December 22, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals completed their devastating march to the sea by capturing the vital Confederate port city of Savannah.
By sunrise on the 21st, Lieutenant General William Hardee’s small Confederate army had evacuated Savannah. They cut their pontoon bridge over the Savannah River loose to keep the Federals from pursuing. Skirmishers from Sherman’s armies cautiously probed forward and found Savannah’s outer defenses empty. The Federals quickly advanced on the abandoned city.
That morning, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s division of XX Corps marched into Savannah unopposed. Mayor Richard Arnold formally surrendered the city on behalf of his 20,000 constituents, many of whom were tired of war and supportive of surrender. Federal Major George W. Nichols later wrote:
“… The path by which Hardee escaped led through swamps which were previously considered impracticable. The Rebel general obtained knowledge of our movement through his spies, who swarmed in our camp. It was fortunate that our troops followed so quickly after the evacuation of the city by the enemy, for a mob had gathered in the streets, and were breaking into the stores and houses. They were with difficulty dispersed by the bayonet of our soldiers, and then, once more, order and confidence prevailed throughout the conquered city… We had not been in occupation 48 hours before the transport steamer Canonicus… lay alongside a pier, and our new line of supplies was formed.”
The crew of the U.S.S. Winona, which had been bombarding the Savannah defenses, recorded in their log on this date: “At 10:05 saw the American Ensign flying on Ft. Beaulieu. Ships cheered; captain left in the gig and proceeded up to the fort.” Confederate Commander Thomas W. Brent directed the destruction of the C.S.S. Firefly, Isondiga, and Savannah to prevent their capture. The floating battery C.S.S. Georgia in Savannah Harbor was also destroyed. This ended Confederate naval resistance in Savannah.
Meanwhile, Federal troops in Savannah quickly seized all war materiel that Hardee’s Confederates did not destroy. Sherman’s two army commanders, Major Generals Henry W. Slocum and Oliver O. Howard, quickly set up headquarters in the city. Sherman followed the next morning. As he wrote in his autobiography:
“On the morning of December 22nd, I followed with my own headquarters, and rode down Bull Street to the custom-house, from the roof of which we had an extensive view over the city, the river, and the vast extent of marsh and rice-fields on the South Carolina side. The navy-yard, and the wreck of the iron-clad Savannah, were still smoldering, but all else looked quiet enough.”
To Sherman’s annoyance, a Federal Treasury agent was already in town calculating what the value of the city’s cotton and other commodities would be to the government. But he liked the agent’s idea to deliver the city itself as a Christmas present to Washington. Sherman therefore wrote to President Abraham Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
This ended Sherman’s remarkable 285-mile march from Atlanta to the sea. The trek lasted nearly a month and a half and yielded fewer than 2,000 Federal casualties. During that time, the Federals cut an unprecedented swath of destruction through the Georgia heartland, demoralizing the people and severely damaging the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. In fact, the Federal army was in better condition and spirits than when it had left Atlanta.
Sherman was disappointed that Hardee’s Confederates got away, but he now held a vital point from which he could move northward and continue his destruction through the Carolinas. For the moment, Sherman was content to stop long enough to rest, resupply, and reorganize his troops.
The Federal army quickly became an occupation force, although Sherman allowed the municipal government to continue functioning as long as it did not interfere with his operations. Meanwhile, the local slaves quickly broke free from their masters. According to a history of the First Colored Baptist Church of Savannah:
“When the morning light of the 22nd of December, 1864, broke in upon us, the streets of our city were thronged in every part with the victorious army of liberty; every tramp, look, command, and military movement told us that they had come for our deliverance, and were able to secure it to us, and the cry went around the city from house to house among our race of people, ‘Glory be to God, we are free!’”
Two days later, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wrote Sherman congratulating him on “on the successful termination of your campaign. I never had a doubt of the result” and “would not have intrusted the expedition to any other living commander.”
Grant had originally wanted Sherman to stop his move on Savannah and move his army by sea to join forces with the Federals besieging General Robert E. Lee at Petersburg: “I did think the best thing to do was to bring the greater part of your army here, and wipe out Lee, (but) the turn affairs now seem to be taking has shaken me in that opinion.” Now Grant wrote:
“I want to get your views about what ought to be done, and what can be done… my own opinion is that Lee is averse to going out of Virginia, and if the cause of the South is lost he wants Richmond to be the last place surrendered. If he has such views, it may be well to indulge him until we get everything else in our hands.”
That night, Sherman replied that he was glad that Grant changed his mind about him moving north, “for I feared that the transportation by sea would very much disturb the unity and morale of my army, now so perfect… In about 10 days I expect to be ready to sally forth again. I feel no doubt whatever as to our future plans. I have thought them over so long and well that they appear as clear as daylight.”
Lincoln released Sherman’s message from the 22nd to the public on Christmas Day, making the holiday extra special in the North. Major General John A. Logan, currently in Washington but preparing to return to Sherman’s army, brought along a letter for Sherman from the president:
“My Dear General Sherman: Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift–the capture of Savannah. When you were about to leave Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful, but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained,’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went further than to acquiesce. And taking the work of General Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success… Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army, officers and men. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide.”
Sherman quickly dispelled rumors that he would ask for a military rank equal to Grant:
“I will accept no commission that would tend to create a rivalry with Grant. I want him to hold what he has earned and got. I have all the rank I want. I would rather be an engineer of a railroad, than President of the United States. I have commanded a hundred thousand men in battle, and on the march, successfully and without confusion, and that is enough for reputation. Now, I want rest and peace, and they are only to be had through war.”
Sherman now looked to move his army northward, through the Carolinas, on the way to join Grant in Virginia. Regarding this, Sherman sent an ominous message to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:
“The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her. Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why we did not go to South Carolina, and when I answered that I was en route for that State the invariable reply was, ‘Well, if you will make those people feel the severities of war, we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.’
“Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience. To be sure, Jeff Davis has his people under a pretty good state of discipline, but I think faith in him is much shaken in Georgia; and I think before we are done, South Carolina will not be quite so tempestuous.”
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