previous next

Chapter 12:

General Sherman, having seen the enemy he had been fighting throughout the Spring and Summer well on his way toward the North, marched down to the sea at Savannah, and moved against a new enemy there.

Of the preparations, and the departure from Atlanta to the sea, General Sherman writes:

‘It was surely a strange event—two hostile armies marching in opposite directions, each in the full belief that it was achieving a final and conclusive result in a great war.’ * * * *

And again:

‘Of course General Thomas saw that on him would likely fall the real blow, and was naturally anxious.’

And the day of leaving Atlanta he thus records what he thought the general verdict would be:

‘There was a ‘devil-may-care’ feeling pervading officers and men that made me feel the full load of responsibility, for success would be accepted as a matter of course, whereas, should we fail, this “march” would be adjudged the wild adventure of a crazy fool.’

It will be well in the outset to look at the situation.

Sherman had marched off to the sea with over sixty-two thousand men. He had taken two of the strongest corps, the Fourteenth and the Twentieth, numbering over twenty-eight thousand men, from General Thomas' own army; had taken his efficient pontoon train, and dismounted General Wilson's [163] cavalry to give Kilpatrick fresh horses. In short, every thing wanted in the shape of organized men, equipment, horses, and batteries, was taken from Thomas to fit out Sherman. Two small but organized and well-disciplined corps, numbering together twenty-two thousand men, were given Thomas. For the rest he had orders for two divisions of veteran troops to come from Missouri; he had bridge-guards distributed over four railroads, and small garrisons in a dozen towns. In Nashville he had quartermasters' employes to man the forts; and to meet Hood's twelve thousand well-equipped and enthusiastic cavalry he had seven thousand and General J. H. Wilson's dismounted men. To further strengthen him, some twenty new one-year regiments were arriving to replace veteran troops, whose terms had expired.

Hood's army, fully concentrated, confronted Thomas. The concentration of Thomas' army had only begun. A. J. Smith's veterans were still in Missouri. To meet Hood he had less than half Hood's force. To fall back slowly while he gathered his army from the immense territory over which the fragments which were finally to compose it were scattered, was, of course, his only chance of success. How well this object was accomplished, all the world knows. How Schofield gathered the troops in hand, reached Franklin and defeated Hood, will not be forgotten. The very day he fought there, Smith's veterans began to arrive at Nashville, and the next night Schofield and Smith had made the concentration complete at the latter place. Then came storms and sleet when Thomas would not risk his army, the threats to remove him, the order removing him, the clearing up of the storm, the melting of the ice which had prevented man or horse from moving, the great battle and his decisive victory. And Sherman, with the bulk of the organized army which Hood had so often checked upon the Atlanta campaign, had marched down to the sea, the roads before him, wherever he might choose, being, as he expressed it in a dispatch to Grant, ‘all open, with no serious enemy to oppose at present.’ [164]

On the 10th of December Sherman, with sixty thousand men, had announced the investment of Savannah garrisoned by Hardee with a force supposed to be fifteen thousand. On the 17th he had demanded its surrender, and been refused on the ground that he had not invested the city, and that his guns could not even reach it.

On the 14th Thomas had successfully attacked Hood, and on the 15th had utterly defeated and routed him, and the War Department had telegraphed Thomas:

War Department, December 15, 1864.
Major-General Thomas, Nashville.
I rejoice in tendering to you and the gallant officers and soldiers of your command the thanks of this department for the brilliant achievements of this day, and hope that it is the harbinger of a decisive victory that will crown you and your army with honor, and do much toward closing the war. We shall give you a hundred guns to-morrow.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

On the 24th Mr. Stanton had notified Thomas of his nomination as a Major-General in the regular army for the ‘recent brilliant military operations’ under his command, and expressed the opinion that ‘no one has more justly earned promotion by devoted, disinterested, and valuable services to his country.’

On the 18th of December, in a letter to Sherman of warm congratulation over the success of the march to Savannah, General Grant added:

‘my dear General: * * * * If you capture the garrison of Savannah it certainly will compel Lee to detach from Richmond, or give us nearly the whole South. * * * * Congratulating you and the army again upon the splendid results of your campaign, the like of which is not read of in past history, I subscribe myself more than ever, if possible, your friend.’

Eight days after, when the news arrived of the capture of Savannah and the escape of Hardee, it was guardedly acknowledged by Grant as follows, under date of December 26th:

‘General: Your very interesting letter of the 22d inst., brought by Major Gray, of General Foster's staff, is just at hand. As the Major starts back at [165] once, I can do no more at present than simply acknowledge its receipt. The capture of Savannah with all its immense stores must tell upon the people of the South. All well here.’

Under the same date Secretary Stanton telegraphed Grant at City Point:

I wish you a merry Christmas, if it is not too late, and thank you for the Savannah news.

It is a sore disappointment that Hardee was able to get off his fifteen thousand from Sherman's sixty thousand. It looks like protracting the war while their armies continue to escape.

‘I hope you will give immediate instructions to seize and hold the cotton. Thomas has been nominated for Major-General.’

Of the approach to the coast, General Sherman writes:

‘The weather was fine, the roads good, and every thing seemed to favor us Never do I recall a more agreeable sensation than the sight of our camps by night, lit up by the fires of fragrant pine knots. * * * * No enemy opposed us, and we could only occasionally hear the faint reverberation of a gun to our left rear, where we knew that General Kilpatrick was skirmishing with Wheeler's cavalry, which persistently followed him. But the infantry columns had met with no opposition whatever. * * * * That night (December 8) we reached Pooler's Station, eight miles from Savannah, and during the next two days, December 9 and 10, the several corps reached the defenses of Savannah, * * * * thus completely investing the city.’

This question of investing the city involves the one of responsibility for the escape of Hardee, and will bear a little attention.

On the 13th December General Sherman wrote Mr. Stanton, as quoted at page 201, Volume II:

‘Before opening communication we had completely destroyed all railroads leading into Savannah and invested the city.’

And on the 16th to General Grant, quoted on page 207:

‘I had previously made you a hasty scrawl * * * * advising you that the army had reached the sea-coast * * * * investing closely the city of Savannah, and had made connection with the fleet. * * * * General Slocum occupies Argyle Island and the upper end of Hutchinson's Island and has a brigade on the South Carolina shore [166] opposite, and is very urgent to pass one of his corps over to that shore. * * * * He [Hood] can draw nothing from South Carolina, save from a small corner down in the south-east, and that by a disused wagon road. I could easily get possession of this, but hardly deem it worth the risk of making a detachment, which would be in danger by its isolation from the main army.’ * * * *

In demanding the surrender of the city, on the 17th, he wrote Hardee:

‘Also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am, therefore, justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts; and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer before opening with heavy ordnance.’

The same day Hardee, in refusing to surrender, thus gave him notice that he had not invested the city:

‘Your statement that you have, for some days, held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison can be supplied, is incorrect. I am in free and constant communication with my department.’

The effect of this last communication General Sherman thus relates (page 216):

‘On the 18th of December, at my camp by the side of the plank road, eight miles back of Savannah, I received General Hardee's letter declining to surrender, when nothing remained but to assault. The ground was difficult, and as all former assaults had proved so bloody, I concluded to make one more effort to completely surround Savannah on all sides, so as further to excite Hardee's fears, and, in case of success, to capture the whole of his army. We had already completely invested the place on the north, west, and south; but there remained to the enemy, on the east, the use of the old dike or plank road leading into South Carolina, and I knew that Hardee would have a pontoon bridge across the river.’

On the same day, December 18, he wrote General Grant in reference to this incredulousness of Hardee, as follows:

‘In relation to Savannah, you will remark that General Hardee refers to his still being in communication with his department. This language he thought would deceive me, but I am confirmed in the belief that the route to which he refers (the Union plank road on the South Carolina shore) is [167] inadequate to feed his army and the people of Savannah, and General Foster assures me that he has his force on that very road, near the head of Broad River, so that cars no longer run between Charleston and Savannah.’

And yet, with this letter spread at length on the pages of his book, General Sherman goes on to say, following the last quotation preceding this letter to Grant:

‘On examining my maps, I thought that the division of John P. Hatch, belonging to General Foster's command, might be moved from its then position at Broad River, by water, down to Bluffton, from which it could reach this plank road, fortify, and hold it-at some risk, of course, because Hardee could avail himself of his central position to fall on this detachment with his whole army.’

That is to say, while writing to General Grant, after receiving Hardee's letter and before any further word from Foster, that the latter held this plank road, he thought, by looking at his maps, that one of Foster's divisions might be moved down to a point from which it could reach this road; but there would be risk, since Hardee with fifteeen thousand men could leave Savannah in the face of Sherman's sixty thousand men, cross the river on pontoons, march ten miles inland over this one road leading through swamps or overflowed rice lands, and ‘fall on this detachment with his whole army.’

General Sherman then continues (page 216, Vol. II):

* * * * ‘So, taking one or two of my personal staff, I rode back to King's Bridge, leaving with Generals Howard and Slocum orders to make all possible preparations, but not to attack, during my two or three days absence; and there I took a boat for Warsaw Sound, whence Admiral Dahlgren conveyed me in his own boat (the Harvest Moon) to Hilton Head, where I represented the matter to General Foster, and he promptly agreed to give his personal attention to it. During the night of the 20th we started back, the wind blowing strong. Admiral Dahlgren ordered the pilot of the Harvest Moon to run into Tybee, and to work his way through to Warsaw Sound and the Ogeechee River by the Romney marshes. We were caught by a low tide and stuck in the mud. After laboring some time, the Admiral ordered out his barge. In it we pulled through this intricate and shallow channel, and toward evening of December 21 we discovered coming toward us a tug, called the Red Legs, belonging to the quartermaster's department, [168] with a staff officer on board bearing letters from Colonel Dayton to myself and the Admiral, reporting that the city of Savannah had been found evacuated on the morning of December 21, and was then in our possession. General Hardee had crossed the Savannah River by a pontoon bridge, carrying off his men and light artillery, blowing up his iron-clads and navy-yard, but leaving for us all the heavy guns, stores, cotton, railway cars, steamboats, and an immense amount of public and private property.’ * * * *

Some light is thrown upon the question of the responsibility for Hardee's escape by the official records.

The aggregate strength of Sherman's army before Savannah on December 20, the day before its evacuation, was sixty thousand five hundred and ninety-eight men.

Hardee's field returns for the same day showed an aggregate for his garrison, of all arms and all sorts, of nine thousand and eighty-nine men.

On the 16th of December General Sherman, in a letter to General Grant, gave this opinion of the Confederate strength:

‘I think Hardee, in Savannah, has good artillerists; some five or six thousand good infantry, and, it may be, a mongrel mass of eight to ten thousand militia.’

General Sherman had ‘surrounded’ the city, as he so fully explained—that is, he had not surrounded it. Hardee held the entire Savannah River front of the city. Hutchinson Island, opposite, reached from a point below the place to a point opposite the left of the Union line. Between Hutchinson Island and the South Carolina shore was Pennyworth Island. The only possible way of escape for Hardee, unless he cut through Sherman's sixty thousand, was by building pontoon bridges connecting these islands and the two shores. General Slocum, who occupied the Union left with the Twentieth Corps, had captured two small steamers, and collected a number of flats and small boats immediately after reaching the Savannah River, and was extremely anxious to cross a corps to the South Carolina side, which would have effectually invested the city. With an army of four corps, and either [169] corps stronger than Hardee's entire army, his desire would appear to have been most judicious.

General Sherman thus explains why he did not accede to General Slocum's proposition to pass a sufficient force to the South Carolina shore, to close Hardee's only line of escape:

General Slocum had already captured a couple of steamboats trying to pass down the Savannah River from Augusta, and had established some of his men on Argyle and Hutchinson Islands above the city, and wanted to transfer a whole corps to the South Carolina bank; but, as the enemy had iron-clad gun-boats in the river, I did not deem it prudent, because the same result would be better accomplished from General Foster's position at Broad River.

The following extracts from General Slocum's report of operations in the rear of Savannah will illustrate the vacillating course his orders obliged him to pursue:

From the 13th to the 20th [December] several changes were made in the position of the troops. * * * * Two regiments from Geary occupied the upper end of Hutchinson's Island. Carman's brigade, First Division, was sent to Argyle Island, and subsequently across to the South Carolina shore, with one section of Battery I, First New York Artillery. * * * * During the 20th the report from Carman's brigade indicated that large columns were crossing to the Carolina shore, either to cover their own line of communication or preparatory to the final evacuation of the city.

‘In the night General Geary reported to me that the movements across the river were still going on. The different commanders were instructed to keep on the alert and press their pickets close to the rebel works, but the enemy, intending to abandon his heavy guns, kept up a fire until the moment of quitting the works.’

The following orders from General Slocum's headquarters to various officers under his command show the details of this movement threatening the rebel line of communication:

December 11.—To General Geary: The General commanding directs that, if you can find any boats in the river, you send fifty or sixty men to Hutchinson's Island to ascertain what they can.

December 13.—To General Geary: The General commanding directs that the forty-seven men of your command, under Major Hoyt, now on Hutchinson's Island, remain there until further orders. [170]

Deember 16.—To Colonel Hawley: The General commanding the corps directs that you have all the boats in your charge, or in that of Colonel Bloodgood, on your side of the river by 8 A. M. to-morrow, and in readiness to cross troops. The whole of Colonel Carman's brigade will cross.

December 16.—To General Jackson: In accordance with directions from the General commanding the corps, the order for Colonel Carman to cross his brigade to the South Carolina side of the Savannah River to-morrow morning is hereby countermanded.

The General commanding directs that you have him send over a force of ninety or one hundred men in small boats to effect a lodgment, if possible, and feel the enemy's position. He wishes him to take only such force as can be readily brought back in case the enemy be too strong for him.

December 18.—To Colonel Carman: The Brigadier-General commanding the corps directs that you cross your command to the South Carolina side of the Savannah River to-morrow morning. You will commence the movement before daylight.

December 21.—General Jackson: The General commanding directs that General Carman's brigade be moved to this side of the river, leaving one regiment on the island for the present. He wishes the brigade encamped on this side so that they will protect the two rice mills.’

Colonel Charles C. Jones, Chief of Artillery on the staff of General Hardee during the siege of Savannah, in a work which he has published, thus describes the evacuation:

December 14.—The evacuation of Savannah having been resolved upon, and it being impracticable by means of the few steamboats and river craft at command to cross the garrison, artillery, and requisite stores with convenience and safety to Screven's Ferry, orders were issued for the immediate construction of suitable pontoon bridges. The line of retreat selected by the engineers, and adopted upon the evacuation of the city, involved the location of a pontoon bridge extending from the foot of West Broad street to Hutchinson's Island, a distance of about a thousand feet, a roadway across that island in the direction of Pennyworth Island, a second pontoon bridge across the middle river, another roadway across Pennyworth Island, and a third pontoon bridge across Back River, the further end of which rested upon the rice field on the Carolina shore. The route then followed the most substantial and direct rice dam running north, a canal being on one side and an impracticable rice field on the other. This dam was just wide enough to permit the careful movement of field artillery and army wagons. The plantation bridges along the line of march were strengthened to bear the passage of these heavy conveyances. * * * *

All available rice-field flats were collected. These being between seventy-five and eighty feet in length, and possessing sufficient width for the purpose, were swung into position with the tide, lashed end to end by means of ropes [171] and stringers running from boat to boat continuously the entire length of the bridge, and were kept in their places by car wheels, the only anchors which could be procured. Above the stringers was a flooring of plank obtained from the city wharves.

At eight o'clock on the evening of the 17th, the first pontoon bridge spanning the Savannah River from the foot of West Broad street to Hutchinson Island was completed, and by half-past 8 o'clock P. M. on Monday, the 19th, the remaining bridges were finished, and the route in readiness for the retreat of the Confederate garrison. * * * * Two regiments of General Geary's division occupied the upper end of Hutchinson's Island, and Carman's brigade was pushed forward to Argyle Island. * * * *

Heavy skirmishing occurred between General P. M. B. Young's command and the Federals on Argyle Island.

In the effort to advance in the direction of the Confederate line of communication with the Carolina shore, the enemy was repulsed with considerable loss. The fighting along the rice dams was obstinate and bloody. As the retention of this route was essential to the safety of the troops engaged in the defense of Savannah, all General Wheeler's available forces, assisted by Young's troops, and such of the South Carolina light batteries as could be spared from points along the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, were concentrated for its protection. By these troops all attempts of the enemy to move upon our line were stubbornly and successfully resisted. * * * * The troops from the western lines were quietly withdrawn, in the order and at the hours indicated in the circulars issued by the Lieutenant-General for the evacuation of the city. No confusion prevailed, and the movement was executed silently and in good order.

Guns were spiked, and ammunition destroyed as far as this could conveniently be done without attracting the notice of the enemy in our immediate front.

‘To conceal the movement, occasional firing was kept up until the latest moment. Forty-nine pieces of artillery, with limbers, caissons, forges, battery wagons, and baggage wagons, were safely transported over the pontoon bridges. A single battery wagon was lost. Through some negligence of the driver, it got off the bridge. The horses attached to it were saved. No interruption was encountered at the hand of the enemy, and the Confederate army rendezvoused the next day at Hardeeville, South Carolina.’

So much for what the records and this last account have to say in regard to Hardee's escape from General Sherman. The latter now contents himself with the following reflections (Vol. II, page 218):

‘I was disappointed that Hardee had escaped with his army, but on the whole we had reason to be content with the substantial fruits of victory.’


And at the time, in a letter to General Halleck, dated December 24th (not given in the Memoirs), he wrote:

‘I felt somewhat disappointed at Hardee's escape from me, but really am not to blame. I moved as quick as possible to close up the ‘Union causeway,’ but intervening obstacles were such that before I could get my troops on the road Hardee had slipped out. Still, I know that the men that were in Savannah will be lost, in a measure, to Jeff. Davis, for the Georgia troops under G. W. Smith declared they would not fight in South Carolina, and they have gone north en route for Augusta; and I have reason to believe the North Carolina troops have gone to Wilmington; in other words, they are scattered.’

But these reflections will scarcely break the force of Mr. Stanton's words, heretofore quoted, from a dispatch to General Grant:

‘It is a sore disappointment that Hardee was able to get off his fifteen thousand from Sherman's sixty thousand. It looks like protracting the war while their armies continue to escape.’

It might be supposed that in treating of the Savannah campaign after the lapse of so many years, General Sherman would not introduce matter reflecting upon Thomas, whose victory at Nashville furnished the only justification for the March to the Sea. How far he does violence to so charitable a supposition will appear in another chapter.

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 People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: