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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Sherman's Battle for Savannah, GA, Ft. McAllister Dec. 13,1864

by Gordon Thorsby

Sherman's Commanders; Howard left, Hazen standing to his right, Slocum right of Sherman. (LOC)


Knowing what happened at Savannah is rarely detailed. We only hear of Sherman sending Lincoln a note of a Christmas gift. Did fighting happen to take Savannah? Yes, especially if you were one of the casualties.


The endless attempts to close and capture nearby Charleston had occurred since the Spring of 1862. As of late 1864, several islands and the waters were in possession by the Union Navy and an infantry force. The rest was still Confederate. This being the case, Sherman was headed for resupply to nearby Savannah and Confederate Lt. General Hardee knew it.

(from Alabama Archives)

William Hardee pieced together a 12,500 force from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, added Georgia militia, and heavy artillery units from the harbor. This is what Hardee had to fight 62,000 battle hardened Union soldiers who had taken, stolen and destroyed $1.378 billion dollars (2010 value) in thirty days; productive if a Unionist, criminal if from the South. Sherman's two armies were commanded by Generals Howard and Slocum, and his cavalry was under Judson Kilpatrick. All served at Gettysburg and all three had checkered military performances but not while on the march to Savannah.


Savannah, was actually Georgia's largest city and one of the South's few remaining ports. While Sherman approached, Hardee utilized the time to prepare fortifications to defend against land, sea and for efforts simultaneously from both. The breastworks and redoubts were formidable and covering all sides of the city, with flooded farms, swamps, rivers, and rice fields.

When Sherman’s two armies reached the outskirts of the port, Hardee was magnificently prepared to greet any attack that would result in heavy Federal loss. Open ground to advance over was limited to narrow causeways. This infantry option was out of the question for Sherman. Next to consider was a two-prong move, the first being to link up with the Navy and get critically needed supplies. The second step was to capture Ft. McAllister, an important link in the defense of the town. Sherman ordered Gen. William Hazen's 4,000 man Division to seize Fort McCallister, garrisoned by 230 Confederates with twenty cannon. It sounded easy but it was not.


The success to breaking the line hung on Hazen's attack. Sherman and Howard found a good position to observe the success or failure of the assault. It seemed a simple operation but everyone knew that failure would result in a long siege. This was also not an option. On December 13, Hazen launched the attack with lines and men separated farther apart than usual to mitigate the effect of Grape and canister artillery fire on assaulting lines. The three brigades of seventeen regiments quickly crossed the 600 yards of open causeway, passed through the abatis obstructions and then encountered something new, mines. The same defenders of Ezra Church, this time as charging troops and they never slowed up. They continued across the ditch despite the mine explosions and within 15 minutes the fort was captured. Hazen’s greatest challenge in the assault had been the land torpedo.

From Ft. McAllister Looking onto the Ogeechee River. Gunboat in the distance (LOC)


By December 17, with siege equipment in place facing the defenses, the South Atlantic Fleet now available and Union troops freshly supplied, Sherman was ready to flatten the city. He was ready to burn the countryside as well. Hardee appeared to be ready to defend Savannah to the death, but he knew the situation was hopeless. During to night of Dec. 20th, Hardee’s force slipped across the Savannah River on a jury-rigged built bridge into South Carolina and headed to Charleston. Hardee would prepare Charleston even stronger for an inevitable fight. A group of Savannah civilians met with Maj. Gem John Geary (another Gettysburg veteran ) of the XX Corps on the 21st and surrendered the port.


Losses for the entire campaign were reported 134 Union casualties in the Ft. McAlliaster attack. Confederate losses were 40 killed and wounded, 190 captured and approximately 500 captured when the city fell.


Determined to avoid a long siege at Savannah, Sherman did not even bother with Charleston and continued into the Carolinas. Hardee made a wise decision at Savannah, to live for another day rather than the sacrifice of thousands of civilians and 12,000+ irreplaceable Confederate soldiers.


Note: The distance from Savannah to Charleston is about 100 miles. The distance from Savannah, GA to South Carolina.... is very short. It is essentially on the state line.



Sources:


The March to the Sea and Beyond, Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns, by, Glattahar, Joseph T., LSU Press, 1995.


Sullivan, Buddy. "Fort McAllister." New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jun 6, 2017. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/fort-mcallister/.


Savannah Chamber of Commerce, Savannah, GA, website.







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