December 17, 1864 (Saturday)
William Tecumseh Sherman was in a quandary. His army had burned its way across Georgia and planted itself four miles outside of Savannah, which it now besieged. With the taking of Fort McAllister, Sherman opened up a direct line of supply with the naval vessels in the Atlantic. This also gave him a chance to get caught up on mail, which had been shipped from Washington via the Navy suspecting that Sherman would appear before Savannah.
While the soldiers of Sherman’s army received letters and packages from home, also in these bags was something incredibly disappointing from General Grant. “I have concluded that the most important operation toward closing out the rebellion will be to close out Lee and his army,” wrote Grant in a letter to Sherman dated December 6th.
Sherman had laid waste to the railroads of the south, and Grant figured that it would take at least three months for the Confederates to get them once more in working order. “In that time,” Grant continued, “I think the job here [whipping Lee] will be effectually completed.”
Sherman was to “establish a base on the sea-coast, fortify and leave in it all your artillery and cavalry, and enough infantry to protect them, and at the same time so threaten the interior that the militia of the South will have to be kept at home.” This was all well and good until Grant revealed his intent: “With the balance of your command come here by water with all dispatch. […] Unless you see objections to this plan which I cannot see, use every vessel going to you for purposes of transportation.”
This did not sit well at all with General Sherman. “The contents of these letters gave me great uneasiness,” he recalled in his memoirs, “for I had set my heart on the capture of Savannah, which I believed to be practicable, and to be near; for me to embark for Virginia by sea was so complete a change from what I had supposed would be the course of events that I was very much concerned.”
There was, Sherman mused, probably a fleet of transport ships about to dock off of Savannah, and thus very little he could do to change Grant’s mind. In that, he decided Fort McAllister to be the best place to leave his artillery, cavalry, etc., and had one of his engineers make the final preparations for such a transfer.
But then, Sherman figured, this fleet wasn’t at Savannah that moment. There was, then, still time. “I determined to push operations, in hopes to secure the city of Savannah before the necessary fleet could be available.” Maybe he could do both – take Savannah and steam up the coast to Virginia.
Sherman then explained it all to Grant in a letter dated December 16th. In it, he detailed the march and the situation as it now stood before Savannah. He had met with Admiral Dahlgren of the Navy and together they discussed just how they would reduce the city.
“If I had time,” wrote Sherman to Grant, Savannah, with all its dependent fortifications, would surely fall into our possession, for we hold all its avenues of supply. […] But in view of the change of plan made necessary by your order of the 6th, I will maintain things in status quo till I have got all my transportation to the rear and out of the way, and until I have sea-transportation for the troops you require at James River, which I will accompany and command in person.”
Sherman then shared with Grant his original aspirations for the next phase of his campaign:
“My four corps, full of experience and full of ardor, coming to you en masse, equal to sixty thousand fighting-men, will be a reinforcement that Lee cannot disregard. Indeed, with my present command, I had expected, after reducing Savannah, instantly to march to Columbia, South Carolina; thence to Raleigh, and thence to report to you. But this would consume, it may be, six weeks’ time after the fall of Savannah; whereas, by sea, I can probably reach you with my men and arms before the middle of January.”
While Sherman waiting for Grant’s reply, there was hardly any reason why he couldn’t at least demand the surrender of Savannah. And on this date, he wrote to General William Hardee, commanding the Confederates:
“General: You have doubtless observed from your station at Rosedew that sea-going vessels now come through Ossabaw Sound and up Ogeechee to the rear of my army, giving me abundant supplies of all kinds, and more especially heavy ordnance necessary to the reduction of Savannah. I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied; and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah and its dependent forts, and shall await a reasonable time your answer before opening with heavy ordnance.
“Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, and the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge a great national wrong they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.”
To this General Hardee immediately replied, reminding Sherman that his army was still four miles outside, and that the outer defenses were still between his men and the city. Hardee also asserted that Sherman’s claim to have cut off all lines of supply to the Rebels was incorrect. “I am in free and constant communication with my department.” And thus: “Your demand for the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts is refused.”
In closing, Hardee addressed Sherman’s threats about what would happen if Savannah was not surrendered. “I have to say that I have hitherto conducted the military operations entrusted to my direction in strict accordance with the rules of civilized warfare,” he wrote, before threatening, “and I should deeply regret the adoption of any course by you that may force me to deviate from them in future.”
Hardee was, of course, stalling for time. He knew that he couldn’t defend Savannah against Sherman’s 60,000 (which he thought to be no more than 45,000). Furthermore, on this date, Jefferson Davis more or less gave Hardee permission to abandon the city to save his army – a philosophy Davis might have employed to better ends a year and a half prior at Vicksburg.
“Close observation will, I hope, enable you to know when the enemy shall send from your front any considerable force,” wrote Davis to Hardee, “that you may then provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.” He made no mention of saving the city.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p727, 737, 984; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. [↩]