Through the opening weeks of 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman worked out several details that would enable success in his planned campaign through South Carolina. Logistics and the line of march were particulars which needed attention. And at the same time, Sherman had to figure out how to leave Savannah in good hands. Based on the examinations by Captain Orlando Poe, Savannah needed a division-sized garrison. The question was not if Savannah would be abandoned (as Atlanta), but how to provide that garrison.
Sherman preferred to keep his force intact. At first he suggested the invalid men from those corps, then consolidated at Nashville, might provide the manpower. But their numbers were not sufficient and the resources to move and organize them was prohibitive. The Department of the South, under Major-General John Foster, barely had the manpower to hold the coastal garrisons as it was, much less take on Savannah.
One possible solution to this manpower issue lay in the contraband camps. But Sherman seemed reluctant to go there. In a telegram to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on January 5, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton suggested:
I think it would be useful if you would write to Sherman, urging him to give facilities to the organization of colored troops. He does not seem to appreciate the importance of this measure and appears indifferent if not hostile.
Catching Stanton in route to Savannah for a meeting with Sherman, Grant communicated later that day:
I am just in receipt of a letter from Sherman, asking me to re-enforce Foster so that he will not be compelled to leave a division of his army there. Please say to Sherman that I will send the division now embarking at Baltimore. They probably will reach him two days after you do. I wrote to Sherman some time ago to direct Foster to organize negro troops to do garrison duty. Please say to Sherman that if Foster will go to work and organize colored troops they can garrison the forts and islands, leaving all of his white troops for Savannah and the camp at Pocotaligo, enabling the division which I now send to return in the spring, if necessary.
So the temporary solution was to move a division from the Shenandoah Valley to Savannah. That pulled a “playing piece” off the very active portion of the board to an inactive one. Beyond that short term solution, Grant preferred to see US Colored Troops organized for the garrison. And as Grant wrote to Stanton, the process was already in motion. On the last day of December, Army Chief of Staff Major-General Henry Halleck had directed Foster to start organizing military units from the contrabands at Savannah. On January 8, Foster received that message and responded:
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 31st ultimo in regard to the organization of all the able-bodied negroes brought in by General Sherman’s army to this department for service in this department, and beg leave to express my gratification at this decision, because I need troops for garrison duty very much, and I can soon make these men available for that duty. I have several officers whose military excellence and gallantry fully entitle them to promotion to be officers in the new regiments. I anticipate no difficulty whatever in organizing these regiments and in obtaining most excellent officers. I will report the appointments, as soon as made, for confirmation by the President. In obedience to your direction, as soon as the letter was received I submitted it to General Sherman, who desired that I might carry out the order as soon as he moved and the city was turned over to my command. Until such time he desired the services of all the negro men in the quartermaster’s department in loading and unloading vessels and in other preparations for a forward movement.
Some of the troops recruited at Savannah went into the ranks of existing units. But the main fruit of this effort was the 103rd, 104th, and 128th USCT regiments. Three regiments to replace a division? And formation of those regiments required more than a letter to Washington. None of the regiments were mustered in before March. However, all three regiments remained active through 1866, preforming duties during the early reconstruction period.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 16, 18, and 28.)