December 13, 1864 – As Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies surrounded Savannah on the Atlantic coast, a division of XV Corps prepared to capture Fort McAllister, on the Ogeechee River south of the city.
The Confederate garrison at Fort McAllister prevented Sherman from contacting the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic, which he needed for supplies. The Federals had spent the past three days rebuilding the 1,000-foot King’s Bridge to cross the Ogeechee, and by the 13th, they were ready to move. The 2nd Division of XV Corps, Sherman’s old command, was chosen to make the assault. It was now led by Brigadier General William A. Hazen, an officer new to division command.
Major George W. Anderson commanded the Confederate garrison, which consisted of just 250 men isolated from the main army in Savannah. Anderson reported:
“Receiving from headquarters neither orders nor responses to my telegraphic dispatches, I determined, under the circumstances, and not withstanding the great disparity of numbers, between the garrison and the attacking forces, to defend the fort to the last extremity.”
The Confederates did their best to strengthen the defenses on the fort’s land side in anticipation of an attack, including burying “landmines” (i.e., shells set to detonate when walked upon) in the Federals’ path.
Hazen spent the morning and most of the afternoon moving his 4,000 Federals across the Ogeechee and forming them in line of battle. A Confederate prisoner informed them that land mines were ahead and gave them the approximate locations. Hazen reported:
“Some time was lost in safely removing them, when leaving eight regiments at that point, nine were carried forward to about 600 yards from the fort and deployed, with a line of skirmishers thrown sufficiently near the fort to keep the gunners from working their guns with any effect–those fire to the rear being in barbette.”
Sherman watched the action from a rice mill about three miles away. With only about an hour of daylight left, Hazen signaled Sherman that he would be advancing on the fort soon. Sherman responded that he wanted the fort taken by dark, and Hazen assured him that it would be done.
The Confederates assembled on the fort’s parapets, and skirmishing began. As Sherman watched, someone turned his attention to a smokestack in the distance, moving up the Ogeechee. It belonged to a vessel from the Federal fleet. The ship signaled, “Who are you?” and Sherman identified himself. The ship asked, “Is Fort McAllister taken?” Sherman answered, “Not yet, but it will be in a minute!”
Hazen’s Federals advanced around 4:45 p.m., pushing through the landmines, felled trees, abatis, and other obstructions. Hazen reported:
“The troops were deployed in one line as thin as possible, the result of being that no man in the assault was stuck till they came to close quarters. Here the fighting became desperate and deadly. Just outside the works a line of torpedoes had been placed, many of which were exploded by the tread of the troops, blowing many men to atoms, but the line moved on without checking, over, under, and through abatis, ditches, palisading, and parapet, fighting the garrison through the fort to their bomb-proofs, from which they still fought, and only succumbed as each man was individually overpowered.”
Anderson recalled that–
“–the full force of the enemy made a rapid and vigorous charge upon the works, and, succeeding in forcing their way through the abatis, rushed over the parapet of the fort, carrying it by storm, and, by virtue of superior numbers, overpowered the garrison, fighting gallantly to the last. In many instances the Confederates were disarmed by main force.”
The Federals lost 134 men in the assault, mostly from the landmines. The Confederates lost 16 killed and 55 wounded; the rest surrendered. Sherman watched the Federals overwhelm the defenders and yelled, “It’s my old division, I knew they’d do it!” Sherman, Major General Oliver O. Howard, and their aides took a rowboat to Fort McAllister, where Sherman congratulated Hazen on his brilliant victory and called it “the handsomest thing I’ve seen in this war.”
The officers toured the fort, which according to Sherman, was–
“–held by a regiment of Hazen’s troops, and the sentinel cautioned us to be very careful, as the ground outside the fort was full of torpedoes. Indeed, while we were there, a torpedo exploded, tearing to pieces a poor fellow who was hunting for a dead comrade. Inside the fort lay the dead as they had fallen, and they could hardly be distinguished from their living comrades, sleeping soundly side by side in the pale moonlight.”
Sherman then rowed out to greet the ship he had communicated with, the U.S.S. Dandelion. He was warmly received by the sailors and officers as he climbed aboard. Sherman was told that the Lincoln administration sent tons of supplies because they had read troubling articles in southern newspapers that Sherman’s army was starving and disintegrating. Sherman sought to dispel such misinformation by writing his first dispatch to Washington since leaving Atlanta:
“To-day, at 5 p. m., General Hazen’s division of the Fifteenth Corps carried Fort McAllister by assault, capturing its entire garrison and stores. This opened to us Ossabaw Sound, and I pushed down to this gun-boat to communicate with the fleet. Before opening communication we had completely destroyed all the railroads leading into Savannah and invested the city.
“The left of the army is on the Savannah River, three miles above the city, and the right on the Ogeechee, at King’s Bridge. The army is in splendid order, and equal to anything. The weather has been fine, and supplies were abundant. Our march was most agreeable, and we were not at all molested by guerrillas… The quick work made with McAllister, the opening of communication with, our fleet, and our consequent independence as to supplies, dissipate all their boasted threats to head us off and starve the army. I regard Savannah as already gained.”
Sherman’s armies were now linked to the sea, where they could be supplied unmolested. This meant that Savannah was doomed. Sherman already started looking ahead in a letter to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:
“I can only say that I hope by Christmas to be in possession of Savannah, and by the new year to be ready to resume our journey to Raleigh. The whole army is crazy to be turned loose in Carolina; and with the experience of the past 30 days I judge that a month’s sojourn in South Carolina would make her less bellicose.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 185; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275, 658-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21087; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 502-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 532; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 609-10; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150