Another Dahlgren recovered from CSS Georgia … and a rifled one at that!

The days since the Sesquicentennial ended have been very interesting for those of us with an interest in heavy Civil War ordnance.  Three cannon came out of the PeeDee River in South Carolina, once armament of the CSS Pee Dee.  Two rare Brooke rifles and a Dahlgren shell gun.  And there is the ongoing recovery operation in the Savannah River, aiming to remove the CSS Georgia’s remains before dredging widens the ship channel there.  Earlier this summer the Army Corps of Engineers shipped four recovered cannon, to include a Dahlgren smootbore and a 6.4-inch Brooke Rifle to Texas A&M University to undergo preservation treatment.

And last month, authorities announced a surprise finding… another Dahlgren gun found in the Savannah River.  That makes a total of three Dahlgrens recovered this year.  And this one is identified as a rifled Dahlgren.

DahlgrenPress releases from the Army Corps of Engineers provide only details as to the weight, being 9,000 pounds. That weight puts the weapon in the IX-inch Dahlgren class. But I am unfamiliar with any rifling of that type, class of weapon by either Federal or Confederate sources.  It is possible, given the general weight provided in the release, that the Dahlgren was cast to the IX-inch form but bored out to a smaller caliber.  Likewise it could have been a smoothbore with groves added.  Confederate sources used both practices to provide rifled ordnance during the war.  Views of the cannon in the photos lead me to believe this is a IX-inch that was rifled. Interesting to note, authorities speculated there would be a second Dahlgren based on documentary evidence.  And the recovery of rifled projectiles of a sort not matching to the already identified weapons lead them to believe this second Dahlgren was there at the river bottom. Here are some more photos of the Dahlgren:




After 150 years and nine months under the Savannah River, the Dahlgren is now on dry land.  I’m looking forward, years ahead, when all the artifacts from the CSS Georgia will be on display.


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

No, not THAT General Lee:

Nor THE General Lee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 20, 1865: Logistic constraints and rains delay Sherman’s movements

Following the Confederate withdrawal from Pocotaligo on the night of January 14, 1865, Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps consolidated positions for its foothold in South Carolina (Point #1 on the map below).  Immediately, Federal officers began looking at the Confederate line along the Salkehatchie River for possible crossing points.


Further south, Major-General Henry Slocum’s Left Wing had established a division-sized foothold in South Carolina earlier in the month.  Shortly after the Confederate withdrawal back to the Salkehatchie River, Brigadier-General William T. Ward’s division moved up to occupy New River Bridge.  From there Ward’s men made contact with cavalry from Blair’s corps.  On January 17, Ward moved further inland to Hardeeville, finding nothing but road obstructions to resist the march (Point #2).  This was, on the map, a promising position.  Slocum began moving the remainder of the 20th Corps, under Major-General Alpheus Williams, across the Savannah River in order to exploit.

However, unlike the aggressive movements that characterized the Savannah Campaign, the Federals did not take immediate advantage of the Confederate actions.  Maj0r-General William T. Sherman originally intended to have both wings of his army moving by mid-January.  But several factors forced that schedule to shift to the right.  Two constraints began to work against against Sherman.  Both can be summed up in a word – logistics.  Because Savannah’s main channel remained blocked for normal use, all supplies sent to Sherman’s command had to pass through the dock at Thunderbolt.  Those facilities were simply not sufficient to support four army corps.  And the channel allowed only light draft vessels.  So the buildup of supplies needed for the push into South Carolina required more time.  Furthermore, the movement of the Fifteenth Corps, which also used Thunderbolt and required light draft vessels, could not take place within in a timely manner.

The first adjustment with these constraints was to change the Fifteenth Corps’ movement orders.  Instead of moving by way of boat to Beaufort (Points #3), orders came down for Major-General John Logan to move those troops (minus one division already on Port Royal Island) by way of Union Causeway to join the rest of the Right Wing (Points #4).  Also using that causeway were two divisions of the Twentieth Corps moving up to reinforce Ward’s advance position.  So five divisions would use that one path through the rice fields leaving Savannah.

There and then the weather, which had been generally favorable through November and December, turned against Sherman’s columns.  A strong front brought rains.  Off shore, this disrupted shipping.  Ashore, this brought flooding and made the roadways muddy.  The rains were so bad that on January 19, Williams requested (and was granted) permission to hold his last division, that of Major-General John Geary, in Savannah. The following day, reporting from the causeway, Williams provided a dismal appraisal of the situation:

The whole country on this side of the river is entirely submerged by the freshet in the river. I attempted to get back to my headquarters trains, but found it impossible.  The water has broken away the dikes and washed away the corduroy. It is utterly impossible for the trains now on the island to come through this way.  The causeway is not yet flooded, but from this point to the river is warn out, and impassible even for empty wagons…. The water is rising rapidly, and the negroes here say that the causeway also will be flooded.

Williams would, however, move what he had over the river at that time up to Purysburg and Hardeeville.  While somewhat isolated, they were at least over the Savannah River.

The Fifteenth Corps, on the other hand, now switched back to the boat route to Port Royal.  A portion of Brigadier-General John Smith’s division moved by the causeway.  But eventually all but one division would move by boat.  The last division of Fifteenth Corps and the Cavarly Division of newly brevetted Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would follow the Fourteenth Corps (Point #5) looking to cross the Savannah River upstream.  The rains had forced a significant revision of Sherman’s plans.

While the Federals fought floods and mud to get out of Savannah, further north Blair looked to gain some lodgement over the Salkehatchie.  The hope was for a bridgehead to avoid a situation such as happened on the Oconee in November.  Major-General Joseph Mower’s division drew the task (Point #6 on the map), as Blair later reported:

On the morning of the 20th the First Division, Major-General Mower commanding, started upon an expedition to the Salkehatchie bridge for the purpose of surprising, and, if possible, capturing a portion of the force, consisting of about 3,000 infantry and cavalry and one battery of artillery, stationed at that point.  From information derived from negroes and deserters we were led to believe that the river was fordable at a point about three miles above the bridge, but upon the arrival of the command at that point they discovered that in consequence of the late heavy rains there was from twelve to fifteen feet of water in the river.  Not being provided with boats it was found to be impracticable to effect a crossing without attracting the attention of the enemy, so the expedition returned the same night.

Corresponding with Blair the next day, Right Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard expressed some relief at the failure.  “General Sherman particularly requested me not to reconnoiter beyond the Salkehatchie, and I am glad that General Mower did not cross the river.”  Perhaps a curious statement to come from an army commander.

But read a bit between the lines.  We credit Sherman for a lot of things – good and bad – while assessing his generalship.  On January 20, 1865, he at least had the good sense to understand the limits of logistics.  A lone division across the Salkehatchie, however attractive that lodgement might be, would stretch the command’s reach beyond its grasp.  The flood waters may have been an ally to the Confederates that day, but time was not.  A fact that Sherman had in plain view.  So plans and time lines would be adjusted while the floods subsided.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 375; Part II, Serial 99, pages 101 and 107.)

Distribution of Vessels, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, January 1, 1865

During the war the commanders of the Navy’s operating squadrons provided periodic reports on the assignments of vessels in their respective commands.  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren did so twice a month (with some variance, but more or less on the 1st and 15th of each month).  As was the practice, he submitted a report on January 1, 1865.  The report was the first since the fall of Savannah.  So there were adjustments due to the changing situation and mission.  Obviously, with no need to blockade Savannah and no threat from rams from that port, Dahlgren could reallocate his forces.  Considering the operations that followed in the first months of 1865, it’s worth a look at the Navy’s dispositions on the first day of the year.

The first grouping to look at is the area from the South Carolina border to Charleston:


As of January 1, no vessel patrolled Murrell’s Inlet.  The furthest north assignment was the steamer USS Canadaigua covering Winyah Bay, approaches to Georgetown, and Cape Romain.  The sailing vessels USS George Mangham and USS James S. Chambers covered Bull’s Bay.  Of course, north of the state line was the jurisdiction of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  There was a significant naval force operating off Cape Fear against the Confederate defenses there.  But that falls outside the scope of my post.

Laying outside the bar of Charleston, the blockade consisted of the steamers USS James Adger, USS Wamsutta, USS Nipsic, USS Mary Sanford, USS South Carolina, USS Flambeau, USS Memphis, and USS Potomska.  The tugs USS Laburnum, USS Azalea, and USS Sweet Brier also operated outside the bar.  These vessels formed the primary force to intercept blockade runners inbound to Charleston.

Inside the bar, with the mission to block either runners or rams from exiting the harbor, was the strongest elements of the squadron.  This force included seven monitors – USS Patapsco, USS Montauk, USS Nahant, USS Passaic, USS Nantucket, USS Lehigh, and USS Catskill (under repairs).   The tugs USS Gladiolus, USS Catalpa, USS Hydrangea, USS Jonquil, USS Geranium, and USS Oleander supported the monitors and patrolled the ship channels.  Other vessels inside the bar off Charleston were the sailing vessels USS John Adams, USS Orvetta, USS Sarah Bruen, and USS Sea Foam.  The tender USS Home was also in the waters off Morris Island.

Also off Morris Island, but operating in support of the Army, were the gunboats USS Wissahickon and USS Commodore McDonough, along with the mortar schooners (abbreviated M.S. for my map) USS T.A. Ward, USS Dan Smith, and USS C.P. Williams.:


South of Charleston, several vessels covered the waterways of South Carolina.  The sailing ship USS St. Louis covered the North Edisto.  The gunboat USS Stettin and schooner USS Norfolk Packet covered St. Helena Sound.

At Port Royal were the steamers USS Philadelphia and USS Pawnee; the tugs USS Arethusa, USS Carnation, USS Larkspur, and USS O.M. Pettit; and the sailing vessel USS Houghton.  In addition the steamers USS Mingoe and USS Pontiac, along with tugs USS Daffodil and USS Dandelion, were operating up the Broad River in direct support of Army operations there.  Other vessels listed at Port Royal were tenders and hulks, which included the old ship of the line USS New Hampshire and the old blockade runner USS Chatham.

Also at Port Royal, but not available due to servicing and repairs (and thus not tallied on my maps), were the monitor USS Sangamon; steamers USS Cimarron, USS Ottawa, and USS Winona; tugs USS Acacia, USS Amaranthus, USS Iris, USS Camelia, and USS Clover;  and the sailing ships USS Braziliera and USS George W. Rogers.

Covering the coast of Georgia, the squadron was now able to spread itself thin:


Posted to the Savannah River was the steamer USS Sonoma and mortar schooner USS Racer.   The mortar schooner USS John Griffin was posted to Wassaw Sound.  The steamer USS Flag and mortar schooner USS Para policed the waters of Ossabow Sound.  The bark USS Fernandina covered St. Catherine’s Sound.  The steamer USS Lodona‘s assignment was Sapelo Sound.  The USS Saratoga was in Doboy Sound.   The bark USS Ethan Allen plyed the waters off St. Simon’s Island.  And the USS Dai Ching covered St. Andrew’s Sound.  The latter vessel, one of Dahlgren’s light draft steamers, was due to move north and cover South Carolina waters.

The brig USS Perry provided support to Army posts at Fernandina, Florida.  further south in Florida (and off my map), the steamers USS Norwich and USS E.B. Hale operated in the St. Johns River.

Add to these forces the various armed transports operated by the Army, for whom there is scant accounting in the official records.  All considered, a formidable force ranging from ironclads to armed tugs confronted the Confederate forces along the southern Atlantic coastline.

NOTE: Several of the sailing vessels had been rated as mortar schooners earlier in the war.  In some cases, with the mortars removed, those vessels served as blockaders.  I’ve tallied those former mortar schooners as sailing blockaders for this post.  So if you sense there is some mis-match of the ratings, keep that in mind.

(The Distribution of vessels of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, January 1, 1865, is recorded in ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 154-5.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 20, 1864: “The noise of the retreating enemy could plainly be heard”

For Lieutenant-General William Hardee, December 20, 1864 was a day of anticipation.  Had the pontoon bridge across the Savannah River been ready before dusk the day before, he would have started the evacuation of Savannah.  Instead, he looked to keep up the appearances of holding the city for just one more day and then evacuate under the cover of darkness.  For his plan to work, he had to keep open the one corridor out of Savannah.  To Major-General Joseph Wheeler, who’s men were protecting the bridge and causeway on the South Carolina side, Hardee implored, “The road to Hardeeville must be kept open at all hazards; it is my only line of retreat.”

Most of the Federals, however, were focused on other things than the road to Hardeeville.  Major-General William T. Sherman arrived in Port Royal Sound early on December 20.  Meeting most of the day with Major-General John Foster, the two looked for ways to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  Brigadier-General John Hatch, in command of the force on Deveaux’s Neck opposing the railroad near Coosawhatchie, reported his progress that day:

Yesterday morning I put three rifled guns in the marsh, 900 yards from the small railroad bridge, and damaged it so much that no trains have passed since.  The ground is so bad that I can not get the 30-pounders there. I have a platform laid down for one 30-pounder that will reach the railroad at a range of 1,300 yards. Am not firing now, as we are out of all kinds of ammunition, except that for our muskets; have sent to [Hilton Head] for more, but no attention is paid to our requisitions, or no transportation is furnished to bring it up.

Hatch indicated he was going to stage a feint at a point closer to Hilton Head and then attempt to flank the Confederates with a move across the Coosawhatchie River.  Likely Sherman reviewed this report while with Foster.  Before departing, Sherman promised to transfer some of his veteran troops to aid Hatch.  But that would take some time, and the first “allotment” of that would be the time required for Sherman to transit back to his headquarters to cut the orders.  As he left Hilton Head that afternoon, bad weather was brewing up causing even more delays.  The delayed transit, as we shall see, would have an important effect on events at Savannah.

Along the siege lines outside Savannah, the primary task was completing preparations for an assault on the Confederate works.  Major-General Oliver O. Howard had selected Brigadier-General Giles Smith’s division of Seventeenth Corps to force a lodgement, once Sherman gave the order to commence.  On the far right, Howard also ordered up a brigade from Brigadier-General William Hazen’s division, who were returning to camps at Fort McAllister, to reinforce their fellow Fifteenth Corps troops.  Everything pointed to a grant assault at some point in the near future.

Aside from this, Howard had time to deal with an administrative request.  To Major-General Peter Osterhaus, he responded:

General Corse requested the privilege of raising a negro regiment for his division for the purpose of pioneer duty, details for work in the quartermaster’s and commissary departments, &c. I will approve the raising of two negro regiments, one for each army corps, for the purposes above specified, and give the provisional appointments of such officers as the corps commanders may recommend, subject to the approval of the War Department. Each regiment must be denominated Pioneer Battalion, in conformity with Special Field Orders, No. 120, Military Division of the Mississippi, and must be paid as pioneers are now paid, should the War Department fail to approve my action.

On the Right Wing, Major-General Henry Slocum was likewise busy preparing for the anticipated assault.  Keeping Sherman’s headquarters informed, at 8 a.m. that day he wrote, “I am now fully prepared to execute any orders the general-in-chief may issue. All our batteries are finished, but the six 20-pounder guns have not yet come.”

Slocum’s subordinates examined the potential assault routes that day.  Brigadier-General James Morgan, commanding Second Division, Fourteenth Corps, provided an assessment of the ground in front of his line, prefacing, “I am sorry to say that I have no place from which one could be made with any reasonable hope of success.” Morgan continued on to say the roads leading up to the Confederate works were,

… commanded by a well-constructed fort, with abatis and other obstructions in front, the water of the swamp over and across the road for some eighty yards, depth not known. To advance a column by the flank upon this road without any ground for deployment, under a heavy fire, would be a useless destruction of life, without a corresponding advantage.

To deal with the canal, which crossed his sector, Morgan had foot bridges and fascines constructed.

On the Twentieth Corps sector, scouts from the 33rd Massachusetts sent forward scouts to assess the ground.  Corporal Robert Black reported back:

After arriving at the picket-line he started to about forty paces to the left of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad; advanced some seventy paces on clear ground without discovering any obstructions and no impediments, after which encountered large pine trees felled, ground uneven and no water; with some difficulty climbed over the felled trees and came to swampy ground, and still further on came to a pond varying from six to twelve feet in width, tried the depth of the pond by means of a pole and judged it to be some five feet deep with soft spongy ground, after which moved further to the left by creeping under and climbing over the fallen trees and found tolerable good ground, no water, but fallen timber, and as far as he could see it was all fallen timber–not trimmed.

Black estimated he reached a point 200 yards from the Confederate works before turning back.  Clearly those making the planned assault would have their work cut out for them.

Brigadier-General John Geary’s men improved the fortifications in their sector on the 20th.  Late in the evening the 30-pounder Parrotts arrived and were placed in position.  But while this was going on, Geary reported Confederate activity of note:

I ascertained this morning that the enemy had completed a pontoon bridge from Savannah across to the South Carolina shore, and notified the commanding general corps of the discovery.  This bridge was about two miles and a half from my left.

Wary of any Confederate withdrawal attempt, Geary asked his outposts to keep the bridge under observation.  But no significant activity was reported before nightfall.

Closing his 8 a.m. report, Slocum added, “I have a brigade on the South Carolina shore.” This was, of course that of Colonel Ezra Carman who’d turned a “lodgement” into a full on brigade perimeter in the rice fields.  Further advance was blocked by Wheeler’s men:

December 20, in obedience to orders from the brigadier-general commanding division to determine the position of Clydesdale Creek with reference to my line, I detailed twelve companies of the brigade, under immediate command of Colonel Hawley, Third Wisconsin Volunteers, and accompanied them myself. The force succeeded in reaching Clydesdale Creek with the loss of one man killed, and after erecting works for one regiment and posting therein two companies of Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers, an effort was made to strike the Savannah and Hardeeville road, but the enemy, anticipating the movement, had thrown a strong force in our front. Having a canal to cross under their fire if we advanced I ordered the detachment to withdraw.

Carman, like Geary, noticed signs the Confederates were withdrawing:

During the day a great number of vehicles of all descriptions were seen passing our front, moving from Savannah toward Hardeeville, which fact was reported to the headquarters of the division.

Later that afternoon, a Confederate gunboat shelled Carman’s position.  After firing some thirty rounds and killing one man, the gunboat fell back due to the tides. Nearing dusk, Carman reported clear indications the Confederates were pulling out:

At 4 p.m. the enemy were re-enforced by three regiments of infantry from Savannah. From 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. the noise of the retreating enemy could plainly be heard as they crossed the bridges from Savannah to the South Carolina shore.

The Confederate withdrawal was underway, with several keen observers on the Federal lines reporting the movement of wagons.  But the army’s chief was not in contact at that moment.  Nor was anyone looking forward to the prospect of fighting through the swamps, ponds, and abitis to get at the departing Confederates.   I’ll turn to the particulars of the Confederate withdrawal… or retreat if you prefer… in the next post.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 237, 279, 766, 769, 770-1 and 968.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 15, 1864: Slocum, Carman propose moving to the left

Under the classical definition of siege the attacker is required to surround a point or at least dominate all means of access into or out of the point.  But from the military standpoint, the siege begins with an investment, in which the attacker works to isolate the target, be that a city or other position held by the enemy.  In the Civil War context, with an investment complete, the attacker could formally demand the surrender.  Often just the threat of investment could prompt the defender to flee.

Returning from his visit with Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren on the USS Harvest Moon, Major-General William T. Sherman had these formal terms on his mind.  He felt, after the briefing from Major-General John Foster in regard to the Coosawhatchie sector, that he could make a case that investment had been achieved.  All routes on the Georgia side of Savannah were held by Sherman’s men.  Foster could, at least, bombard the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  That situation was the basis for the “on the map” argument that the Federals had an investment of Savannah.

Sherman spelled out his intent in messages to both Major-Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum, his wing commanders.  To Slocum, at around 2 p.m. on December 15, he wrote:

General Foster has 5,000 men near the Charleston railroad, north of Broad River, and near enough to the railroad to command it, so that he feels sure that cars cannot pass either way; but he has been unable to reach the railroad itself with his men, on account of the enemy’s force. The gun-boats and General Howard occupy all other avenues of approach to Savannah connecting with your right. Now, if you can close the Savannah River to navigation, and also get a force over the Savannah River to threaten in flank any dirt road leading out of Savannah, between the city and Coosawhatchie, the investment of the city will be complete and the enemy will have no escape.

Sherman went on to explain that he wanted to move up siege artillery as quickly as possible.  By using the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, the guns could be transported directly to the Left Wing’s position.  In addition, Sherman wanted Slocum’s

…batteries, which are nearest to the city, prepared to execute the foregoing plans, and he wants you to write him in full to-night any ideas that may have been suggested by your closer observation of the ground in your immediate front….

Slocum took a queue from this message.  Upon receipt at 5 p.m. he responded:

The heavy guns can be used to advantage in my front.  From my extreme left I can shell the city with the 3-inch gun.  I think I can safely place a force on the Carolina side of the river and gradually work my way opposite the city.

The artillery positions mentioned were in Brigadier-General John Geary’s sector.  However, as of that date, while Geary reported the Confederate fired an average of 300 rounds per day, he’d restrained the response back to sharpshooting.

However, it was on the Savannah River itself that most of the activity of the day took place.  Colonel Ezra Carman had slowly worked the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry across to Argyle Island.  On December 15, Carman pushed over the 2nd Massachusetts.


This move gave the Federals firm possession of the island.  Along with the two captured Confederate gunboats, this effectively sealed off the Savannah River upstream of Savannah, as intended by Sherman.  Furthermore, the Federals had possession of stores of rice and several rice mills.  But after going over to observe the progress himself, Carman was not satisfied with just rice.   Already he had patrols across the river onto the South Carolina side, meeting little resistance. He saw an opportunity. The road leading north out of Savannah, the Union Causeway through the ricefields and marshes, seemed within reach.

Returning to the mainland, Carman went to press his case up the chain of command.  At the 20th Corps headquarters he addressed both Brigadier-General Alpheus S. Williams and Slocum.  Impressed, Slocum agreed to reinforce the effort with the rest of Carman’s brigade and Battery I, 1st New York Artillery.  He also sent a report to Sherman at 9 p.m.:

I have two regiments on the Carolina shore north of Clydesdale Creek. To-morrow morning the remainder of the brigade, three additional regiments will endeavor to take the line from Clydesdale Creek to a point on the Savannah River opposite to Cruger’s Island, with orders to intrench on that line and feel forward toward the causeway road. With your consent I will try to place a division on the line marked 2 on the inclosed diagram. It will be necessary to move with some caution on that side; and, to render the position entirely safe, it may be necessary to throw an entire corps over, with instructions to intrench strongly.

Here is the map Slocum attached:


Clearly Slocum was ready to jump in with both boots.  If he followed by moving the Twentieth Corps, Howard would need to shift the right wing to the north as compensation.  But Slocum did practice some self restraint:

I shall go no further than to send a brigade over to take the line marked 1 until I hear from you; but I have no fear of placing a corps on that side; and this done the fate of the city is sealed.

Slocum did relate one concern.  The Confederates has, as of the day before, moved a gunboat up the Back River (to a point indicated as “B” on his map) to shell the Federal positions.  The Federal guns could not reply to this.

There is one additional point which escaped Slocum’s or Carman’s assessment (even when Carman detailed these events post-war).  The Confederates maintained several positions along the Union Causeway.  These were batteries erected years earlier fearing threats from Hilton Head.  While not substantial fortifications, these were sufficient to control the narrow means of access to the causeway.  Not to say these were unassailable. But that is to say the effort would require detailed planning (of the sort that brought success at Fort McAllister).

Sherman received Slocum’s note at around 11 p.m. In a response sent shortly after, he authorized the movement, but limited to only one brigade,

… and instead of threatening south toward the Union Causeway, rather let it threaten eastward toward the road marked as running up toward Augusta on the east side of the Savannah River, seemingly threatening in flank the movement of troops attempting to escape from Savannah.

Sherman promised to explain his intent in person the next day.  But, “A messenger is just arrived from General [Ulysses S.] Grant with dispatches of importance.” The message, carried by Colonel Orville Babcock, began:

On reflection since sending my letter by the hands of Lieutenant [William] Dunn* I have concluded that the most important operation toward closing the rebellion will be to close out Lee and his army. You have now destroyed the roads of the South, so that it will probably take three months, without interruption, to re-establish a through line from east to west. In that time I think the job here will be effectually completed. My idea now, then, is that you establish a base on the sea-coast, fortify, and leave in it all your artillery and cavalry, and enough infantry to protect them, and, at the same time, so threaten the interior that the militia of the South will have to be kept at home. With the balance of your command come here by water with all dispatch.

Grant indicated Sherman was to move north in person to command his forces.  The message was sent in context of the rising frustrations with Major-General George Thomas at Nashville.  Though he left some room to be convinced otherwise, Grant wanted Sherman close to him for a final push in Virginia.

With Grant’s message, Sherman faced an entirely new situation.  The armies that had arrived outside Savannah could not become engaged in siege operations, lest they become pinned down.  The last things these new orders would allow would be a flanking operation into South Carolina.  More than anything the Confederates could do, the change in tone from the General-in-Chief put a damper on what Carman might do north of the city.

Note – The message sent by way of Lieutenant Dunn was that awaiting Sherman at Hilton Head, sent on December 3 and received on December 14 while with Foster and Dahlgren.  The message sent by way of Babcock was sent on December 6 and as mentioned above, received on December 15.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 636 and 718-21.)

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.


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.”


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.


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.)