December 13, 1864 (Tuesday)
Through design or chance, it was General Sherman’s old division, the Second from the Fifteenth Corps, which was to assault Fort McAllister, south of Savannah, Georgia. It was this fort that stood between the Federal right and the naval fleet off of the city. Once this fell, the lines would be open and the late march would truly and finally be to the Sea.
Commanding this division was General William Hazen, a lifelong military man, West Point class of ’55. But he was new to commanding a division, and apart from the march itself, this would be his first battle at their helm. Sherman, however, trusted him. More importantly, he trusted his old veterans who had marched with him through Shiloh and Vicksburg.
The night previous, Sherman personally gave orders to Hazen to assault Fort McAllister. He knew it to be a formidable post if approached from the sea, but it was hardly built to withstand an assault from the land. After seeing Hazen off, Sherman rode ten miles to an rice-mill that overlooked the fort, three miles distant. From this far off vantage point, “the place looked as peaceable and quiet as on the Sabbath.” For hours nothing happened. But then, around 2pm, it began.
At the dawn, General Hazen had set his division in motion, 4,000 soldiers against many less, but much more guarded. In the late morning, his numbers began to arrive before the fort, near which they captured a Rebel picket. Rightly fearing that there were land mines planted in the road ahead, the secured from their prisoner the location. “Some time was lost in safely removing them,” wrote Hazen in his report, “when leaving eight regiments at that point, nine were carried forward to about 600 yards from the fort and deployed, with a line of skirmishers thrown sufficiently near the fort to keep the gunners from working their guns with any effect – those fire to the rear being in barbette.”
Major Richard Anderson commanded Fort McAllister and its 200-man garrison, and was determined to hold as long as he could, though he was cut off from the city and his commander General William Hardee. “Receiving from headquarters neither orders nor responses to my telegraphic dispatches,” wrote Anderson in his report, “I determined, under the circumstances, and not withstanding the great disparity of numbers, between the garrison and the attacking forces, to defend the fort to the last extremity.”Anderson’s fellow officers largely agreed, though “many of them had never been under fire before, and quite a number were very young, in fact mere boys.”
Hazen’s deployment was taking an incredible amount of time, and it wasn’t until nearly dark that he was ready. From his post above the fort, General Sherman could see that things were near ready. Several guns had fired and there was skirmishing clearly building. “This betokened the approach of Hazen’s division, which had been anxiously expected,” Sherman penned in his memoirs, “and soon thereafter the signal officer discovered about three miles above the fort a signal-flag, with which he conversed, and found it to belong to General Hazen, who was preparing to assault the fort, and wanted to know if I were there.”
Sherman assured Hazen that he was indeed there and reminded him that he wanted the fort to be taken by dark. Hazen, through the use of signals, vowed that it would be done.
“The sun was rapidly declining,” Sherman continued, “and I was dreadfully impatient. At that very moment some one discovered a faint cloud of smoke, and an object gliding, as it were, along the horizon above the tops of the sedge toward the sea, which little by little grew till it was pronounced to be the smoke-stack of a steamer coming up the river.”
It was a ship from the fleet! They were soon signaled, but inquired back “Who are you?” The answer was returned: “General Sherman.” And the ship questioned, “Is Fort McAllister taken?” Looking below, Sherman could see that Hazen was now ready. “No yet,” came the reply, “but it will be in a minute!”
“Almost at that instant of time, we saw Hazen’s troops come out of the dark fringe of woods that encompassed the fort, the lines dressed as on parade, with colors flying, and moving forward with a quick, steady pace. Fort McAllister was then all alive, its big guns belching forth dense clouds of smoke, which soon enveloped our assaulting lines. One color went down, but was up in a moment. On the lines advanced, faintly seen in the white, sulphurous smoke; there was a pause, a cessation of fire; the smoke cleared away, and the parapets were blue with our men, who fired their muskets in the air, and shouted so that we actually heard them, or felt that we did.”
In his report, Hazen continues the story: “The troops were deployed in one line as thin as possible, the result of being that no man in the assault was stuck till they came to close quarters. Here the fighting became desperate and deadly. Just outside the works a line of torpedoes had been placed, many of which were exploded by the tread of the troops, blowing many men to atoms, but the line moved on without checking, over, under, and through abatis, ditches, palisading, and parapet, fighting the garrison through the fort to their bomb-proofs, from which they still fought, and only succumbed as each man was individually overpowered.”
Major Anderson, commanding the fort, recalled that “the full force of the enemy made a rapid and vigorous charge upon the works, and, succeeding in forcing their way through the abattis, rushed over the parapet of the fort, carrying it by storm, and, by virtue of superior numbers, overpowered the garrison, fighting gallantly to the last. In many instances the Confederates were disarmed by main force.”
“Fort McAllister was taken,” wrote Sherman, “and the good news was instantly sent by the signal-officer to our navy friends on the approaching gunboat, for a point of timber had shut out Fort McAllister from their view, and they had not seen the action at all, but must have heard the cannonading.”
Wishing to communicate with the fleet himself, Sherman gathered a small crew to row him and General Oliver O. Howard to Fort McAllister. First, however, he wanted to see Hazen, who was found at a nearby plantation about to eat his dinner.
“Of course, I congratulated Hazen most heartily on his brilliant success,” continued Sherman, “and praised its execution very highly, as it deserved, and he explained to me more in detail the exact results.” The Rebel commander, Major Anderson, was a prisoner, but as an officer was invited to dine with Sherman, Howard, and Hazen.
After the meal, Sherman and Howard entered the fort, which was “held by a regiment of Hazen’s troops, and the sentinel cautioned us to be very careful, as the ground outside the fort was full of torpedoes. Indeed, while we were there, a torpedo exploded, tearing to pieces a poor fellow who was hunting for a dead comrade. Inside the fort lay the dead as they had fallen, and they could hardly be distinguished from their living comrades, sleeping soundly side by side in the pale moonlight.”
With this quick and gruesome tour completed, Sherman searched along the river for six miles before finding the vessel he had espied from his position during the battle. His small rowboat pulled along side, hailed it and was greeted with “great warmth and enthusiasm on deck by half a dozen naval officers.” This ship, as it turned out, was the Dandelion, the same that escorted Howard’s scouts to Admiral Dahlgren the day before.
Here, he learned that there were several ships laden with supplies for his army. Washington, it seemed, had been a bit worried about him. There had been no way to send news safely to either Grant or the capital, so he sent none at all. The Rebel papers, however, “reported us to be harassed, defeated, starving, and fleeing for safety to the coast.”
Feeling this had to be remedied, he asked for paper and wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton the following message:
To-day, at 5 p. m., General Hazen’s division of the Fifteenth Corps carried Fort McAllister by assault, capturing its entire garrison and stores. This opened to us Ossabaw Sound, and I pushed down to this gun-boat to communicate with the fleet. Before opening communication we had completely destroyed all the railroads leading into Savannah and invested the city.
The left of the army is on the Savannah River, three miles above the city, and the right on the Ogeechee, at King’s Bridge. The army is in splendid order, and equal to anything. The weather has been fine, and supplies were abundant. Our march was most agreeable, and we were not at all molested by guerrillas.
We reached Savannah three days ago, but owing to Fort McAllister could not communicate; but now that we have McAllister we can go ahead. We have already captured two boats on the Savannah River, and prevented their gun boats from coming down. I estimate the population of Savannah at 25,000 and the garrison at 15,000: General Hardee commands.
We have not lost a wagon on the trip, but have gathered a large supply of negroes, mules, horses, &c, and our teams are in far better condition than when we started. My first duty will be to clear the army of surplus negroes, mules, and horses.
We have utterly destroyed over 200 miles of rails, and consumed stores and provisions that were essential to Lee’s and Hood’s armies. The quick work made with McAllister, the opening of communication with, our fleet, and our consequent independence as to supplies, dissipate all their boasted threats to head us off and starve the army. I regard Savannah as already gained.
In a much longer letter to his friend Henry Halleck, Sherman confided that “I can only say that I hope by Christmas to be in possession of Savannah, and by the new year to be ready to resume our journey to Raleigh. The whole army is crazy to be turned loose in Carolina: and with the experience of the past thirty days I judge that a mouth’s sojourn in South Carolina would make her less bellicose.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p110-111, 700-703; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Historical Sketch of the Chatham Artillery by George W. Anderson. [↩]