December 14, 1864 – After taking Fort McAllister, Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies shifted their focus to Savannah itself.
The capture of Fort McAllister gave the Federals control of the Ogeechee River and Ossabaw Sound, which enabled the naval fleet to keep them abundantly supplied from the Atlantic Ocean. Gunboats and transports brought over half a million rations to Sherman’s troops; the men also received mail from home for the first time since leaving Atlanta in mid-November.
The U.S.S. Sonoma, Winona, and other gunboats began supporting Sherman’s impending advance on Savannah by bombarding Forts Beaulieu and Rosedew in Ossabaw Sound. With Savannah’s fall virtually assured, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory wrote the Confederate flag officer in command of the region:
“Should the enemy get and hold Savannah, and you can do no further service there, you are expected to dispose of your squadron to the greatest injury to him and the greatest benefit to our country. If necessary to leave Savannah, your vessels, except the Georgia, may fight their way to Charleston. Under no circumstances should they be destroyed until every proper effort to save them shall have been exhausted.”
General P.G.T. Beauregard, overall Confederate commander in the region, instructed Lieutenant General William Hardee, commanding the small force defending Savannah, to evacuate the city if he could not stop the Federal advance. If necessary, Hardee’s Confederates were to retreat north to Charleston.
On the 15th, Sherman met with his army commanders, Major Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry W. Slocum, and issued orders for an assault on Savannah. The naval fleet delivered heavy artillery and ammunition in case the city had to be placed under siege. As the Federals took up positions four miles outside Savannah, Sherman went through the newly arrived mail and discovered a message from the overall Federal commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, who was laying siege to General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in Virginia.
Grant wrote, “I have concluded that the most important operation toward closing out the rebellion will be to close out Lee and his army.” If Sherman’s army came up to reinforce him, “I think the job here will be effectually completed.” Grant directed Sherman to “establish a base on the sea-coast, fortify and leave in it all your artillery and cavalry, and enough infantry to protect them, and at the same time so threaten the interior that the militia of the South will have to be kept at home.” Grant then ordered:
“With the balance of your command come here by water with all dispatch. Select yourself the officer to leave in command, but I want you in person. Unless you see objections to this plan which I cannot see, use every vessel going to you for the purpose of transportation.”
This alarmed Sherman because he had planned to capture Savannah and then move overland through the Carolinas, reaping destruction along the way before joining Grant in Virginia. Loading his men on transports and shipping them north would cancel his plan. When Sherman learned that the vessels that Grant sent had not arrived yet, he decided to go ahead with his original plan of capturing Savannah before heading north.
Sherman wrote Grant on the 16th, explaining that he had met with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Federal Department of the South. Based on what they knew:
“If I had time, Savannah, with all its dependent fortifications, would surely fall into our possession, for we hold all its avenues of supply… But in view of the change of plan made necessary by your order of the 6th, I will maintain things in status quo till I have got all my transportation to the rear and out of the way, and until I have sea-transportation for the troops you require at James River, which I will accompany and command in person.
“My four corps, full of experience and full of ardor, coming to you en masse, equal to 60,000 fighting-men, will be a reinforcement that Lee cannot disregard. Indeed, with my present command, I had expected, after reducing Savannah, instantly to march to Columbia, South Carolina; thence to Raleigh, and thence to report to you. But this would consume, it may be, six weeks’ time after the fall of Savannah; whereas, by sea, I can probably reach you with my men and arms before the middle of January.”
Meanwhile, Hardee asked President Jefferson Davis to send him reinforcements from Lee’s army. Davis replied that Hardee could expect no such help and recommended that he “provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.” Thus, Davis endorsed Beauregard’s directive to save the small army by abandoning Savannah if necessary.
On the Federal side, Sherman decided that while he waited for Grant’s response to his latest message, he would demand Savannah’s surrender.
Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 503-05; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 13680-90, 14905-25, 14964-84; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 533-34; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 612; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 155-69; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 431