On December 30, 1864, Brigadier-General William T. Ward received orders to move his division, of the Twentieth Corps, across the Savannah River. His mission was to reconnoiter the South Carolina side of the river and push back any Confederate pickets. Ward was to push up the Union Causeway that weeks earlier had been the Confederate’s route of retreat out of Savannah. Facing Ward were detachments of Confederate cavalry which patrolled to the Savannah River, occasionally firing on Federals. But the cavalry would not cause Ward any large problems. Instead, it was the weather which caused the delays to this Federal foray.
Ward was directed to use pontoon bridges to cross the Savannah River (Point #1 on the map below). Federal engineers had repaired those used and partially destroyed by Confederates on December 21. Ward later reported:
Accordingly I directed my brigade commanders to move at 6.30 a.m. on the morning of the 31st of December, 1864, and moved with them across one channel of the Savannah River onto Hutchinson’s Island, and after crossing which I found that from some cause the bridge was not completed, nor was it likely to be for several days. I at once caused search to be made for small boats, and after much labor in a chilling rain, and under the fire of the enemy’s vedettes, I crossed a portion of my First Brigade, which quickly drove the enemy from the river. Not being able to cross the remainder of this brigade same night I recalled that portion already crossed and camped the brigade upon the island.
Brigadier-General Daniel Dustin, commanding Second Brigade of Ward’s Division, recorded:
Crossing over the first channel to Huchinson’s Island, it was found that little or no progress had been made toward bridging the second channel. The day was excessively uncomfortable, a cold rain was falling, and the troops who had not yet been reclothed since the last campaign, suffered much.
By nightfall, Dustin’s troops were back in camp outside Savannah. Thus ended Federal movements on the last day of 1864.
On New Year’s Day, 1865, Ward attempted crossing again, sending across once more First Brigade under Colonel Henry Case, “by the most indefatigable labor.” And again they met the Confederates on the far bank, as Case recalled:
When we commenced crossing rebel scouts and vedettes on the left bank of the river annoyed us with their fire, killing one corporal and wounding one private. As soon as the rear of the brigade had crossed I immediately pushed out about six miles into the interior and arrived at the residence of Doctor Cheves about 9 p.m., the rebel scouts and vedettes retiring as I advanced.
Case’s advance reached the old Confederate works around the Cheves and Hardee Plantations. (Point #2 on the map) (Oh… and if you are wondering, no Lieutenant-General William J. Hardee did not have a direct connection to the plantation, nor to Hardeeville in Jasper County, South Carolina. Though his distant relatives were responsible for the placename.)
Having only sufficient boats to move one brigade, Ward had his Second and Third Brigades return to Savannah and camp for the night, “on account of the severity of the weather.” On the morning of January 2nd, Ward attempted to cross the remainder of his command. Dustin put his lead regiment across by boats. But soon the Army Steamer Planter (yes that storied ship again!) arrived to transport the remainder of the division. While Case’s brigade remained forward in the former Confederate works, the other two brigades remained at Screven’s Ferry (Point #3).
On January 3rd, Ward consolidated his command around the Hardee plantation and began sending forward patrols. As Ward reported:
I have in person this morning reconnoitered several miles up the road toward Hardeeville. Trees have been felled in the road from the rice-fields to this place and for many miles beyond. I have removed them to this place and for one mile and a half beyond; the others I will not cut out until I have a more minute and extensive examination made farther up the road. The rebels have driven off everything that they could and killed and left dead on the road everything they could not drive away. Few rebels seen. Their camp-fires plainly seen (from a large post) last night, but are not to be seen this morning.
The Confederates were making good on orders issued by Hardee in December. They would leave nothing behind that might aid the Federals. Ward added particulars about the Confederate works (Point #4) which he felt would make a good post for his command:
The fort is built on the Hardee farm, about one mile from here. It covers about three acres, large enough to encamp 2,000 men; has embrasures for about fifteen or twenty guns. It is on the highest ground near the road. I think it the best place to encamp my division.
At times, this post is referred to as “Fort Hardee.” But that was not official, and there appears to be some confusion with the works on Hardee’s plantation and other works at Hardeeville, captured later.
On January 4, Ward sent patrols toward the New River Bridge (Point #5) and Jonesville beyond. Major Hiland Clay led the patrol to that place, and reported no Confederate resistance. The Confederates retreated before the Federals arrived, continuing their practice of leaving nothing behind of value:
Major Clay also brought in two contrabands from Jonesville, who report that all the cavalry pickets in the river bottom, after the skirmish with my men last evening, were drawn in and retreated full speed through Jonesville last night, up the roads toward Hardeeville, saying that the “Yankees were coming;” since which time they have seen no rebel soldiers near Jonesville, and that they think all of them have gone back to Hardeeville. Before they left they shot down all the hogs and cattle and took all that the “poor negroes” had to eat, stating that the Yankees would get it if they (the rebels) did not kill, destroy, and take it.
Another patrol reached out to Red Bluff to the east (Point #6). Confederates had built a substantial battery there, which included a columbiad and two rifled guns, to prevent passage up the New River. But the heavy guns were drug off shortly after the evacuation of Savannah. Federals found an empty fort (which is still there today, on private property), and also a potential port:
They found the roads leading to it high, dry, and good. The fort good but small; the water ten leer deep at low tide; several roads leading from it up and down the river; fine ground for encampments. The fort is three miles from my troops. Captain Crawford and Lieutenant Tuttle, of my staff, think that my troops could be supplied by landing stores at that point.
For all intents, by January 4, Ward had achieved the advance proposed by Colonel Ezra Carman earlier in December. The difference was that Carman wanted to trap the Confederate army, while Ward was by then chasing them up the road.
For the moment, Major-General William T. Sherman was content to hold this advanced post in South Carolina. While Ward’s men were patrolling, the Seventeenth Corps was embarking at the Thunderbolt docks for transit to Port Royal. The string restraining Sherman for the moment was not the Confederates in front of him, but that of logistics. Still, he planned to launch his next major movement by mid-January. So the important work of staging troops in the right locations continued.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 782, 788, and 802; Part II, Serial 99, pages 12-13, and 15.)