December 18, 1864 (Sunday)
William Hardee, commanding the Confederate troops in Savannah, was buying time. Knowing he could not possibly withstand the onslaught of Sherman’s army, he had nevertheless refused to surrender the city. And still, while he remained in Savannah, there was still some small hope that she might be saved. But saving a city at all costs, regardless of the number of men lost, was no longer the Southern policy of war.
“It is hoped Savannah may be successfully defended,” wrote Inspector-General Samuel Cooper from Richmond. “But the defense should not be too protracted, to the sacrifice of the garrison. The same remarks are applicable to Charleston.”
Cooper was writing to General P.G.T. Beauregard, Hardee’s superior, who was now himself back in Savannah. Fearing that Richmond would continue with the absurd policy of holding ground rather than saving lives, he was relieved to see the change of heart. And so rather than pretending they could do more with less, he began to oversee the plan for evacuating Savannah.
Like pieces on a quickly disintegrating chess board, Beauregard moved brigades and division from Savannah to Augusta, Hardeeville, James Island, and Pocotaligo. The naval vessels, few in number, and two forts were also under his purview. Most were to go up the Savannah River, as the Forts Jackson and Lee, as well the batteries surrounding, were to be abandoned with their guns spiked.
As for the cavalry under Jo Wheeler, they were 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.” After that, Wheeler was to simply guard the flank of both Augusta, Georgia and those retreating toward Charleston.
Though utterly pointless, Beauregard also tried to get some reinforcements from Robert E. Lee in Petersburg, Virginia. Forwarded through Richmond, it read: “General Sherman demended 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 Hood’s army could reach Georgia?”
When reading this request, Jefferson Davis understood perfectly what it meant. He also knew that Lee would never detach troops from his army. And so, in an attached introduction, he didn’t even request it. “Let me have your advice,” Davis wrote instead, “and, if you choose, communicate with General Beauregard.”
The following day, Lee would make his unsurprising reply. “Beauregard and Hardee must judge of necessity of evacuating Savannah,” he began, suggesting that they be united at Branchville, before Charleston. “If Hoke and Johnson are sent south,” he said in closing, “it will necessitate the abandonment of Richmond with the present opposing force.”
And that was it. Lee, once again, was unwilling to even entertain the idea of sending his troops outside of Virginia. Apparently, he wouldn’t even be giving Beauregard advice. All the while, both Beauregard and Hardee hurried along preparations for the evacuation of Savannah.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p965-966; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman. [↩]