Marching Through Georgia, December 12, 1864: Focus on Fort McAllister

On December 12, 1864, a fast steamer headed north out of Port Royal Sound.  On board were messages from Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, both citing messages carried by Captain William Duncan from Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Word of Major-General William T. Sherman’s arrival at Savannah would bring some authoritative information for the newspapers which had been speculating upon speculation.  More important, the news triggered actions at the bases in South Carolina and Georgia.  At Hilton Head depots and on boats in Port Royal Sound were supplies of all sorts, all earmarked for Sherman’s men.  But to get those supplies to Sherman, the Federals needed a port facility, even a small one.  While the forces off shore might transport the goods, it was up to Sherman’s men to force a break in the Confederate coastal defenses through which those could flow.  The focus thus turned to Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River.

But that is not to say the rest of the lines around Savannah were inactive.  To the contrary, December 12 was a day of much activity.  On the Savannah River, Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade supported the slow movement of the 3rd Wisconsin to Argyle Island.  Having only one raft capable of carrying 12 men at a time, the process had taken nearly a full day, and was still not complete that morning.  However, the Federal raft was not the only vessel plying the river that morning.

Earlier on December 10th, Flag-Officer William W. Hunter passed up the Savannah with the CSS Sampson and CSS Resolute, with orders to guard the Charleston & Savannah Railroad bridge.  There, Hunter joined with the CSS Macon, which had been harassing the Federals on the march.  On the 11th, Hunter received orders to destroy the bridge and retire to aid in defense of Savannah.  After destroying the bridge that day, Hunter waited until 7 a.m. on the 12th to descend the river:

When opposite Argyle Island we obtained information from a man on shore that the Yankees were at a mill farther down, grinding.  He stated that he did not think there was any artillery. As we went along we saw at the different places smoking ruins. After we passed the mill, at Tweedside, situated on a back river a short distance, where we saw the enemy, as above stated, we were opened upon by one or more light batteries of Parrott guns, posted upon a bluff in the bend of the river, which we had to approach head-on, and entirely commanding the channel, apparently supported by infantry, and about 1,000 or 1,200 yards distant.

The guns firing at Hunter’s gunboats were those of Captain Charles Winegar, Battery I, First New York Light Artillery.  They were stationed at the Colerain plantation just below a sharp bend of the main river channel:

MarchDec12_GunboatFight

Winegar later reported:

On the morning of the 12th day of December, about 8 o’clock, the enemy’s gunboats made their appearance…. After an engagement of about three-quarters of an hour, from 2,400 to 2,700 yards, they were forced to retire up the river, leaving their tender behind disabled, together with her officers and crew, numbering about 30, our expenditure of ammunition being 138 rounds.

Although Hunter’s gunboats carried rifled 32-pdr guns and certainly had the weight of firepower to their advantage, the river channel prevented them from bringing that to bear.

Winegar was able to engage almost immune from any broadsides. Attempting to retire upriver, Hunter’s boats ran into each other.  As result, the Resolute was disabled and drifted to Argyle Island.  The vessel proved to be a valuable addition for the Federals and was soon employed transporting troops and forage across the river.  Hunter, however, retired his remaining gunboats up to the cover of Wheeler’s Cavalry.  Yet another combat force was taken off the map for the Confederates, unable to influence the events to follow.

Elsewhere along the lines the Federals continued to press up close to the Confederate lines in order to gain the measure of the defenses.  The Right Wing continued to adjust lines due to the shift prompted by the late arrival of the Fourteenth Corps.  Likewise the Fourteenth Corps had to develop their place in line. Though some commanders at the brigade and division levels saw opportunities and asked for permission to attack, none were granted.  Very clear was Sherman’s intent, perhaps seasoned from experiences earlier in the war.  Sieges were operations of patience and time.  Sherman would act to ensure his army had plenty of both.

The one commodity that Sherman did worry about running low on was fodder for his animals.  Orders went down on December 12 to dismount anyone not absolutely necessary for operations.  Various men who’d mounted themselves during the march turned in horses.  In addition, all those animals needed in supply operations would be centrally held.  Typical were the orders for the Fifteenth Corps:

All the teams and cattle will be ordered up to their respective divisions, and will be parked and corralled with a view to the convenience of forage.  As the article will become very scarce during our stay, the greatest economy in the use of it is recommended, and the collecting and distributing of the same must be well systematized within the divisions to prevent waste.

As for the troops, while many complained the columns still had plenty of issue rations – hardtack and such – for the men.  Of course, the men were in preference to what Georgia had provided during the earlier weeks.

Further south, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick had Colonel Eli Murray’s brigade of cavalry slip over the Canoochee River.  Murray reached McAllister’s plantation and pushed scouts out to within a couple miles of Fort McAllister.

MarchDec12_FtMcAllister

Later in the day, Kilpatrick reported to Sherman:

I met the enemy’s picket near the railroad, and chased Major Anderson, the commanding officer at Fort McAllister, back to his fort. From one of his escort captured, I learn that the fort is garrisoned by five companies, two of artillery and three militia; in all, about 200 men none of whom, however, have ever been under fire. There is a deep broad ditch to cross on entering the fort, and considerable opposition no doubt, will be met with. There is a low swamp about one mile this side the fort; a battery of four guns covers the road leading through this swamp…

Kilpatrick went on to suggest his forces might force their way into the fort:

… by forcing this battery to retire, a charging party could follow it directly into the fort, and the affair would be over. I did not intend, general, to attempt the capture of the fort by a sudden dash, but I intended to deliberately storm the works. I have old infantry regiments, armed with Spencer rifles, who could work their way up to within easy range and force every man to keep his head beneath the parapet, and, finally, force my way into the fort–of course, I intended to maneuver my troops as infantry.

Sherman, however, wanted Kilpatrick to begin scouting further south and look to possibly making contact with the fleet at one of the other riverways along the coast.  The cavalry chief took those orders and moved out the next day.

Opposite Fort McAllister, some distance away, the signal station at Cheves’ rice mill remained vigilant watching the Confederates while at the same time looking for the Federal fleet.  Throughout the day, a section of 20-pdr Parrotts from Captain Francis DeGress’ Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, supported by part of Battery H, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, sparred with the Confederate gunners.  Neither side did little more than annoying the other.

Instead of a cavalry rush, Sherman wanted to use the infantry to ensure the act was completed quickly.  Howard detailed Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Brigadier-General William B. Hazen, for the task.  The selection had significance.  The core of that division were a few veteran regiments which had served in Sherman’s division at Shiloh back in April 1862.  It had subsequently been part of Fifteenth Corps, under Sherman, during the Vicksburg Campaign.  Among the division’s previous commanders was Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr., by then in charge of the Seventeenth Corps.  Not only was the Second Division somewhat “Sherman’s own” but it embodied the long story that was the Western Theater.  To battle honors that included Shiloh, Corinth, Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Resaca, Kennesaw, and Atlanta, the division would add another the next day – Fort McAllister.

Considering the March by way of Markers, today there are two entries discussing specific events on December 12.  One at Port Wentworth discusses the gunboat-artillery fight.  Another at Richmond Hill notes Kilpatrick’s scout.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 357, 685 and 698; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 357.)

Marching through Georgia, December 9, 1864: Pulling up bridges too soon; Battling with guard posts

For brevity in the previous post on Savannah’s fortifications, I’d held back discussion of the “outer” layer of defenses to the west – those of extended outposts placed along the likely avenues of advance.  These were isolated works, typically for one or two field artillery pieces.  The mission of these detached forces was to delay the Federal advance momentarily, all the while reporting back so authorities in Savannah knew where the Federals were moving.  On December 9, 1864, the leading elements of all the columns in Major-General William T. Sherman’s march ran up against these outposts.  Orders issued to both wings stressed “driving the enemy within his intrenchements.” However, this day would not be remembered for those actions, but rather for an incident occurring behind the Fourteenth Corps’ march.  For a change of pace, I’ll start with the actions on the right and work to the left:
MarchDec9

Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders for the day to the Fifteenth Corps were specific to march times and movements.  Had to be. Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ corps was spread out from Jenks’ Bridge to the Canoochee on different roads.  Two different brigades had to cross the Ogeechee around Jenks’ Bridge in order to rejoin their respective divisions, making administrative moves.  But at the “business end” of the corps, First and Second Divisions, under the overall command of Brigadier-General William Hazen, were to force a crossing of the Canoochee and break the Gulf Railroad and attempt to take King’s Bridge from the west.  Fourth Division, under Brigadier-General John Corse, would drive past the canal and work towards King’s Bridge from the east.  Corse would also support laying a bridge over the Ogeechee, “even if it takes all the old houses in the neighborhood to do it.” Third Division, Brigadier-General John Smith, would fall in behind Corse.  And following Smith’s division, the Seventeenth Corps would slide to the left to continue along the railroad, heading for Station No. 2 (Pooler).

Hazen’s men woke on December 9 to find the Confederates in their front had departed.  So the Federals promptly crossed, then bridged, Canoochee. One brigade moved to the station at Fleming and tore up track there.  Another column, under the fast moving Colonel John Oliver, moved to King’s Bridge.  Oliver found King’s Bridge in flames, but managed to save part of it.  Leaving one regiment as a guard, he pushed on to the Gulf Railroad bridge downstream.

We received orders to destroy all trestles on the railroad; also the railroad bridge across the Ogeechee. We destroyed fourteen trestles, varying from 30 to 150 yards long, and the Gulf railroad bridge across the Ogeechee, a magnificent bridge 500 yards long; took 18 prisoners; finished our work at 9:30 p.m.

The modern version of the “magnificent” railroad bridge is visible from the King’s Bridge boat landing today:

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 127

A concrete span crosses the river where Oliver’s men fought fires to save part of the wooden bridge in 1864:

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 126

On the other side of the Ogeechee, Corse’s division ran up against heavy resistance from the start.  After pushing in skirmishers, the Federals found the Confederates behind a log breastwork supported by artillery, one of the detached outposts.  Flanking moves were slow developing due to the swamps and undergrowth.  With timely firing counter-battery firing from Battery H, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, Corse’s men were able to break the position:

The increased volley of musketry and sudden cessation of the enemy’s artillery, with the significant yelling of our men, indicated that the assault was in progress, and before I could reach the center, or [Brigadier-General Elliot] Rice could make the road, our troops were in the enemy’s works with quite a squad of prisoners and one piece of artillery as a trophy.

After pursuit, Corse’s men gained the railroad.  There they managed to obstruct the line in time to capture a train.  Before night fell, Corse had established contact with the other side of the Ogeechee at King’s Bridge.

The Seventeenth Corps also encountered a Confederate outpost in their advance.  Major-General Joseph Mower, with the lead division, reported:

We found the enemy in position behind and earth-work at the end of a causeway leading through a swamp, the swamp extending around on both their flanks. I detached one brigade, Brigadier-General [John] Sprague’s, with a section of artillery to engage the enemy in front, whilst I took two brigades… around the enemy’s right.  The troops waded through a cypress swamp to get to the enemy’s works. The enemy retired as we approached.

However, in retirement, the Confederates left behind an obstacle that infuriated the Federals.  As the troops moved up, a mounted officer’s horse stepped on a torpedo – killing the horse and seriously wounding the officer. Happening upon the scene, Sherman personally took charge and ordered a group of Confederate prisoners to clear the torpedoes.  In Sherman’s way of looking at things, if the enemy planted the mines on roadways, outside of the defensive works, this was a violation of the conventions.  As such, he would employ the prisoners in the dangerous task of removing the devices.

On the Twentieth Corps line of march, it was Colonel Ezra Carman who encountered the Confederate outposts:

December 9, moved out to the Monteith road, reaching the Monteith Swamp about noon, where the enemy had erected two earth-works across the road and felled the timber for some distance in front. Received orders to move up on the right of the road and endeavor to flank these works. I moved through the wood about three-quarters of a mile, where I found a rice field extending up to the left of their battery (our right). I formed the brigade in two lines across this field, advanced skirmishers, and moved forward. The enemy opened one piece of artillery on my skirmishers, but soon ceased and evacuated their fort. The ground being a rice swamp my progress was necessarily very slow, and they escaped, with the exception of three men captured by the Third Wisconsin Volunteers; encamped for the night.

This same pattern was repeated for the Fourteenth Corps, which was moving up the River Road, still trailing the rest of the columns… much to the displeasure of Major-General Jefferson C. Davis.  The corps had not completed the crossing of Ebenezer Creek until the early morning hours.  And with a mind to “shed” the body of escaped slaves who were following the column, Davis issued orders that no un-attached (as in not employed in the labor force used by the corps) blacks would be allowed to cross.  Staff officers enforced this order, to the chagrin of Major James Connolly who passed through early that morning.  Behind the last infantry regiments to cross, Federal cavalry sparred with Confederate cavalry closely pressing with a mind to catch the rear guard.

As ordered when the last soldiers crossed, the bridge over Ebenezer Creek was dismantled and burned.  Recognizing the situation, many of the escaped slaves began finding their own way across the creek.  Though many were stranded on the north side of the river as the Confederates converged, a sizable number reached safety.  But a few miles further south, the column had to cross Lockner Creek with a pontoon span.  The nature of that crossing meant that once the pontoons were drawn up, those stranded on the far side would find next to no way to cross.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry descended across Ebenezer Creek and stopped at Lockner, with no way across themselves to continue the pursuit.  He would later report, “The whole number of negroes captured from the enemy during the movement was nearly 2,000.”

Davis, reporting on his progress for the day, did not mention those he’d left stranded and to the mercy of the Confederates.  He did put emphasis on what was gained by pulling up the bridges, “I have destroyed the bridge behind me, and do not think I shall be troubled form the rear to-day.”  Indeed, the details of what happened at Ebenezer Creek barely receive notice in any of the official accounts of the day.  From the purely military aspect, Davis and others emphasized the close Confederate pursuit and pressure to move quickly.  Federal soldiers who witnessed the events wrote of the humanitarian disaster that occurred.  But we are, unfortunately, left with very few first hand accounts from either the former slaves who were stranded, or from the Confederates who captured them.

If Davis did gain some time by pulling up the bridges, that was promptly negated when his lead division ran into one of the Confederate outposts.  After deploying artillery and infantry, Brigadier-General James Morgan, of the lead division, held off attacking with the onset of nightfall. With those delays, it was Twentieth Corps, and not Davis’, which would close on the railroad and the banks of the Savannah River.

One final activity to touch upon for the day.  Closing a message to Howard on December 8, Sherman suggested a small party, by canoe, down the Ogeechee with the aim to establish contact with the blockading squadron.  On the night of December 9, Howard reported, “I have to-night sent Captain [William] Duncan and two scouts in a canoe down the river to attempt to communicate with the fleet.”  Duncan’s party would, after a couple of adventurous days, reach the blockaders off Ossabaw Sound.

Following the events of December 9, 1864 by way of markers, we have entries at Ebenezer Creek, Pooler, Burroughs, and King’s Bridge.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 121, 127, 149, 235, 410, 658, 661, 671.)

Marching Through Georgia, December 8, 1864: To the outskirts of Savannah

News traveled in 1864 as it does today.  News sources pick up stories from other outlets and reprint them.  But how fast did it travel in 1864?  Faster than you would think.  We all know about Lieutenant-General John Bell Hood’s failed attack at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864.  Word of that battle reached the front page of the New York Times the next day.  And by December 5, the Charleston Courier ran this bit of news, citing those articles as the source:

CharlstonCourierDec5_64_p1_c1_Franklin

The Courier followed up with a reprint of official dispatches also copied from northern newspapers, mentioning the disproportionate Confederate losses.  Savannah papers likewise carried the news, all attributed to New York papers. On December 7, some of these southern papers were in the hands of Major-General William T. Sherman, “A Savannah paper, 5th, says Hood attacked Thomas at Franklin and was defeated, with loss of 6,000 and 1,000 prisoners; Yankee loss, 500.  Copied from New York papers.”  Rather curious how the information came in a round-about way to Sherman’s hands.

Also copied from northern newspapers and posted in the Courier on December 8 was an editorial comparing Sherman’s march to that of Hood:

There is no parallel at all.  Sherman, with an immense, well equipped and well fed army, marches through a hostile country without any hostile force on his front, and goes toward a base where supplies and ammunition will meet him.  Hood, with a small army, marches away from a base without the hope of any other, and with an army in front abundantly able to fight him, and if be should march as far as Sherman will that distance will insure his complete destruction. – New York Herald, [November 30].

That was the news from the front to the home front on December 8, 1864… or should we say the reality of the day.

For his part on December 8, Sherman continued to close his armies towards Savannah and that base of supplies mentioned in the papers.  But the Left Wing continued to lag behind the Right Wing.  The last thing Sherman wanted was isolated columns that might invite a Confederate sortie from Savannah.  So “close up” was the order of the day.

MarchDec8

The Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, had the most distance to make up.  Lead elements of the corps stopped the night before just short of Ebenezer Creek near its mouth at the Savannah River.  To continue its line of march, the Fourteenth had to cross a deep swamp cut by several streams.  Overnight, pontooniers of the 58th Indiana Infantry began repairing the bridge span over the creek, which had been burned by retreating Confederates.  The pontooniers continued further south to put a string of bridges across Lockner’s Creek.  On either side of these crossing points, soldiers and freed blacks labored to lay corduroy roads.  All of these preparations took time.  And with that time spent, the corps fell further behind schedule.

Two Confederate actions contributed a little to the delay.  Continuing to press the Federals, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry struck the cavalrymen of Second Brigade of the Cavalry Division.  In a repeat of earlier actions, the Federal troopers fell back and formed a line in conjunction with the supporting infantry.   This blunted the Confederate jab, but notice was served.  The Federals had to carefully cross Ebenezer Creek, lest Wheeler catch them astride.

The other action by the Confederates was more a novelty than injury.  The gunboat C.S.S. Macon steamed up the Savannah River and lobbed a few shells at the Federals crossing at Ebenezer Creek.  Firing at long range, the effect was minor.  Colonel Robert Smith, commanding First Brigade, Second Division, Fourteenth Corps, related, “here a rebel gun-boat threw a few shells at our column, doing no damage.”

But the terrain and Confederate annoyances prevented Fourteenth Corps from covering much ground that day.  The lead regiments were only four miles past the bridges by nightfall.  Much of the corps remained on the north side of Ebenezer Creek that evening, guarding the trains.  And among the column was a large gathering of escaped slaves who continued, against the wishes of Davis, to follow.

West of Ebenezer Creek, the Twentieth Corps received orders to march towards Monteith, near the junction of the Charleston & Savannah and Georgia Central Railroads.  Leading the march was Brigadier-General John Geary’s division, commencing at 6 a.m. with orders to locate a “middle road” to Monteith.  After a few miles, Geary and his men discovered there was no “middle road” and they were in effect blazing their own path through the swamp:

The looked-for middle road was not found to-day. The roads were generally fair, although we crossed several small swamps. In them we found timber felled across the road. This was removed by our pioneers, without delaying the march more than thirty minutes at any one time. Most of our route to-day was through pine forests. We passed a number of plantation houses in these forests, and quite a large supply of potatoes, sugar cane, fodder, mutton, and poultry was obtained. It is worthy of note that the swamp water through this region is excellent for drinking purposes, being much superior to the well water. Weather to-day pleasant. Distance, thirteen miles.

The Seventeenth Corps continued their comparatively leisurely march south with an advance to Station No. 2 (Eden).  In front of them, First Division (Brigadier General John Corse) of Fifteenth Corps marched south with the aim to reach the Savannah & Gulf Railroad.  Corse met no opposition on this sortie. But as he neared the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal he found burned bridges.  As the large scale map does not show these place names, and they are important to the discussion, allow me to adapt this map of the area to point out the bridges:

MarchDec8a

Confederates burned Dillon’s Brige, which crossed the Ogeechee just north of the canal.  This prevented any junction with other Fifteenth Corps elements operating on the other side of the river.  Likewise the bridge over the canal was burned.  But the canal held up Corse only for a short time:

A new one was speedily constructed by the pioneer corps, and a portion of the Third Brigade crossed and threw up a tête-de-pont, and the Seventh Illinois Mounted Infantry moved out to reconnoiter the enemy’s position.  From citizens we ascertained that a force of the enemy had erected works at the junction of the Dillon’s Bridge road with the King’s Bridge and Savannah road.

Corse, though an aggressive commander, opted for discretion.  Though he had flanked the outer line of Savannah’s defenses, at the canal, any advance toward the city would wait until the other forces closed up.

On the other side of the Ogeechee, while Third Division, Fifteenth Corps protected the trains at Jenks’ Bridge, the other two divisions probed for crossings of the Canoochee River (in what is today Fort Stewart Military Reservation).  Reporting late in the day, Major-General Peter Osterhaus indicated the road through Fort Argyle (a colonial-era fort, which endured by placename) to Dillon’s Bridge was impassable.   All the bridges over the Canoochee were burned.  And a Confederate force with artillery opposed any crossing. But he hoped to effect a crossing once the pontoons were brought up.  Considering the ground beyond the river, Osterhaus added:

The description which I received of the road beyond the Cannouchee is anything but inviting; the only good road seems to be the one from King’s Bridge (above the mouth of Cannouchee), seven miles of which are planked.  King’s Bridge is burned, an so is every other bridge across the two streams.

So for the moment, 150 years ago, the Fifteenth Corps had advanced as far as they dared.  But they were looking at the two “gates” to Savannah from the west – King’s Bridge and the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal.

Tracing the march by way of markers, entries for today are located at Springfield, Eden, Guyton, and Fort Stewart.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 126, 185, 275-6, 652, and 659-60.)