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.

FtMcAllisterTorpedo

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:

SavannahRiverObstructions

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.

SavannahRiverAccessNotations

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 Marinas.com.  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.)

Marching Through Georgia, December 13, 1864: The Taking of Fort McAllister, Part 3

Sometime in the evening of December 13, 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman sent this message to Major-General Henry Slocum, commanding his Left Wing:

Take a good big drink, a long breath, and then yell like the devil. The fort was carried at 4:30 p.m., the assault lasting but fifteen minutes. The general signaled from this side to the fleet and got answers, and the vessels were seen coming up from the sound….

Later in his official report, Sherman differed mainly on the time of the assault, citing 5 p.m., continuing “I witnessed the assault from a rice mill on the opposite bank of the river, and can bear testimony to the handsome manner in which it was accomplished.”  And that short description is usually enough to pass for most mentioning the event.  Closer to the action, Brigadier-General William B. Hazen recorded:

The grounds to the right of the fort being marshy, cut through by deep streams, rendered the deployment of that part of the line slow and difficult, and was not completely effected till 4.45 p.m., at which time, every officer and man of the nine regiments being instructed what to do, the bugle sounded the forward, and at precisely 5 o’clock the fort was carried. The troops were deployed in one line as thin as possible, the result being that no man in the assault was struck till they came to close quarters. Here the fighting became desperate and deadly. Just outside the works a line of torpedoes had been placed, many of which were exploded by the tread of the troops, blowing many men to atoms, but the line moved on without checking, over, under, and through abatis, ditches, palisading, and parapet, fighting the garrison through the fort to their bomb-proofs, from which they still fought, and only succumbed as each man was individually overpowered.

Not to sound like I’m jumping on a modern commercial catch-phrase, but fifteen minutes is all it took.  But we see, in Hazen’s report, that inside those fifteen minutes was a storm of destruction.  Hazen mentioned the torpedoes for good reason.  Most of his 24 killed were due to those mines.  And the veterans who lived through those fifteen minutes remembered them long after the war.

In a letter to the National Tribune in 1901, John Scott, Company I, 116th Illinois wrote:

Being on the right of the line, we entered the fort on the lower side.  I was knocked down by one of the torpedoes, and a piece of the limb that was attached to the torpedo stuck in the corner of my left eye, which when I pulled it out caused the blood to flow.  I was soon covered with blood from head to foot.

Later, in 1907, Eli A. Weekley of Company B, 53rd Ohio wrote of his experiences somewhat dismissing the torpedoes, going as far to say none fired during the assault.  Well this sparked what we might call today a “flame war” with responses.  I would offer that the great service of Weekley’s letter was to bring forward some vivid accounts of what those fifteen minutes were like.  J.S. Horner, Company D, 30th Ohio responded to say:

I am certain he is mistaken in this statement … I remember very distinctly of jumping over a pile of fresh earth while on the charge.  The man just behind me jumped over it all right, but the man behind him struck the cap of the torpedo as he ran and it exploded and blew off his foot above the ankle joint leaving the bone bare of flesh for two or three inches above the joint. When I heard the report of the shell I looked back and saw the poor fellow as he fell back in the hole the torpedo made when it exploded.

L.C. Huffine, Company C, 30th Ohio provided a similar response affirming the injuries due to torpedoes, adding

When we got up close to the fort we saw the wires above ground, and the boys sang out, ‘Watch out!’ One exploded at the head of my company blowing off the leg of Comrade Hiram Rooney, Orderly Sergeant. He was only a few feet from me when the explosion came and my eyes were full of sand. When I could get the sand out of my eyes, I looked and saw the boys on top of the fort shooting down into it.

And C.C. Degman, Company F, 70th Ohio likewise added his view of the damage from the torpedoes.  But in his letter he also described the effort required to cross the ditch and break through the stakes planted there.

This was a serious obstacle, as the stakes could not be moved except in a few cases.  Some got thru the small openings, some were held up by comrades, and fell over, others were helped over by those on the other side.  Finally all were over, and then the command came from Col. [Henry] Phillips: “Forward, boys!”  They fired one volley and then, with bayonet in hand, leaped forward and in only a few minutes after the torpedo line had been passed were on top of the fort.

And I know that many readers will recognize the style and tone of the National Tribune, with which we must place a grain of salt (as we sometimes have to do with letters found in the Confederate Veteran, or as with any veteran’s magazine were accounts are offered decades after the events).  But there is the emphasis on the torpedoes.  All seemed to think them ghastly.  And of course at the time, Sherman agreed.  Upon seeing the injury done by those weapons, he insisted, for the second time in a week, that Confederate prisoners be employed in the disarming of the torpedoes.

As horrific as the obstacles were, the Federal casualties were small when compared to similar assaults on fixed positions – 24 killed and 110 wounded.  Part of the reason for this was indeed the faulty Confederate dispositions – the cannons en-barbette, gaps in the abitis, covered ground within musket range of the fort, and simply the small number of the garrison.  But we should not dismiss Federal success as a forgone conclusion.  Recall just over a week prior a similarly large Federal force was unable to break through at Honey Hill.  And many of the same men stopped at Cossawhatchie.  I submit the difference at Fort McAllister had to do with leadership.  Hazen ensured “every officer and man” knew what was needed.  He kept good communications with his superiors and with subordinates (with the possible exception of Second Brigade).  He used every bit of information and advice provided by Kilpatrick.  In fact, to the extent that Hazen’s attack might be called an “infantry” version of what Kilpatrick had suggested the night before.  In short, Hazen and his men deserved every accolade bestowed for success at Fort McAllister.

After the fort was taken, Sherman and Howard, along with some of their staff, crossed the Ogeechee and met with Hazen.  After a late dinner, the generals took to the water again in search of the fleet.  Soon they were on board the USS Dandelion. The next day Sherman would meet with Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren (in that order, as Foster awoke him in the very early hours of the morning).  The Ogeechee attained, Sherman needed it cleared and opened for transports to supply his army.  He was at that moment focused on the prize of Savannah.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 10, 110, and 704; National Tribune, September 12, 1901, page 3; March 14, 1907, page 6; June 20, 1907, page 6; July 11, 1907, page 6.)

Marching Through Georgia, December 13, 1864: The taking of Fort McAllister, Part 2

In part 1, earlier today, I offered some background on Fort McAllister’s attackers and defenders.  Looking now to the “moving pieces” we turn to King’s Bridge.  At around 5 a.m. on the morning of December 13, 1864, the engineers stopped their repair work on the bridge to allow Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s division to cross.  Within a few hours march, the division reached Joseph McAllister’s Strathy Hall plantation.

There Hazen posted guards, even though Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen had already ransacked the house.  The infantry column pressed on to the turn off towards Genesis Point (just upstream from Fort McAllister).   Nearing Hardwick, at the base of a peninsula formed by a wide “bow” of the Ogeechee River, a signal team went out to establish a station and communicate with the station at Cheves Rice Mill to the north.  Hazen’s infantry continued on the road to Fort McAllister, skirmishing with Confederate outposts.  Along the way they encountered several buried torpedoes on the roadway.

While Hazen’s men were marching, several other pieces were in motion (Some of the arrows are positioned to simplify the map):

MarchDec13_FtMcAllister1

To Hazen’s front, Kilpatrick’s cavalry withdrew from Genesis Point, where they’d pressed the fort’s pickets back.  Kilpatrick spoke with Hazen, providing details of the Confederate dispositions.  With that, Kilpatrick’s men split up into two columns.  Colonel Eli Murray’s brigade moved into Liberty County, moving by way of Midway.  Colonel Smith Atkins moved his brigade further south on Bryan’s Neck towards Kilkenny Bluff.  The cavalry’s task was to seek out Federal blockaders in St. Catherine’s Sound, as a contingency against failure at Fort McAllister.

At Cheves’ Rice Mill, Major-Generals William T. Sherman and Oliver O. Howard arrived to take up an advance observation post.  Captain James M. McClintock, at his signal station, observed Hazen’s movement and searched, without luck, for naval activity on the Ogeechee.  Captain Francis DeGress maintained sporadic fire on Fort McAllister with no effect other than gain the Confederate’s attention.

The arrival of Captain William Duncan on the 12th prompted Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to start actively looking to establish positive contact with Sherman.  Foster sent Lieutenant George Fisher, an experienced signal officer, to reconnoiter the rivers south of Fort Pulaski.  Unfortunately, as Dahlgren noted in his diary entry for the 13th, the navy was simply stretched too thin.  Not until the morning of the 13th was Fisher on board the tug USS Dandelion, a fine vessel but not the sort of warship Sherman looked for.  Not knowing where Sherman’s men might be, they began searching along the Vernon River, and then into the Little Ogeechee River.  Although the ship’s captain was wary of Confederate batteries, he did provide Fisher a skiff to get into some of the smaller creeks to a point opposite Fort McAllister.   Hearing the sound of muskets across the marshes, Fisher:

… Looked about and saw, about thee miles northwest of where I was lying in the marsh, a flag upon the top of an old rice mill, but there being no air stirring, I was unable to make out of what nature it was. I could then indistinctly see persons through a broken part of the roof, one of whom, taking hold of the end of the flag, drew its folds out so that I could see our own glorious Stars and Stripes.

Fisher immediately made his way back to the tug and asked the captain to proceed up the Ogeechee.  The time was around 2:00 p.m. with not much daylight left.

What had caused the musketry heard by Fisher was the arrival of Hazen’s lead elements at Fort McAllister’s outer line of defenses.  Skirmishers fanned out and started to engage the fort’s garrison with a purpose.  With the fort’s guns sitting above the parapets, instead of firing through embrasures, the Federal sharpshooters could harass the Confederate gunners and keep down their rate of fire.

Hazen needed time to deploy his division.  He wanted to first encircle the fort, using nine regiments (three from each brigade), backed up with three more regiments in reserve.  When all was in position, he’d launch a grand assault to overwhelm the defenders.  Hazen, as he did in most operations, did well to keep his subordinates informed as to the plan, setup control measures to reduce mistakes, and, above all, provide as much information as was available about the situation.

The plan called for Second Brigade, arriving first at the fort, to form a line anchored on the river to their left.  Next, First Brigade would sweep around to the far side of the fort and setup in position to assault from the south.  Third Brigade would file in to fill the gap  between.  The problem was, for Second Brigade, a creek cut across the line of march.  Thus the deployments were far too slow for Hazen’s, Howard’s, and Sherman’s likings.

While the infantry deployed, elsewhere the other parts of this “drama” were moving:

MarchDec13_FtMcAllister2

Kilpatrick’s cavalry moved to their new assignments.  In Liberty County, Murray dispatched the 5th Kentucky Cavalry to Sunbury (near the old Revolutionary War post of Fort Morris).  Likewise Atkins’ men reached Kilkenny Bluff.  Both forces searched for a way to catch the eye of the blockaders.

Fisher, by then back on the Dandelion, moved through “Hell’s Gate” into the Ogeechee.  The tug risked the big guns of Fort McAllister to a point just below a bend in the river.  There Fisher began attempts to signal the station at the rice mill he’d seen.

The time was around 4:30 p.m.  Tensions at Cheves’ Rice Mill ran high.  The sun was setting low in the west.  The planned assault of the fort was not yet ready.  And the fleet had not been seen.  In the words of more than one observer, Sherman was anxious if not outright nervous.  But this was right when all the moving pieces converged to turn the day for the Federals.  Observers at the rice mill noticed the smoke from the tug.  Soon Fisher was sending a query:

Who are you?
Fisher, Lieutenant.

McClintock, General Howard’s signal officer.

How can I get to you? What troops are at Fort McAllister?
Fisher, Lieutenant.

We are now investing Fort McAllister with Hazen’s division.
Howard, General.

General Howard:
What can we do for you? We are ready to render you any assistance.
Foster, General.  Dahlgren, Admiral.  Fisher, Lieutenant.

General Foster:
Can you assist us with your heavy guns?
Sherman, General.

General Sherman:
Being only a tug-boat, no heavy guns aboard.
Fisher, Lieutenant.

(And I’ve often wondered what Sherman’s real thoughts were, receiving that last line from a lowly lieutenant!)

The dialog cut short by Fisher’s last reply, McClintock now signaled to Hazen’s station:  “It is absolutely necessary that the fort be taken immediately. The Stars and Stripes must wave over the battery at sundown. Sherman, General.”  With that, Hazen knew he’d exceeded the time allowed for deployment.  He had to go in even if Second Brigade was not in position:

MarchDec13_FtMcAllister3

With some of the luck which had followed the men throughout the march, Second Brigade fell into position just as the bugles sounded to start the charge.

The assault was not a forgone conclusion by any means.  Nor was it simply a dash for the parapets.  The troops first had to close several hundred yards of cleared ground.  That reached, they had to wrestle through several layers of abatis and felled trees.  Exiting that obstacle, there were mines planted.  Then they had cross the ditch, breaking through the palisades in the way.  (Recall the photos from the earlier post.)

But these were hardened veterans who’d seen many assaults of this type in the past.  When the bugle sounded, they surged forward.  With that, allow me to pause and break this post up for ease of reading.  I’ll take up the assault and offer an assessment in part 3.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 753.)

Marching Through Georgia, December 13, 1864: The Taking of Fort McAllister, Part 1

Fort McAllister… a topic for which I cannot restrain myself to a single blog post, and I won’t!  My fascination with this battle dates back to my Army days. Being stationed a short drive from the battlefield, it was a “quick run.” Later, when tasked to provide a staff ride for our unit, I married my “ground research” with primary and secondary sources.  An ally in that task, Roger S. Durham, who was then working at the Fort Stewart Museum, has written the definitive work on Fort McAllister, with several chapters on the battle.  I cannot top that here.  Instead let me offer some background, the short version of the events, and along with that some of the points that I stressed for that tour (two decades ago).  So for “Part 1” today, let me provide some of that background.

Consider the “storyline” of this battle by components.  Let me start with the the parts in contact – Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s division and Major George A. Anderson’s garrison.  Hazen’s order of battle on paper was:

  • First Brigade, Colonel Theodore Jones: 55th, 116th, and 127th Illinois; 6th and 8th Missouri; 30th and 57th Ohio.
  • Second Brigade, Colonel Wells S. Jones: 111th Illinois, 83rd Indiana, 37th, 47th, 53rd, and 54th Ohio.
  • Third Brigade, Colonel John M. Oliver: 48th, 90th, and 99th Indiana; 15th Michigan; 70th Ohio.
  • Artillery: Battery H, 1st Missouri Light and one section of Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery.

The Federal force totaled ar0und 4,000. I don’t list Briagdier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry here.  But the cavalry played an important role early in the day.  The cavalry pressed within a mile of Fort McAllister and, while denying Anderson any information of what was going on, was able to pass valuable information about the fort’s layout and defense to Hazen.  After Hazen moved up, Colonel Eli Murray’s force moved south into Liberty County.  Colonel Smith Atkins’ Brigade moved to Kilkenny Bluff.  There they would attempt to reach the blockaders operating in St. Catherine’s Sound.

On the balance, Major Anderson had about 200 men within the confines of Fort McAllister.  The fort contained three 10-inch columbiads, one 8-inch columbiad, one 42-pdr gun, one 32-pdr rifled gun, four 32-pdr smoothbores, one 24-pdr howitzer, two 12-pdr Napoleons, six 6-pdr guns, two 12-pdr mountain howitzers, and one 10-inch mortar. Anderson’s garrison included a platoon of  infantry under Captain George Nicoll (25 men), two companies of the 1st Georgia Reserve Regiment (D and E), and Captain Nicholas Clinch’s Light Artillery Battery.

The fort had shrugged off attacks by the monitors, carrying the heaviest ordnance around, in 1863.  But the heavy guns in the fort faced the river. The land-facing sides featured the smaller caliber guns.  And those were mounted en-barbette, or on firing platforms looking over the parapet.  This exposed the gunners to fire from attackers, a point not lost on Kilpatrick and in his report to Major-General William T. Sherman on December 12.

FortMcAllister

However, while the guns were not placed to maximize firepower, there were several obstacles placed to make any attacker pause.  Thanks to the photographers who arrived at the fort after the battle, we know how those looked.  From the perspective of the Federal troops advancing at the fort:

Notice the open expanse of cleared ground, mostly sand.  Then a ring of abatis, in the form of felled trees with branches pointing out.

At passage points out of the abatis, Confederate engineers placed torpedoes or mines.  I cannot say this as an absolute certainty, but I think this photograph captures some of those:

Look to the right center at the two beams placed across what appears to be a path:

FtMcallisterObstacles1

See the objects between and beside the beams?  My speculation here (and that is all, so take it for what that’s worth) is that the beams were placed there to deter some absent minded wagoner from driving over the mines.  Though by the time these photos were taken, all should have been disarmed.  Maybe a precautionary measure?  (I know it to be modern practice to leave warning signs up around hastily cleared minefields just to keep those passing on the corridors.)

Once past the abatis the attackers had to traverse a deep ditch with palisades:

Keep in mind these are the “after” photos.  To get past these “sticks” the attackers had to break down passageways through the line of palisades… and then climb up the steep walls to the left of view.  I don’t know about you, but every time I look at this photo, I imagine my feet slipping on that sandy embankment.

The mortar battery had been pulled in by the time of the battle.  But the position of the earthworks and causeway leading to the battery remained intact.  Part of that is seen in this photo:

Once at the fort’s walls, the attackers assailing the rear-center of the fort faced a cross fire from the bastions:

To negate this cross fire, Hazen wanted to attack with three columns, with the aim to hit all along the rear wall of the fort.

Once over the walls, the defenders could fall back to magazines and behind traverses to fire upon the parade field:

Though I would quickly point out, in that event, the fort was lost already.  The defenders would only be trying to make the attacker pay a little more in blood for the victory.

The fort’s profile was generally good.  But there were places where the engineers had not improved the lines.  One of which was along the river, upstream side:

Here, at low tide, an attacker could rush up directly against the walls, with no abatis or palisades in the way.

I thought about offering some “then and now” views of the fort.  But will hold off pending a dedicated photo analysis post.  But you can get a “grand tour” of the fort as it looks today… from the air:

Having described the defenses of the fort and the “nut” which Hazen’s men had to crack, let me turn in the next post to a description of the operation – how Hazen moved up his command, his plan of attack, and some of the other “moving parts” that turned around as the plan was executed.

 

 

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 11, 1864: Setting up a siege and looking for the Navy

Late on December 10, 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman’s headquarters issued Special Field Orders No. 130.  Up front, these orders stated the general’s priorities:

The army having arrived before Savannah, will proceed to invest the place, and to open up communication with our fleet in Ossabaw and Wassaw Sounds.

In line with these priorities, the orders established zones for each wing of the army.  Major-General Henry Slocum’s Left Wing held the line from the Savannah River to a point below the Georgia Central Railroad / Louisville Road corridor.  In his zone, Slocum had responsibility for the destruction of railroads, to include the Charleston & Savannah and its bridge over the Savannah River.  Likewise, Slocum had to be mindful of security of the army’s rear.

Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing was to “extend from General Slocum’s right to the Savannah River below the city….” or at least to towards the batteries at Thunderbolt on the east side of the city.  Such looked possible on the maps on hand as of December 10.  But the reality was that objective lay beyond marshes too difficult to cross.   Captain Orlando Poe had the task of clearing up the matters with the maps.

Howard’s other objective, and one within the realm of possibility, was to make contact with the fleet blockading Savannah.  To aid Howard, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kipatrick’s cavalry would slip from their position behind the Left Wing to cross the Ogeechee River behind Howard.  The easiest location to establish contact with the fleet was by way of the Ogeechee River, with the ships off Ossabaw Sound.  However, that required something to be done about the Confederate post at Fort McAllister.

MarchDec11_LeftWing

To accomplish these tasks, first the Seventeenth Crops had to shift around to the right to make space for the late-arriving Fourteenth Corps.  The Seventeenth Corps began movement at 7 a.m. Also starting movement that morning, the Fourteenth Corps used the road over Cherokee Hill and filed into the vacated spot.  However, as must have seemed a pattern for the corps’ movement, at 6:15 p.m. that evening, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis complained “My trains are stuck in the mud for the balance of the night … it will be corduroyed by morning.” Even moving into the siege lines, Davis experienced delays.

Davis left behind Brigadier-General Absalom Baird to destroy the railroad bridge.  Baird would report the bridge was inaccessible short of walking along the track, due to deep swamps.  A Confederate battery on the far shore prevented any movement on the tracks.  Even the elevated line running up to the bridge was hard to reach. “I found the trestle-work about fifteen feet high, built upon piles and through a swamp not passable except on bridges, which it would take days to build if we had the material.”  But enough damage could be done that the line was rendered impassable by train.  Baird had one other worry that day.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, which had been pestering the column for the past week, appeared at Monteith.  But the distraction proved temporary.

The Twentieth Corps spent a day closing up with the Confederate lines.  Brigadier-General John Geary advanced that morning to reach the main line of fortifications.  By 10 a.m. he had established a line across a rice field dike, generally covering the distance between the river and the Augusta Road. Geary described his sector:

My front line was concealed by the woods, with the exception of my left, which lay in open ground within 250 yards of a large work on the river-bank in which the enemy had seven heavy guns. In front of my entire line were open fields, affording a full view of the intrenchments held by the enemy. Immediately in front of these intrenchments were extensive rice fields flooded with water, and between the fields in my front and these flooded rice fields was a canal twenty-five feet wide and five or six feet deep, which also was filled with water. The sluice gates to these fields were all under control of the enemy, as was also the mouth of the canal, between which and my position was the large advanced work before mentioned as being in front of my left. Besides this one the enemy had in my front three other works, mounted with heavy guns, in their main line across the flooded rice fields. These guns all opened upon us, keeping up a steady fire throughout the day, but causing very few casualties. No reply was made by my artillery, but my skirmishers were advanced as far as possible and annoyed the enemy considerably.

This description, particularly the flooded rice fields, is typical for the terrain faced all along the lines outside Savannah.  Geary also looked to Hutchinson’s Island opposite his position in the river.  Scouts and staff officers reconnoitered the 900 acre island.  Confederate sharpshooers took position to harass the Federals from the island.

Colonel Ezra Carman also paid attention to an island in the river.  With orders to effect a reconnaissance of Argyle Island (not to be confused with placename by the same name in the Ogeechee River).  Colonel William Hawley’s 3rd Wisconsin drew the assignment.  But lack of boats hindered the operation.  “Two companies of this regiment crossed to Argyle Island this night and six companies the following morning, leaving two companies to guard the Georgia shore and take care of a rice mill and contraband camp.”

MarchDec11_RightWing

On the Right Wing’s front, both corps adjusted their frontage on December 11.  The Seventeenth began probing forward in the afternoon.  So little being known of the terrain, Major-General Joseph Mower received orders to:

… send out three or four men in your front, to creep up as far as possible toward the enemy’s works, and ascertain the nature of the ground between you and the works.  Should there be no swamps or creek in front of your left brigade, and the ground prove favorable for an advance, you will proceed to throw up to-night works for two batteries….

The poor maps even caused confusion at Sherman’s headquarters.  At 2 in the morning, while reviewing Howard’s orders for the day, an inquiry went out, asking for a description of King’s Bridge and Dillon’s Ferry.  “Neither is on the map.”  Howard responded with a rough sketch and written description.  The entire exchange underscores a problem adding complexity to the operation.  Sherman and his staff simply did not know the lay of the land.  In this haze, two divisions of the Fifteenth Corps, which had been situated astride the neck leading to Fort McAllister the day before, were moved instead on the north side of the Ogeechee.  Behind them, only one pontoon bridge, at Dillon’s, was in place to re-cross the Ogeechee.

All the men of the 1st Missouri Engineers who could be spared from other tasks were assigned work at King’s Bridge that day.  That was the best crossing site of the lower Ogeechee for access to Fort McAllister.  However because of the swing of the tides, up to eight feet, it was not idea for pontoon bridging.  The engineers went to work repairing the damage done by the Confederates to the 700 foot span.

Elsewhere along the Ogeechee, Howard directed Kilpatrick’s cavalry to Dillon’s and furnished pontoons for crossing the Canoochee River.  Kilpatrick would report back later in the day with details of Fort McAllister’s garrison, gleaned from contrabands.

MarchDec11_FtMcAllister

But the most significant development of the day was achieved by the Signal Corps. Captain James McClintock and Lieutenant Jacob Sampson established a signal station at Cheves’ rice mill on the Ogeechee River, opposite an ox-bow bend of the river.

From this point we obtained a good view of the rebel works on the Little Ogeechee, also part of the sound; and to the 13th a strict watch was kept during the day, while rockets were sent up at certain intervals through the night to attract, if possible, the attention of any vessel that might be in the sound near the mouth of the river.

Howard immediately saw the value of this station and ordered a battery of artillery and a regiment from First Division of Fifteenth Corps in order to secure the outpost.  The means to contact the fleet was in place.  Now the signal officers needed to catch the eye of the blockaders.  And that was in the works.

That afternoon, the three man mission led by Captain William Duncan reached one of the blockaders.  Received on board the USS Flag, the men were soon taken to Port Royal Sound by way of the tug USS Dandelion.  By the next morning Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren could report the arrival of Sherman’s army on the coast.  The next step would be to establish contact.

Another significant development for the situation took place in the Confederate lines that evening.  Wheeler, as noted above, was still pressing the rear of the Left Wing.  He had already diminished his forces by dismounting a brigade for service in the lines at Savannah.  But at 6 p.m. he received a request from Lieutenant-General William Hardee to relocate to the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.  Hardee was “apprehensive that the enemy may cross between the railroad bridge and the city on flats captured on the island plantations and get on his line of communication.”  The general was also wary that Federals might try to link up with those pressing the railroad at Coosawhatchie.  Hardee suggested that Wheeler, “cross the river and establish your headquarters at Hardeeville, or some other convenient locality.” Wheeler would leave one division – in reality a brigade strength formation – under Brigadier-General Alfred Iverson on the Georgia side.  The rest of his command moved to South Carolina.  This move should be considered in the light of Federal presence at Coosawhatchie.  If nothing else, that “thorn” left the Confederate commanders wary.  That concern, for the third time in the campaign, took Wheeler’s cavalry out of position to influence events.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 77, 235, 277, 676, and 689.)

Bulwark against Sherman: Land-side defenses of Savannah

Back when those were pertinent to the sesquicentennial, I discussed the coastal defenses around Savannah (part 1 and part 2).  I touched upon some of the improvements built on Whitemarsh Island early in 1864.  (And at some time after these 150ths are over, I’ll return to discuss them in more detail.)  But all of those works were overtaken by events in December 1864, being useless for the situation at Savannah. It was the land-facing and rear guard defenses that were critical to the city’s defense from Sherman’s advance.  As the “Marching through Georgia” narrative requires some mention of those defenses, let me walk through the major elements of the works.

If you like cartoons, maybe Robert Knox Sneden’s map is to your liking:

I’m sure Sneden was good at his work, but I find his maps too busy and lean on scaling.  I prefer the work of Captain Orlando Poe:

Poe drafted this map to accompany Sherman’s official report on the campaign, and for the most part it is a great representation how the defenses stood in December 1864.  However, there are some works not depicted on the map. Still, the best primary source on the subject. Allow me to break these down by section to explain the “layers” defending Savannah.

First, leaving the discussion of the coastal and river defenses aside, there is the inner defenses that ringed Savannah.  Confederates began construction of these in 1862.  Work picked up during General P.G.T. Beauregard’s tenure in command.   Looking close at Poe’s map, that line covered the east and south sides of the city, between one and two miles out. (and ignore for the moment the “blue” inner ring, as that depicts Federal positions after the surrender):

SavannahInnerDef_Dec64

The line of works started at Fort Boggs on the east side of Savannah overlooking the river, with the general arrangement of a star fort.  In March 1863, Fort Boggs held ten 32-pdr smoothbores, three 3-inch rifles, one 6-pdr gun, a 24-pdr howitzer, a 12-pdr howitzer, and two 10-inch mortars.  By May 1864, the armament was one 10-inch columbiad, eleven 32-pdrs, and two 10-inch mortars.  (The site of Fort Boggs on the grounds of the Savannah Country Club.)

The next major work in the line was Fort Brown, forming a salient where the lines turned to fit the terrain to the south of Fort Boggs.  Fort Brown had five 32-pdrs and one 18-pdr in March 1863.  Within a year that armament was reduced, and specifics were not mentioned in returns for 1864.  Between Forts Boggs and Brown was a crémaillère line with nine gun platforms.

Fort Mercer stood further south at the southeast corner of the line.  In March 1864 it contained two 32-pdrs, two 8-inch siege howitzers, and one 24-pdr howitzer.  Between Forts Brown and Mercer were seven numbered Lunettes (Nos. 19 to 25).  To the right of Fort Mercer ran the south-facing line with Lunettes Nos. 1 to 18.  The lunettes were armed with an assortment of carronades, flank howitzers, or smoothbore siege guns in March 1863.  Within a year, many of those guns were relocated elsewhere to defend points closer to the coast.

Lunette No. 1 sat near the Savannah Canal.  From there back to the river, the Confederates constructed no lines.  Low ground there made an attack unlikely.  For what it is worth, in 1779, the British also left that side of Savannah largely undefended in their successful defense of the city.

An open work, named Battery Harrison, lay beyond these lines and protected the approaches from the Vernon River.   Further south was a string of batteries located on ground dominating the marshes:

SavannahSouthDef_Dec64

While constructed to prevent landings from sea-borne forces, in the first weeks of December these works also anchored the south end of the defenses.  To get past these works, the Federals either had to force a landing or push through Middle Marsh that extended to their right, back to the railroad.  Of course none of these were close enough to support Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River.  That bastion, while effectively the cork in the bottle preventing Sherman’s resupply, was isolated from the rest of the defense.

Until Sherman’s march, any approach to the city from the west was unlikely.  Not only were no Federal forces able to strike from that direction (until December 1864, of course), but the swamps, marshes, rice fields, and rivers served as a natural defense.  To deter raids on the Savannah & Gulf Railroad, picket posts watched the line south to the Altamaha River.  The crossing over the Ogeechee River, just downstream from King’s Bridge, was posted, but without any works or batteries (as Fort McAllister kept it safe from Federal raiders). Otherwise there were no works of significance to the west of the city.

As it became clear Sherman was marching towards Savannah, Confederate leaders put renewed efforts to defend from the west. In the first days of December a line went up from the Savannah River reaching down to the Savannah & Gulf Railroad:

SavannahWestDef_Dec64

Fort Hardeman anchored the right end of the line and covered the channel between Hutchinson’s Island and the mainland.  Likely this fort received the most attention from the Confederates as it was described as well laid with dep ditches.  In addition to an abatis, the outer obstacles included wire strung across stakes.  The fort held ten guns, some of which were siege caliber.

The line south from Fort Hardeman featured at least one unnamed battery.  Where the line crossed the Georgia Central Railroad, a gun mounted on a flat-car was the main armament of Battery McBeth.  Nearby Battery Acee covered Shaw’s Dam on the canal with a 12-pdr gun.  Another Napoleon gun was in an unnamed battery further down the line.  Battery Barnes faced an expanse of rice fields with two 32-pdrs, two Napoleons, and two 12-pdr howitzers.  Linking with Battery Barnes was a battery on Pine Point.  Battery Jones on the Darien Road held two 32-pdrs, four Napoleons, a Parrott rifle, and a carronade.  Finally there are references to a battery along the Savannah & Gulf Railroad where the line passed Middle Marsh.

The line was not idea, and had several bad angles.  But it held some formidable armament. Though we should consider most of the heaviest guns were still positioned to face the channels leading to the sea.  Federal tallies, after the fall of Savannah, counted right at 200 guns of all calibers.  In addition to the garrison guns, howitzers, mortars, and carronades, the Confederates had 48 field guns in the lines.  By most accounts the Confederates had sufficient ammunition for a siege.  The Federals recorded the capture of over 21,00 rounds, mostly smoothbore, with the fall of Savannah.  On the other hand, the Confederate defenders lacked time to prepare the works to withstand a lengthy siege.

The Federal gunners on the opposite side had around 65 guns.  The largest guns were one battery of 20-pdrs.  Sherman would call upon the Department of the South for other heavy guns, as he confronted the line.  But for the most part, the Federal success on the line at Savannah depended on shovels and siege-craft… and a lot of bluff to convince Lieutenant-General William Hardee the line was untenable.