“General Lee moved up the river from this point nearly to Ebenezer Creek…”: Federal joint operations on the Savannah River, January 1865

No, not THAT General Lee:

Nor THE General Lee:

Rather a steamer used by Federals for operations outside Savannah.  From January 18, 1865 through the end of the month, a joint Army-Navy force worked up the Savannah River as Major-General William T. Sherman prepared his advance into South Carolina. The main elements of this water-born column was the USS Pontiac and the Army transport General Robert E. Lee.

The Pontiac was one of the Navy’s light draft, double-ended (meaning rudders on bow and stern for manueverability), side-wheel gunboats of the type acquired during the war specifically for duty on the shallow waterways of the south.  Commissioned in the summer of 1864, she carried two 6.4-inch Parrott rifles, four IX-inch Dahlgrens, and eight boat howitzers of various calibers.  With that heavy armament and a light draft of only 6 feet, 6 inches, the Pontiac was perfectly suited for duty on the Savannah River.   In command of the Pontiac was Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Luce.

As for the Army steamer General Robert E. Lee (mentioned as General Lee and Robert E. Lee in some reports), I have little in the way of particulars. She was formerly used by the Confederates in Savannah as a transport.  After the fall of the city in December 1864, the General Lee operated under the U.S. flag.  As records are lacking, I do not know who was in charge of the General Lee or the ship’s armament.  Likely, as with the steamer Planter, she operated with a mixed crew that included local pilots (and most likely freedmen) and armed with a variety of field-caliber or siege weapons.

The joint force had to be wary of Confederate sharpshooters, cavalry patrols, and gunboats.  Recall Flag-Officer William W. Hunter had escaped upriver on December 12, 1864 with two gunboats – CSS Sampson and CSS Macon.  However, unknown to Luce and his army counterparts, they had little to fear from Hunter.  His gunboats were low on fuel and remained near Shell Bluff on the Savannah River, roughly 100 straight line miles above Savannah.

The primary objective of the Joint Federal force was to clear the river up to Sister’s Ferry and secure that place in advance of movements by Fourteenth Corps (Major-General Jefferson C. Davis).  Luce reported that the vessels began their way upstream on January 18:

… we left Savannah on the afternoon of the 18th, in company with the army transport Robert E. Lee, and arrived at Purysburg, about 20 miles up the river, on the afternoon of the 19th, where we found a portion of the Twentieth Corps, General [Alpheus S.] Williams. Remained at Purysburg until the 22d….

Not specifically mentioned, this was during the period of heavy rains and floods which inhibited Federal movements.  No doubt advance up the river was deemed too difficult against the current.


On the 22nd, the two ships continued up river.  Colonel Daniel Dustin, Second Brigade, Third Division, Twentieth Corps, at Purysburg, relayed a status report of the progress, as of January 23:

About 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon the gun-boat Pontiac and transport General Lee moved up the river from this point nearly to Ebenezer Church, on the Georgia side of the river, where the gun-boats halted, and the General Lee went on two or three miles further and, in the opinion of Captain Webber, ten miles this side of Sister’s Ferry.  At Ebenezer Church he saw a number of rebel cavalry and indications which led him to believe there was quite a force in that vicinity.

The following day, the joint force continued up river, as Luce later reported:

… on the 24th anchored at Morrall’s Landing, at the lower end of Sister’s Ferry Bluffs, about 41 miles from Savannah. Here, on the high banks which overlook the river, we established a picket station with a view to keep a lookout for the advance of our own army, and to see that the enemy did not bring artillery to bear on us, our guns not being available for such an elevation.

From January 25 to 28, the two ships remained at Sister’s Ferry Bluff under the picket station. (Note, on the map below, the relation between Sister’s Ferry, Georgia, where the bluff is located, and Sister’s Ferry, South Carolina, upstream, where the landing is located.)


Luce’s log indicates the Confederate pickets were active and engaged, but no major threats developed.  On January 26, Luce fired on “a boat with something in tow” but nothing came of the action.  For January 28, he recorded:

From 4 to 8 a.m. Second Assistant Engineer H.F. Bradford went on shore to communicate with the enemy under a flag of truce, by order of commanding officer.  Sergeant of marines and 2 privates went on shore to communicate with advance of the Fourteenth Corps. At 10 a.m. General Slocum’s command came in on the Georgia bank.  Withdrew pickets from shore, got underway and steamed up the Savannah River.  At 11 came to anchor off Sister’s Ferry…..

The first part of the mission accomplished, the Pontiac and General Lee remained at Sister’s Ferry to protect the crossing point.  On January 29, the Pontiac transported the 2nd Ohio Infantry across the rive to effect a bridgehead into South Carolina.  The joint operation up the Savannah River had succeeded.

Now, I ‘teased’ you into this post with a select quote designed to raise some attention.  I find irony where a vessel named General Robert E. Lee was sent to link up with a column commanded by someone named “Jefferson Davis”, and all parties involved were Federal.

But you probably also noticed the introduction of the label “joint” with regard to the operations.  This is no light assignment.  There were implications from this operation felt well beyond 1865 and South Carolina. For that, we turn to Luce.

While leading his portion of the operation, Luce realized something rather important.  He would later recall:

After hearing General Sherman’s clear exposition of the military situation, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes….It dawned on me that there were certain fundamental principles underlying military operations,…principles of general application whether the operations were on land or at sea.

Luce would carry that lesson learned forward in his career.  After the war, Luce served at several posts where he focused on training.  His efforts improved the Training Squadron and generally the efficiency of the force.  But the most important of his efforts came about in 1884 with the founding of the Naval War College. From its very beginnings, the Navy War College stressed professional development with an eye to joint operations.

The spark of thought which spawned the Navy’s “Home of Thought” came during those days operating on the Savannah River.  The roots of our modern day professional joint warfare training found firm, fertile earth on the banks of the Savannah River in January 1865.

(Citations from ORN, Serial I, Volume 16, pages 189 and 207; OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 120-1; Luce quote from Wikipedia.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

One thought on ““General Lee moved up the river from this point nearly to Ebenezer Creek…”: Federal joint operations on the Savannah River, January 1865

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