December 10, 1864 – Main elements of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies arrived on the outskirts of Savannah after cutting a path of destruction through Georgia from Atlanta to the sea.
Sherman’s Federals continued heading toward Savannah, one of the Confederacy’s last functioning seaports on the Atlantic. The cavalry, led by Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick, continued skirmishing with Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate troopers, but the infantry was virtually unopposed. Lieutenant General William Hardee, the Confederate department commander, had just 10,000 men to defend Savannah, mostly consisting of Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division and state militia.
On the 5th, the Federals approached a small line of defensive works about 50 miles west of Savannah. The works had been manned by Hardee’s Confederates, but according to Sherman, Hardee “must have seen that both of his flanks were being turned, and prudently retreated to Savannah without a fight.” The Federal march continued, as Sherman wrote in his memoirs:
“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. The trains were all in good order, and the men seemed to march their 15 miles a day as though it were nothing. 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 whatsoever. McLaws’s division was falling back before us, and we occasionally picked up a few of his men as prisoners, who insisted that we would meet with strong opposition at Savannah.”
But the Federals encountered opposition of a different kind on the 8th. Retreating Confederates had planted “land torpedoes,” forerunners to landmines, in the roads leading east. These devices were eight-inch shells wired to detonate when stepped on. Sherman came across a young officer whose leg had been nearly blown off by one of the shells, and he later wrote:
“This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry. I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard, armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road, where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode at each step, but they found no other torpedoes till near Fort McAllister.”
The Federal XIV Corps, holding the left of Sherman’s left (north) wing, reached the Savannah River on the 8th, where troops were fired upon by the C.S.S. Macon. However, as a soldier wrote, “The curiosity of all to see a live Rebel Gunboat in operation overcame whatever alarm might have been felt and there was a rush to the river bank in such numbers that the boat was frightened away and soon disappeared up the river.”
To the right, troops of XX Corps had to build a new corduroy road to continue their advance. Farther right, Sherman rode with XVII Corps of the right wing, which halted at Pooler’s Station, about eight miles from Savannah. On the extreme right, men of XV Corps drove off a small Confederate force and reached the Canoochee River, below Savannah. From here, the Federals learned that the Confederates had abandoned defenses on the Little Ogeechee River. It also brought Sherman very close to linking with Federal naval forces on the Atlantic.
Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Federal right wing, received a message from one of Sherman’s aides:
“If you can possibly do so, he wishes you to send a note by a canoe down the Ogeechee, pass the railroad bridge in the night, and inform the naval commander that we have arrived in fine condition and are moving directly against Savannah, but, for the present, do not risk giving any details.”
Sherman hoped to surprise Hardee at Savannah, but Hardee’s troops had captured a messenger and already knew the location of each of Sherman’s four corps. But there was little Hardee could do against Sherman’s armies, which outnumbered him six-to-one. Hardee’s superior, General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston, also conceded the strong possibility that Savannah may fall. He wrote to Hardee:
“Having no army of relief to look to, and your forces being essential to the defense of Georgia and South Carolina, whenever you shall have to select between their safety and that of Savannah, sacrifice the latter, and form a junction with General (Samuel) Jones, holding the left bank of the Savannah River and the railroad to this place as long as possible.”
Beauregard traveled to Savannah on the 9th and consulted with Hardee. Upon leaving, Beauregard wrote him:
“It is my desire, after the consultation that has taken place, that you should hold this city so long as in your judgment it may be advisable to do so, bearing in mind that should you have to decide between a sacrifice of the garrison or city, you will preserve the garrison for operations elsewhere.”
The Confederacy could ill afford to lose another army, therefore Hardee had to give up Savannah if it looked like he could not stop the Federals from taking it. Beauregard directed men to build a bridge over the Savannah River that Hardee could use to escape to Charleston if necessary. Major General Samuel Jones, commanding a small force in South Carolina, would cover Hardee’s retreat.
Hardee recruited all available men in Savannah, raising the size of his force to about 18,000. These troops built fortifications overlooking all possible Federal approaches to the city, and they flooded the surrounding rice fields and swamps. This limited an enemy approach to just five constricted causeways. The Confederate garrison at Fort McAllister blocked Federal attempts to reach the navy on the Atlantic via the Ogeechee River.
The bulk of Sherman’s army arrived outside Savannah on the 10th, taking positions north, west, and south of the city. Since leaving Atlanta, the Federals had covered 250 miles in 26 days and caused $100 million in destruction. The men and horses were hungry due to lack of forage in the area, so Sherman directed the cavalry to reconnoiter Fort McAllister as part of the larger effort to open a supply link to the Atlantic fleet.
As the cavalry set off, Sherman quickly saw that Savannah’s defenses were too strong to overcome by direct assault, and he therefore resolved to place the city under siege.
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