December 20, 1864 (Tuesday),
Several days ago, William Tecumseh Sherman had demanded the surrender of Savannah along with its garrison. There was no hope in fending off the Union host now nearly surrounding the city, but William Hardee, commanding the Rebel forces within, refused, hoping to buy himself a few days reprieve to come up with a plan of evacuation.
This he did on the 19th, and on this date, it was enacted. Beginning with the dawn, a string of wagons crossed a floating bridge recently laid across the Savannah River, along the causeway north into South Carolina – their only route of escape.
The garrison troops from all of the outlying forts had been brought into the city the night before, leaving behind skeleton crews to spike the heavy artillery and dump whatever ammunition could not be carried with them. Nothing was to be set on fire or detonated as that would tip their hand to the Federals. The last thing they wanted to deal with was an assault, which would certainly come if an escape was detected.
Savannah’s evacuation did not go wholly unseen. From the Union line north of the city, the line of wagons were espied, but what it meant was not perfectly understood. Additionally, deserters from Hardee’s forces spread word, but even they were not sure if it was a surrender or evacuation. As for Sherman, he spent most of the day on Hilton Head Island, meeting with the Navy, and away from his command, so even if the evacuation was fully realized, there was little anyone could do about it.
The evacuation of the troops was not slated to begin until after dark, and so the Federals could see thus far were wagons. At dark, the field artillery was withdrawn “with as little noise as possible” to be sent over the pontoon bridge to Hardeeville, just to the north, but beyond the Federal lines. And then, all along the lines, the infantry was slipped away.
At 8pm, Ambrose Wright’s Division was withdrawn, and then two hours later, Lafayette McLaws’ followed. At 11pm, Gustavas Smith’s militia were the last to be spirited away. But behind them all they left the skirmishers, manning the outposts and works until 1am.
Of course, not everything went according to the rigid timeline set by P.G.T. Beauregard, who had left the city two days before. The city itself acted as a funnel, and there was congestion and confusion in the dark. But by the dawn of the following day, it was more or less complete. This small Confederate army had slid north without the notice of the much larger and looming Union horde before them. Rather than surrender the city and the army, Beauregard and Hardee rightly understood that if the army could break away, it would survive to fight again – it could survive to, perhaps, save Charleston, believed to be Sherman’s next target.
The troops on the march weren’t simply filtered into South Carolina. Each division was assigned a new line of defense. For Smith’s militia, it was to Charleston and then Augusta. McLaws’ was to head to Charleston (relieving Smith), and then to James Island. Wright were to go to the Fourth Military Sub-district, west of Charleston. The various other brigades and units were to act as rear guards, watching the crossings best they could. For the most part, the troops would be falling back, each defending the ground left vacant by those they relieved. In this way, most would end up in and around Charleston.
General Jo Wheeler’s Cavalry was to defend the area east of Augusta, Georgia, placing themselves on the left flank of Sherman’s forces once they turned toward Charleston. They were also to burn the railroad bridge across the Savannah River as soon as humanly possible.
There were some hitches, to be sure, but Hardee glided his troops out of certain disaster. Sherman’s men would be none the wiser until the dawn.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p970-971, 975; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]