December 17, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies assumed attack positions outside Savannah, hoping to capture this vital port city on the Atlantic coast and complete their march to the sea.
By the 17th, Sherman’s 60,000 Federals were poised to attack about four miles outside Savannah. Their line stretched from the Savannah River north of town to a link with the Federal navy via Ossabaw Sound to the south. This naval link ensured that the Federals would be well-supplied indefinitely. The Confederates defending Savannah, led by Lieutenant General William Hardee, numbered less than 20,000.
The Federals surrounded Savannah to the north, west, and south, but the Confederates were positioned behind strong fortifications, and they had flooded the approaches to make an assault as difficult as possible. Nevertheless, Sherman tried coaxing a surrender out of Hardee in a message he sent through the lines:
“General: You have doubtless observed from your station at Rosedew that sea-going vessels now come through Ossabaw Sound and up Ogeechee to the rear of my army, giving me abundant supplies of all kinds, and more especially heavy ordnance necessary to the reduction of Savannah. I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied; and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts, and shall await a reasonable time your answer before opening with heavy ordnance.
“Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, and the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army–burning to avenge a great national wrong they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.”
Hardee quickly responded, reminding Sherman that his Federals were still four miles away, held back by the Confederates’ outer defenses. Hardee also asserted that the Federals had not yet cut his army off from the rest of the Confederacy; “I am in free and constant communication with my department.” As such, “Your demand for the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts is refused.” Hardee then addressed Sherman’s threat of destruction:
“I have hitherto conducted the military operations intrusted to my direction in strict accordance with the rules of civilized warfare, and I should deeply regret the adoption of any course by you that may force me to deviate from them in the future. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, W.J. Hardee, Lieutenant General.”
Hardee’s strong words notwithstanding, he knew that the fall of Savannah was inevitable. His superior, General P.G.T. Beauregard, knew this too. He had instructed Hardee to abandon Savannah if it meant saving his army, and this had been endorsed by President Jefferson Davis. It was also endorsed by Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, who wrote Beauregard on the 18th: “It is hoped Savannah may be successfully defended. But the defense should not be too protracted, to the sacrifice of the garrison. The same remarks are applicable to Charleston.”
Beauregard came to Savannah and began transferring Hardee’s units out of the city. The troops defending Forts Jackson and Lee were to spike their guns and withdraw toward Charleston, and the few remaining Confederate naval vessels were to move up the Savannah River. Major General Joseph Wheeler, commanding the Confederate cavalry in Georgia, was to “guard the crossings of the Savannah and New Rivers, also the landings east of Sereven’s Ferry Causeway, until compelled by the enemy to retire.”
Beauregard then sent a message to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the besieged Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg:
“General Sherman demanded the surrender of Savannah yesterday of General Hardee, which was refused. The loss of Savannah will be followed by that of the railroad from Augusta to Charleston, and soon after of Charleston itself. Cannot (Robert) Hoke’s and (Bushrod) Johnson’s divisions be spared for the defense of South Carolina and Georgia until part or whole of (John Bell) Hood’s army could reach Georgia?”
President Davis forwarded this message to Lee, who replied on the 19th: “Beauregard and Hardee must judge of necessity of evacuating Savannah… If Hoke and Johnson are sent south, it will necessitate the abandonment of Richmond with the present opposing force.”
Meanwhile, Sherman’s Federals enjoyed an abundance of food, clothing, and equipment, courtesy of the Federal navy. Sherman arranged for troops from Major General John G. Foster’s Department of the South to try working their way around east of Savannah to completely surround the city. He also wrote Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, urging him to reconsider his order for Sherman to stop everything and send his army to Virginia by sea.
Sherman argued that it would be more devastating to the Confederacy to march his army overland, through the Carolinas, than to go to Virginia by sea. He wrote, “We can punish South Carolina as she deserves, and as thousands of people in Georgia hoped we would do. I do sincerely believe that the whole United States, North and South, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina, to devastate that state in the manner we have done in Georgia.” Such destruction “would have a direct and immediate bearing upon the campaign in Virginia.”
“I estimate $100 million, at least 20 millions of which has inured to our advantage, and the remainder is simple waste and destruction. This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.”
As Sherman waited for Grant’s response, he continued tightening his stranglehold on Savannah. And Hardee began arranging his evacuation.
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. 505; 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 14905-25, 14974-84; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 534; 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. 156; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 431