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.


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:


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.


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  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):


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:


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:


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.)