December 19, 1864 – Lieutenant General William Hardee, commanding the small Confederate force defending Savannah on the Atlantic coast, issued orders for his troops to evacuate the city in the face of overwhelming Federal numbers.
Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies closed in on Savannah, one of the Confederacy’s last major seaports. Hardee worked with his superior, General P.G.T. Beauregard, to abandon the city. Their only escape route was to the north, but Sherman’s XX Corps was closing in on that sector. Beauregard notified Hardee, “The city must be evacuated (as) soon as practicable.”
On the 19th, Hardee directed his men to pull out, starting at nightfall the next day. The Confederates built a pontoon bridge by lashing 30 rice flats together; this would enable the army to cross the waterways on their way into South Carolina. The C.S.S. Water Witch, a Federal vessel the Confederates had captured earlier that year, was destroyed to prevent her recapture.
The next day, Sherman opened a punishing artillery bombardment on Savannah. He also directed Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Department of the South, to close in on the city from the east and block the Confederate escape route. But Sherman was too late.
Hardee’s Confederates evacuated Savannah on the 20th, using the makeshift pontoon bridge to cross the Savannah River and its attending causeways. Supplies that could not be taken on the march were left behind; Hardee prohibited destroying them because the Federals might see or hear the destruction and attack. The wagons headed out first, followed by the artillery, and then the infantry and rear guard. Each division headed to its next assignment:
- Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s militia was to go to Charleston and then Augusta.
- Major General Lafayette McLaws’s troops were to go to Charleston and then James Island.
- Major General Ambrose Wright’s troops were to go west of Charleston.
Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry was to burn the bridge over the Savannah River once Hardee’s men crossed. The Confederates destroyed the navy yard, all vessels still intact, and the fortifications ringing the city. They left behind 250 guns and 40,000 bales of cotton.
Sherman conducted meetings with naval commanders at Hilton Head on the 20th, unaware of Hardee’s evacuation. Federal troops observed the movement from a distance but could not tell if it meant the Confederates were retreating or surrendering. By the time they realized it was the former, the escape had been made.
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