previous next

Doc. 21.-expedition to Savannah, Ga: the flanking of Fort Pulaski.

Captain Davis's report.

Flag-ship Wabash, Port Royal harbor, S. C., February 1, 1862.
sir: I have the honor to inform you that, in obedience to your orders, I got under way on Sunday morning, the twenty-sixth ultimo, and sailed from this harbor, having under my command the gunboats Ottawa, Lieut. Commanding Stevens; Seneca, Ammen; and the armed steamers Isaac Smith, Nicholson; Potomska, Watmough; Ellen, Master Commanding Budd; Western World, Gregory; and the two armed launches of this ship; and having in company the transports Cosmopolitan, Delaware and Boston, on board of which were the Sixth Connecticut, the Fourth New-Hampshire, and the Ninety-Seventh Pennsylvania regiments; in all twenty-four hundred men, commanded by Brigadier-General H. G. Wright.

Commander C. R. P. Rodgers accompanied the expedition. The vessels anchored in Warsaw Sound the same evening.

On Monday morning Gen. Wright came on board the Ottawa, in which ship I was, bringing with him Major Speidel, commanding the battalion, and Company C of the Connecticut Sixth; he also sent Company D, of the same regiment, on board the Seneca, where Capt. Rodgers had taken up his quarters. The commanding officers repaired on board by signal, when the plan of operations was explained to them.

Owing to the shoaliness of the bar and channel, it was not until half-past 8 o'clock that I entered little Tybee River, or Freeborn Cut; and it was half-past 1 before I passed Fort Pulaski, at the nearest point. The Fort was not prepared for an enemy on this side, and did not fire into the vessels. But preparations were immediately set on foot to receive us on our return. The distance is that of a long range with a rifle-gun, or one of heavy calibre.

After coming up with and passing the high land on Wilmington Island, the further progress of the gunboats was arrested by a blockade of heavy piles driven in a double row across the channel. The vessels were anchored, and boats were despatched from every one of them to examine the numerous creeks leading to the river, and to make a reconnoissance to the main stream. Capt. Rodgers landed with the armed launches, and a detachment of troops, to scout and determine whether there were then, or had been, any batteries or guns in position on this eminence, and whether there were marks of recent occupation by troops. The regiment of City Light Guards, from Savannah, composed of very young persons, has been stationed at Scrivens. No earthworks were found, but traces were discovered of horsemen, who must have been on the spot very lately.

At five o'clock the Confederate steamers, five in number, one of them carrying the square flag at the fore, (probably Commodore Tatnall's,) came to anchor at the mouth of the creek. They had it in their power to choose their distance, and this led to the expectation of an attack, but the night passed quietly.

At this hour Capt. Ammen passed the marsh, and cut the telegraphic wire leading from Fort Pulaski to the city.

After breakfast, on the morning of Tuesday, the twenty-eighth, the surveys and examinations were received, and I am deeply indebted to Gen. Wright for taking an active part in them all, and forming, from personal examinations, his conclusions as to the military seizure and occupation of Wilmington Island, to which Gen. Sherman and yourself had called my particular attention.

At fifteen minutes after eleven, the five steamers composing the fleet of Commodore Tatnall (as it is supposed) attempted to pass down the river with scows in tow. Capt. John Rodgers, who lay at anchor in Wright River, and myself; opened fire upon them, which they returned with spirit. The result of the engagement, which lasted less than half an hour, was, that Com. Tatnall, and one of his squadron, were driven back; the other three escaped injury, apparently, and made good their passage down to Fort Pulaski

At two o'clock, the latter returned up th river, and the firing was resumed. They had waited for low water, and were so well protected by the banks of the river, while we ourselves were lying in a natural trench or moat, that the harm inflicted upon them was entirely disproportionate to the amount of ammunition expended. Their shot, which would have easily reached us by ricochet, on the water, were generally spent in force before they arrived at the creek in which we were anchored. We have been told, by a contraband since come in, that one of the steamers sunk at the wharf, after getting to the city, and we could see with our glasses that some of our shells took effect.

The practice of the day was very instructive. At four o'clock, on Wednesday morning, I came down the Narrows, passing the range of Fort Pulaski before daylight; and, leaving the other vessels in Warsaw Sound, I returned to this place by the way of Tybee Roads and Calibogue Sound.

As a demonstration, the appearance of the naval and military force in Wilmington and Warsaw Sound, has had complete success. Savannah was thrown into a state of great alarm, and all the energies of the place have been exerted to the utmost, to increase its military defences, for which purpose troops have been withdrawn from other places.

As a reconnoissance, the results are satisfactory. We have improved our knowledge of these obscure and intricate passages. We have ascertained [54] that Wilmington Island is abandoned, not only by the enemy's troops, but even by its inhabitants; that this cut or narrows can be navigated by gunboats without difficulty; but, on account of the width of the marsh opposite to the highland on Wilmington Island, that the channels of Savannah River cannot be advantageously commanded from this point at any time, and especially at low water; that gunboats could not lie in safety in any part of the narrows, unless Wilmington Island were occupied in force, on account of the advantages it possesses for constructing masked batteries, and the protection it affords to riflemen and skirmishers.

In the event of my arriving at an unfavorable conclusion in respect to the naval occupation of this passage, you directed me to consider the propriety of placing in it some obstructions which would render it useless to the enemy. In this respect he has anticipated our wishes; but the obstructions can be removed hereafter, if desirable.

During the engagement of Tuesday, Col. Rosa, commanding at Tybee, sent an aid to me with an offer of additional troops. I beg to call your particular attention to this act of courtesy and display of public spirit.

While all communication between Capt. John Rodgers in Wright River, and myself in Wilmington Narrows, by means of navy signals, was very difficult, or wholly impossible, the communication with army signals was easy and perfect. I recommend, therefore, their use in the naval service.

The conduct of the officers and men has been, as always, entirely satisfactory; my special acknowledgments are due to Gen. Wright for prompt and efficient service, voluntarily given, and to Commander C. R. P. Rogers, whose zeal in the public service and superior ability render his aid, wherever directed, a most valuable accession.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

C. H. Davis, Fleet Captain South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. To Flag Officer S. F. Dupont, U. S. N., Com'g South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Port Royal Harbor, S. C.

New-York express narrative.

Hilton head, Feb. 6, 1862.
It is now about six weeks since the first reconnoissance was made by officers of Gen. Sherman's staff in the direction of Savannah. Previous to that, indeed, Tybee Island had been occupied, and the creeks and sounds that encircle Hilton Head explored; Warsaw and Ossabaw inlets had been entered by gunboats, and several batteries discovered, some of which had been abandoned, and others were still maintained; but until Lieut. Wilson, Chief of Topographical Engineers, was despatched on the reconnoitring party, which left Hilton Head on or about the twenty-fourth of December, no effort had been made to ascertain the feasibility of entering the Savannah River on the northern side higher up than at its mouth. The history of the operations preliminary to the absolute accomplishment of such an entrance has not been recently obtained. I was aware of the operations during their progress, and cognizant of the plans of the officers most concerned at the time, both of their inception and fulfilment. This is mentioned that the correctness and authenticity of the narrative may be better established than if the details were supposed to have been gathered from hearsay or at second-hand.

In order to understand the nature of the reconnoissance, it will be necessary to have a clear apprehension of the geography of the country. An ordinary map of the Savannah River will probably indicate but little more than the general course of the stream, and the situation of the principal city of Georgia. Savannah is about fifteen miles from the mouth of the river, and on the right or southern bank. Approach to it by water is defended by Fort Pulaski, a casemated fort on Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the river, and Fort Jackson, a barbette fort on the mainland, only four miles below the city. The left bank is formed by a succession of islands, and the channel also is interrupted by large and numerous islands, the most important of which is Elba, whose upper extremity is immediately opposite Fort Jackson. Lower down in the stream is Long Island. The network of creeks and bays that surrounds Hilton Head terminates southward in Calibogue Sound, which is divided from the Savannah River at its mouth by Turtle and Jones Islands; the waters that form two sides of Jones Island, which is triangular in shape, are called Mud and Wright Rivers; the latter is the southernmost, and separates Jones from Turtle Island, which lies next to Dawfuskie Island, the western shore of Calibogue Sound. This description is doubtless complicated, and close attention will be necessary to comprehend it; there are, however, none but military maps sufficiently minute to set forth these little creeks and inlets. The islands on the Savannah are all very low and marshy, overgrown by high grass, and frequently without a solitary shrub or tree; they are all liable to be submerged by a very high tide. Jones Island is not more than five miles long, by two or three broad. About half way between its upper and lower angles, and fronting on the Savannah, is Venus Point.

Lieut. J. H. Wilson, in the discharge of his duties as a topographical engineer, had occasion, almost immediately after the landing at Hilton Head, to make numerous reconnoissances toward the interior of the country, to draw military maps for the use of General Sherman, and to examine all the ordinary rivers, in any way accessible; in the course of his explorations, he came in contact with numerous negroes familiar with the country, who were used as pilots, others as oarsmen, and many of whom volunteered information relative to the means of passing through the various inland waters; information which was doubtless frequently superior to what their masters had possessed. From the conversations with these negroes, and from his own observations, this officer became convinced that an interior passage existed, connecting Calibogue Sound with the Savannah [55] River, and which, if found passable by gunboats, might lead to the cutting off of Fort Pulaski, and, perhaps, to still more important results. He communicated these ideas to General Sherman, and was immediately despatched on a reconnoissance.

Taking with him two row-boats and about seventy men of the Rhode Island regiment, he left Calibogue Sound with his negro crew and pilots, and ventured by night through the intricate passages, which I have been able only partially to describe. Their intricacy is far greater than ever these confused sentences would indicate. They wind and turn in all conceivable directions; they narrow and widen and then narrow again; the channel, at times, is difficult to find or keep when found; they pass over shoals and between morasses, but finally do conduct into the Savannah River. At this time our troops had not advanced beyond Dawfuskie Island, and on some of these rivers rebel pickets were still stationed. The oars of our reconnoitring party, however, were muffled, and they passed by the pickets without discovery, under cover of the darkness, penetrating several miles up one of these streams, and leaving the picket in their rear. Had they been detected, retreat or escape would have been impossible, as there was no opportunity of returning except on the same route by which they had come. This piece of daring, however, had no result, for the river that they were exploring led into no other channel, but wastes away in a marsh; they therefore got back into another stream. Finally the creeks became so shallow that they were obviously unnavigable for any but the smallest craft, and at one point an artificial channel had been constructed about two hundred yards long, called Wall's Cut; this leads to the rear of Jones Island, and into both the Mud and the Wright Rivers, both of which, it will be recollected, empty into the Savannah, the former about six miles above Fort Pulaski, and the latter at a point about two miles from that important work. Wall's Cut had, however, been obstructed by three rows of piles, driven across its entire width by the rebels, and by a large bark sunk in the same direction across the channel. But at high tide the party were able to get over the piles and past the ship, for though the bark was anchored at one end, it swayed and careened with the motion of the waters sufficiently to enable small boats to pass. The grass on both banks was very high, and the Cut altogether invisible from the Savannah, while the marshy and miserable nature of the country prevented any approach to it by land. There was danger, it is true, of meeting pickets, or possibly stray parties of sportsmen, shooting the wild-duck, which cover these waters by the million, but such dangers must be incurred by those who go on reconnoissances. The party remained concealed by the grass during the day, and at night pursued its explorations; they found the channel of Mud River impassable for large vessels by reason of its shallowness, but got easily through the Wright River, and, rounding the point of Jones Island, entered the Savannah. There they remained nearly all night, moving at times under the guns of Pulaski, near enough to hear the challenge of the lonely sentinels, or the conversation of the gunners on the parapets before tattoo; they sounded the channel in every direction, found out its bearings, went up the river beyond Venus Point, and even passed the entrance of Mud River, and then returned into the Wright, establishing, quite to the satisfaction of the reconnoitring officer, the practicability for gunboats of ten feet draught of passing by this route into the Savannah, without incurring any material risk from the guns of Fort Pulaski, which were at the nearest point a mile and three quarters off. If the passage were made at night there would hardly be a possibility of danger, it seemed to him, from this source.

When his report of this discovery was made to General Sherman, steps were instantly taken to render it available. Other and fuller reconnoissances Were ordered, to make assurances doubly sure, and they resulted as favorably as before. Major Beard of the Forty-eighth New-York, the Provost Marshal, was sent to remove the piles and swing away the bark moored in Wall's Cut. Another adventurous excursion under command of Major Beard then occurred. A party of volunteer engineers and a company of the Connecticut Seventh accompanied that officer, and while some of the troops kept careful watch against discovery, others were occupied on the mechanical portion of the task. This was effected in two or three days and nights; all the piles were sawn off a foot below the bottom of the Cut, the bark was turned lengthwise so that a passage was left wide enough for the gunboats, and a large guard was stationed in the surrounding marsh. All this was accomplished without awakening the suspicions of the enemy. The height of the reeds had proved favorable, and the original panic of the rebels had from some cause or another, apparently increased, as their pickets were withdrawn. All stragglers, white or black, who approached, were seized; four or five whites seemed to have been gunning, for they were in boats laden with game; the others were slaves, who had escaped from Savannah; all manifested great surprise at discovering the Yankees. No scouts were ever detected; no boats on the river, except the steamers plying to Pulaski. It was rather a romantic operation, this working by night as silently as possible, to remove obstructions from the rebel stream, quite within sight of the Savannah, and almost within hearing from the vessels on its waters. On some nights the rain fell furiously, but the work proceeded. After the obstructions had been removed a violent storm, that lasted for several days, rendered any further operations impracticable; the pickets then were obliged to keep their dismal walk away off on this exposed outpost, trampling in mud that came near to their middles, and through the soaking grass higher than their heads, a task solitary and cheerless enough, but not surpassed in importance by any in the command. It was [56] well performed; a battalion of the Connecticut Seventh regiment, under Major Gardner, allowed no straggler or spy to approach without seizing him, and, fortunately, only one or two were tempted that way, and no suspicions of the enemy could have been aroused.

Information of these proceedings having been communicated to the navy, Commodore Dupont, of course, perceived of what consequence they might prove, and sent Capt. John Rodgers of the Flag, and Lieut. Barnes of the Wabash, to reconnoitre in company with Lieut. Wilson, so that the report of a strictly naval officer might be obtained, before strictly naval movements should be commenced. It was on the fifteenth of January before this last reconnaissance was made; for all these previous operations had necessarily consumed time. The reconnaissance, like all the others, occurred in the night. Captain Rodgers and his party were able to pass through the Cut, to make soundings in the Wright River, to enter the Savannah, and otherwise to ascertain all that was necessary in order to form an opinion as to the practicability of taking gunboats by this passage into the Savannah.

Capt. Rodgers reported with a measured degree of enthusiasm. He thought the passage possible, but hardly certain, and of course dangerous, but he was willing to assume the leadership of any movement based upon these reconnoissances. So it was finally determined to move forward a portion of the naval and military force in that direction, and to make what is known in the parlance of war, a reconnaissance in force. While preparations for this movement were advancing, some information of what had been done leaked out in the private letters of an incautious officer; his friends were as thoughtless as he, and gave his letters to the public press; the public press with equally culpable imprudence published explicit accounts of many of these circumstances; these accounts, there is reason to believe, were conveyed to the rebels, and two nights before our forces arrived at Wall's Cut, three rebel gunboats appeared in Wright River, where they had not been before in a month; they were seen by our pickets, and despatches instantly sent to General Sherman announcing the fact, in consequence of which additional force was forwarded that very night by Com. Dupont. The rebel steamers came into Wall's Cut, our pickets of course withdrawing; they discovered all that had been done, and then returned, leaving no guard; within fifteen minutes after their withdrawal, the picket was in his place again; but the long concocted and carefully hidden plan had been discovered, and any hope of a surprise frustrated. The scheme, however, was not abandoned, although sure now to meet with opposition.

Meanwhile discoveries had been made in another quarter, which seemed nearly, if not quite, as important as those to which I have already alluded. A passage on the right side of the Savannah has always been known to exist, leading from Warsaw Sound through the Wilmington River, until it narrows into St. Augustine Creek, and finally empties into the Savannah, just below Fort Jackson. The passage was defended, and is still, by a battery; but, through the negroes, information was obtained of another, leading up also from Warsaw, but much nearer to the Savannah, and entering it lower down than St. Augustine Creek, This second passage is called Wilmington Narrows, and is said to have been occasionally used as a short cut by rival lines of steamers from Savannah city. Several reconnoissances were made along its course, both by naval and military officers of distinction, among the latter Capt. (now General) Gilmore, Chief of Engineers in Gen. Sherman's staff, of the former, Capt. Bankhead, of the gunboat Pembina. The result of their explorations was a determination on the part of Gen. Sherman and Com. Dupont to send a combined force up Wilmington Narrows, at the same time that operations should begin in the vicinity of Wall's Cut. Accordingly Gen. Wright, with three regiments, the Fourth New-Hampshire, Col. Whipple, the Sixth Connecticut, Col. Chatfield, the Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania, Col. Guess, was ordered on board the transports Cosmopolitan, Boston and Delaware. These vessels, convoyed by six or seven gunboats, the Ottawa, Captain Stevens, the Seneca, Capt. Ammen, the Ellen, Capt. Budd, and others, were despatched to Warsaw Sound, on January twenty-seventh. The naval force was placed under command of Capt. C. H. Davis, the Fleet-Captain, who was accompanied by Capt. Raymond Badgers, of the Wabash, Lieut. Barnes, and other skilful officers. This party proceeded according to order, up the Wilmington Narrows for several miles, quite in the rear of Fort Pulaski, until they arrived at a place where piles had been placed to obstruct their further progress. The gunboats remained at this spot, within a short distance of the Savannah, all night, while reconnoissances were made on land and water, by General Wright, Capt. Raymond Rodgers, and Lieut. Barnes. In the morning, Captain John Rodgers, with three gunboats, the Unadilla, Pembina, and Henry Andrews, appeared on the opposite side of the Savannah, in Wall's Cut, two of these vessels passing through into Wright River.

At this juncture the rebels at Savannah became alarmed, and Corn. Tatnall, with five gunboats, appeared in the stream. Tatnall's fleet was about half way between the two divisions of the Federal naval force, and distant from each of them nearly two miles. The country on each side is, however, so flat that but little obstruction to the sight intervened, and a firing immediately commenced. Tatnall's double object was, to drive out the gunboats under Capt. Davis from Wilmington Narrows, and to run a fleet of lighters, with provisions, down to Fort Pulaski. In the first aim he was unsuccessful ; he hoped proba bly that some of Davis's fleet would get aground, when the rebels could materially annoy them. But this was not the case; Davis returned Tatnall's fire vigorously, and is believed to have done one or more of the rebel gunboats serious damage. Meanwhile John Rodgers opened fire [57] from Wall's Cut, and the singular spectacle was exhibited of a triangular naval engagement, in which the three parties were each in a different river, and each, in order to reach the enemy, was obliged to fire across land.

Under cover of the smoke, and favored by a knowledge of the channel, three of Tatnall's boats succeeded in reaching Fort Pulaski and discharging their lighters; two were obliged to abandon the attempt. Later in the day, taking advantage of the tide, the three gunboats returned; leaving the lighters at the Fort. As they passed up the stream, fire was again opened on them; it is not known whether with any material result or not. No damage at all was received during the day by the Federal gunboats, nine of which attempted to enter the Savannah River.

Of course those under Capt. Davis were unable to do so, on account of the sunken piles; and I am informed that Capt. Rodgers considered it inadvisable to risk the chance of shallow water at the junction of the Wright with the Savannah, where he would have been within range of the guns of Fort Pulaski, as well as of the vessels of the enemy.

Gen. Sherman with his staff witnessed the cannonading from the steamer Mayflower, which lay just in the rear of Capt. John Rodgers' command.

At the time I write, it is not considered advisable to make any further statement of the condition of affairs, as information published at the North, is sure to reach the rebels within a day or two after it is in print.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
February 6th, 1862 AD (1)
February 1st, 1862 AD (1)
December 24th (1)
January 27th (1)
January 15th (1)
28th (1)
26th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: