December 12, 1864 – Elements of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies prepared to attack Fort McAllister, which blocked Sherman from linking with the Federal navy on the Atlantic below Savannah.
By the 10th, most of Sherman’s 60,000 Federals were outside Savannah, having marched over 250 miles from Atlanta since mid-November. The troops surrounded the city’s three land sides on a line stretching from the Savannah River north of town to the Savannah & Gulf Railroad on the Ogeechee River south of town.
Lieutenant General William Hardee could muster just 18,000 men to defend Savannah. They were spread throughout the fortifications ringing the city, supported by heavy artillery. They had flooded the outlying swamps and rice fields to impede a Federal approach. Sherman assessed the defenses and chose not to launch a direct assault, but rather to place Savannah under siege.
But before he could lay siege, Sherman needed to open lines of communication and supply with the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic. This meant confronting Fort McAllister, which stood on a high bluff on the south bank of the Ogeechee. It blocked the easiest route for the Federal army and navy to link. Confederates had destroyed the 1,000-foot King’s Bridge, which Sherman needed to get to Fort McAllister. The Federals therefore set about felling trees and tearing apart houses to rebuild the bridge.
Meanwhile, Confederate gunboats tried coming down the Savannah River to support Hardee’s men; the fleet consisted of the C.S.S. Macon, Resolute, and Sampson. The Confederates began exchanging fire with Federal shore batteries at Tweedside, but the Federals easily outgunned them. The Resolute was crippled and later captured by the Federals; the other two vessels steamed back upriver to Augusta.
Sherman spent the next two days putting his troops in place to attack Fort McAllister. The Federals were under constant fire from the Confederate guns. Major Henry Hitchcock, Sherman’s aide-de-camp, wrote on the 12th:
“Every now and then we hear the deep tone of those guns, sometimes quickly followed by the equally loud explosion of a shell, to front and left of us some hundred yards ahead. Then other guns off to our right and front, over at the canal; and now others far over to the left, with occasional popping of musketry. Very few guns have been fired on our side–we are not ready.”
The Fort McAllister garrison consisted of just 250 men under Major George W. Anderson. They were isolated from the main Confederate force in Savannah, but as Hitchcock explained:
“It is a strong fort, built to command the entrance to Ogeechee River, about five miles (so I am told) above its mouth, and has twice successfully resisted the attack of our gunboats. It must be taken, for we must communicate without delay with the fleet which is already in Ossabaw Sound; but it is sure, even if we take it, to cost heavily.”
Each night, Federal naval vessels steamed as far up the Ogeechee as possible without coming under fire from Fort McAllister. They launched signal rockets for Sherman but received no response. However, on the night of the 11th, Captain William Duncan and two other Federals from Sherman’s army found a rough path around the fort and met up with Marines, who took them to the naval fleet. Duncan later wrote:
“Let me tell you that in our circumstances, it is a glorious privilege to fall into the hands of marines. The changes from despondency, privations and despair were very sudden. Our object was accomplished; surrounded by friends, and with the United States Flag floating over us, every comfort was provided for us.”
Duncan and his men were taken to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where they met with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Department of the South. Washington officials had not heard from Sherman since he left Atlanta, but now Dahlgren reported to them:
“I have the great satisfaction of conveying to you information of the arrival of General Sherman near Savannah, with his army in fine spirits… This memorable event must be attended by still more memorable consequences, and I congratulate you most heartily on its occurrence.”
Meanwhile, Sherman oversaw the restoration of King’s Bridge over the Ogeechee. He directed Brigadier General William B. Hazen’s division of XV Corps–the same division that Sherman had commanded at Shiloh–to attack and capture Fort McAllister. Sherman wrote, “I knew it to be strong in heavy artillery as against an approach from the sea, but believed it open and weak to the rear. I explained to General Hazen, fully, that on his action depended the safety of the whole army, and the success of the campaign.”
Hazen was ordered “to march rapidly down the right bank of the Ogeechee, and without hesitation to assault and carry Fort McAllister by storm.” This assault would take place on the 13th.
Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21078-87; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 500-02; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 531; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 609; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 144-49