December 21, 1864: Savannah’s surrender “exactly four years since the passage by the State of South Carolina of the secession act”

December 21, 1864, found Major-General William T. Sherman was on the USS Harvest Moon, in the company of Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren and still in transit from Port Royal to his base at King’s Bridge on the Ogeechee River.  Bad seas delayed passage, and necessitated a slower route closer to shore.  Sherman remained disconnected from his headquarters or any subordinates while major events took place just a few dozen miles away in Savannah.


Before dawn pickets on Brigadier-General John Geary’s sector noticed the Confederates had ceased firing.  Taking a queue from what he’d observed the day before and into the evening, Geary took an aggressive stance:

December 21, after 3 o’clock this morning the firing ceased, and my pickets advancing to the enemy’s line found them hastily retreating. Having possession of their line of works, with all their cannon in front of my own and the other divisions of the corps, I immediately sent a staff officer to notify the general commanding, and at the same time pushed forward rapidly in the direction of Savannah, hoping to overtake and capture a part of the enemy’s forces. My skirmishers deployed, and swept overall the ground between the evacuated works and the Ogeechee Canal from the river to the Augusta road, while my main body of troops marched rapidly by the flank through McAlpin’s plantation to the Augusta road and on into the city.

At around 4:30 a.m., Geary ran into a delegation from the city including the mayor.  Geary sent word of this back through the lines, though the messenger had difficulty convincing the Federals still in their siege positions that he was a “Yankee” and the Confederates were indeed gone.

In the meantime my entire division entered the city of Savannah at early dawn, and before the sun first gilded the morning clouds our National colors, side by side with those of my own division, were unfurled from the dome of the Exchange and over the U.S. custom-house. Barnum’s brigade, which led in entering the city, was at once ordered to patrol it, reduce it to order and quiet, and prevent any pillaging or lawlessness on the part either of soldiers or citizens. My orders on the subject were very strict, and within a few hours this city, in which I had found a lawless mob of low whites and negroes pillaging and setting fire to property, was reduced to order; many millions of dollars’ worth of cotton, ordnance, and commissary stores, &c., which would otherwise have been destroyed, were saved to the United States Government, and the citizens once more enjoyed security under the protection of that flag which again waved over them, exactly four years since the passage by the State of South Carolina of the secession act.

Indeed, the significance of the date cannot be overlooked.  Nor can Geary’s sense of responsibility as he took up position to restore order to the city.  Later in the day official orders placed Geary in command of the city.

Geary’s division fanned out and occupied fortifications, depots, and other military facilities around the city.  A detachment of the 29th Ohio reached Fort Jackson around mid-morning.  After placing the American flag over the fort, they came under fire from the CSS Savannah, at anchor at Screven’s Ferry.

This caught the attention of Major John Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief.  But the only guns around were 3-inch rifles of Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, under Captain Thomas Sloan.  The battery engaged the ironclad, with little effect.  And the ironclad was unable to return effective fire as lacking a good position and unable to elevate her guns.  Sloan’s gunners, however, found other targets on the South Carolina shore.  “One hundred and twenty rounds were expended on the morning of the 21sth endeavoring to drive off the enemy from a boat on the river, from which they were unloading supplies.”  Captain Francis DeGress, 1st Illinois, Battery H, sent 20-pounder Parrott rifles up that afternoon to spar with the ironclad.  But by nightfall neither those or heavier 30-pdrs had done any significant damage to the ironclad.

On the South Carolina shore, Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade was still in their extended “lodgement” threatening the Confederate line of retreat.  Except now Carman opposed the entire Savannah garrison and was vastly outnumbered.  Orders came at 7 a.m. to withdraw the brigade.  Carman sent the 150th New York back to Argyle Island as a rear guard and commenced removing the artillery.  But the same rough weather that delayed Sherman worked to hinder Carman’s passage of the river channel.

It was 2 o’clock before the artillery and stores could be got far enough away to warrant the withdrawal of the balance of the brigade; then it was withdrawn, followed by our skirmishers, the enemy pressing hard. The One hundred and seventh New York Volunteers crossed; then the enemy grew more bold, advancing at all points, but under cover of the numerous dikes they were held in check. At sunset the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers crossed, and Colonel Hawley, commanding Third Wisconsin, with’ the skirmish line, was left to the delicate task of withdrawing under cover of darkness. At 11 p.m. the skirmish line crossed and without the loss of a man captured.

Elsewhere on the Federal lines, as dawn broke units began to move over the former Confederate works.  Brigadier-General John Corse’s division, on the far right end of the Federal line, advanced up to Fort Brown on the southeast perimeter of the city.  On the Vernon River, Lieutenant-Commander W.H. Dana’s gunboats continued shelling the now empty Fort Beaulieu.  “Expended 11 XI-inch shell, 19 30-pounder Parrott percussion, 6 howitzer shells.  At 10 a.m. called away all boats, manned and armed them for assaulting.”  Within a few minutes, the sailors were in the fort and had the U.S. flag flying.

Not until late afternoon, near dark, did an army steamer finally catch up with Sherman, who by then had transferred to Dahlgren’s barge to better make way in the shallow waters.  The message from Lewis M. Dayton, Sherman’s Aide-de-Camp, read, dated the 21st at 9 a.m.:

I have sent you two dispatches via Fort McAllister in hopes of reaching you. General Slocum reports enemy gone from his front and he has got eight guns – this report at 4 [a.m.]  He is also gone from this front and General Howard reports Leggett near the city, and no enemy.  General Woods also got six guns.  General Slocum is moving and General Howard the same and I have no doubt both are in Savannah now.  I will ride with General Howard, at his request, and leave our camp until the matter is more definite and you make orders.

While Sherman was at sea, the entire situation changed.  He now had full possession of Savannah, though his adversary had escaped in the night.

Dahlgren began concentrating his available forces at Tybee Roads.  Even with the fall of Savannah, the ironclad that had defended the city remained a threat.  Fearing the Savannah might still attempt a sortie, he brought up monitors.   But the Savannah was not going anywhere.

The Confederate’s own torpedoes blocked her passage downstream.  As the last forces were withdrawn from Screven’s Ferry, the crew of the ironclad abandoned ship.  Shortly before midnight, a loud explosion signaled the end of the Savannah Campaign and the march to the sea.  The CSS Savannah, just as Confederate Savannah itself, ceased to exist.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 279, 361 and 771; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 137.)

Savannah’s Siege, December 19, 1864: “await orders for the attack” Sherman says

One of the hardest missions a military formation can perform is a withdrawal across a river in close contact with the enemy.  Such was the task for Lieutenant-General William Hardee on December 19, 1864.  As he and General P.G.T. Beauregard had already made the decision to evacuate the Savannah garrison.  They set the trigger for action on Federal movements – the moment any serious threat emerged, the evacuation would begin.  Such would satisfy the intentions expressed by authorities in Richmond, particularly to save the army.  For the plan to work, one important item had to be in place – a bridge over the Savannah River.  The escape route was not actually a single bridge, but rather a set of crossings and causeways into South Carolina, depicted in dark red on the map below, leading out of Savannah (ignore Carman’s blue lines for the moment):


Confederate engineers built a pontoon bridge from docks at West Broad Street (today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive… big “Oh, by the way”).  Reaching Hutchinson’s Island, a causeway over the rice fields connected to another bridge to Pennyworth Island. There another bridge reached the South Carolina shore.  A combination corduroy and causeway connected to the Union Causeway (I’m not 100% sure if the route was along the river as depicted on the map).  The engineering work suffered from delays as material was lacking.  Furthermore, egos among the engineers cause friction.  Eventually Beauregard would “use his stars” to push the work through that problem.  The bridge used rice barges and other watercraft found in Savannah. But it was a functioning bridge when completed late in the evening of December 19.

Major-General William T. Sherman was himself “using his stars” to deal with a tactical situation not up to his liking.  On the morning of December 19, he went down to King’s Bridge and caught a steamer to Port Royal in order to visit Major-General John Foster.  Sherman wanted a conference to see what more could be done to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  He left instructions for both wing commanders – Major-Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum – to “push the preparations for attacking Savannah with all possible speed, but to await orders for the attack.”

At King’s Bridge, Sherman noticed some difficulties with the detail provided to support offloading at the temporary port.  Brigadier-General John Sprague (Second Brigade, First Division, Seventeenth Corps) arrived to replace Colonel Benjamin Potts’ detail (First Brigade, Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps) at the bridge. Sprague did not detail sufficient troops for the job. So Sherman sent an “audible” addressing the problem:

On arrival at the bridge I found Colonel Potts’ brigade relieved by two regiments of General Sprague’s, containing less than 600 men. These are insufficient. I have ordered General Sprague back to his important post between Big and Little Ogeechee, and Colonel Potts’ brigade to remain for the present. As a permanent working party at King’s Bridge, the fairest way will be for each corps to send a regiment, of an average strength of 350 men, and each wing a working party of negroes, 100 each, to report to Colonel Beckwith, chief commissary. Please make your orders accordingly, and when they have arrived Colonel Potts’ brigade will be returned to its proper division. I may be absent, say, one or two days. You had better let General Sprague have a battery of four guns.

That was the directive. But before the order would circulate down the chain of command, Potts was in hot water with Major-General Frank Blair for not complying with orders.  More ink was wasted on January 19 resolving this matter than would be in dedicated to preparing the siege.  (I’ve always felt this episode deserved its own “staff ride stop” as an opportunity to show how administrative “audibles” can create unintended ripples.)

As the steamer taking Sherman to Port Royal entered the seaway, the general may have heard the sound of heavy artillery firing.  (My mistake, meant to put this paragraph in the entry for December 20.  Events detailed in this paragraph took place on that day!)  Lieutenant-Commander W.H. Dana on the USS Winona lead a force that included the USS Pawnee, USS Sonoma, and USS Flag up the Vernon River.  At 11:10 a.m., the Sonoma exchanged fire with Confederate batteries. Later in the afternoon, the gunboats moved closer and anchored “about 2¾ miles from Fort Beaulieu.”  The exchange of fire with Fort Beaulieu was brief, in the form of three 30-pdr Parrott rounds, but the Navy was starting the requested demonstrations.


Along the siege lines, Brigadier-General John Geary continued to advance preparations as directed.  Colonel Henry Barnum, commanding Third Brigade of Geary’s division, provided a detailed map with his report of the campaign showing the division sector:


After a morning conference at Twentieth Corps headquarters on the 19th, Geary continued preparations for the anticipated assault, “as soon as the heavy guns should be in readiness to open fire.”   Specifically:

Fort No. 1 was finished this evening. The details from First and Third Brigades continued work on the other forts during the night under a heavy artillery fire from the enemy. Several casualties occurred, among them Major [Myron] Wright, a most valuable officer, commanding the Twenty-nineth Ohio Volunteers, who was severely wounded by a shell.  Sloan’s battery of 3-inch rifled guns had already taken position in a work thrown up to the right of Fort No. 3 and in the open field.

Meanwhile, not far upstream from Geary, Colonel Ezra Carman was providing a perfect example of how to exceed orders and get away with it.  As ordered earlier, Carman sent a small detachment across to South Carolina on December 17.  Throughout the 18th he maintained and strengthened that position.  Orders for December 19 were to add more regiments to the “lodgement.”  So the remainder of the 3rd Wisconsin passed over, followed by the Second Massachusetts and Thirteenth New Jersey.

They landed without opposition and, advancing to and beyond Izard’s Mill, succeeded, after a slight skirmish, in securing a good position.  Deeming the force too inadequate to maintain its ground against the accumulating force of the enemy, the One hundred and seventh New York was sent over in the afternoon and succeeded in gaining an important point on the line.  So important did the enemy consider this position that they charged our forces with their cavalry

Not enough, Carman committed all of his brigade save a small rear guard.  In a message to his division commander, Brigadier-General Nathaniel J. Jackson, laced with “better to ask forgiveness than wait for permission” Carman reported on the developments:

I have the honor to report that the enemy have again opened upon our force across the river with artillery; and Colonel Hawley reporting that it was impossible to hold his position without more troops, I have moved the remainder of my brigade over, with the exception of three companies of the One hundred and fiftieth New York Volunteers, and have established my headquarters upon the South Carolina shore. I would also say that I need some intrenching tools if I am to remain there.

Carman got his entrenching tools and his brigade began to dig in to form a more a perimeter out of the “lodgement.”

The position occupied by the brigade was strong for defense, but the nature of the ground was such that an advance was difficult. It was a rice plantation, cut up by numerous dikes and canals, and the enemy had burned all the bridges over the canals and overflowed the whole plantation to a depth of eight to eighteen inches water, thus necessitating all our movements by the flank up these dikes, and they stood well prepared at these places to resist our advance. During the night I transported the two pieces of artillery across the river and put them in position in the center of the line. The line, as then formed and held by my brigade, was two miles and a quarter long, the left resting on the Savannah River near Izard’s Mill, the right on an inlet near Clydesdale Creek. During the night I caused earth-works to be thrown up at all the prominent points along the line, making my position as strong as possible.

Look at the first map above.  Carman’s men were very close to the pontoon bridge terminus on the South Carolina side (dark red).  His “lodgement” turned attack had provided Confederate commanders the trigger to start the evacuation of Savannah.  To protect the precious route out of the city, that evening Hardee dispatched around 650 men and six more artillery pieces to Major-General Joseph Wheeler in order to counter Carman’s thrust.

Carman had opened an opportunity to cut off the Confederate retreat.  But at that very moment the one man who could approve reinforcements to take advantage of the opportunity was on a steamboat heading into Port Royal.  Standing orders were “await orders for the attack.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 236, 279, 756, and 762; ORN Series I, Volume 16, page 137.)