the Department of the Navy,

A steam tug, with divers and boats with men from the vessels present, have  only been able to clear a passage of 75 to 100 feet, though they have worked hard for a week. Very little idea can be formed of this barrier without examining it.

The side-wheel gunboat USS Pontiac was able to pass up river around that time.  At least some sea-going vessels could then dock at Savannah.  But several more weeks would pass before the port was completely open.  Even into the post-war years, the government would issue several contracts for companies to clear the debris left behind in the Savannah River (most notably the salvage of Confederate rams).

Certainly the capture of Savannah was a great victory worth lauding.  But to turn that victory into more than movements on a map, the Federals needed the port opened.  In that regard, Savannah was not completely “won” until well into 1865.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 808-9; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 146, 149, 163, and 363.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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