December 12, 1864 (Monday)
Major George W. Anderson had found himself upon an island quickly and obviously flooding. Commanding Fort McAllister, just south of Savannah, with but 200 men, he fully understood that his hour was soon up. Nearby support, though small, had been withdrawn by General William Hardee, commanding the city’s defenses. “I was thus thrown upon my own resources for all information relating to the strength and designs of the enemy,” wrote Anderson after the war.
His own resources amounted to a few artillerymen acting as scouts, whom he sent out to discover the Federal position. This had been going on a few days, but on this date in particular, Anderson joined them. It was not long before they were confronted by a column of Union troops moving on the fort.
“We were hotly pursued by their cavalry,” he continued, “and had barely time to burn the barns of Messrs. Thomas C. Arnold and William Patterson, which were filled with rice. The steamtug Columbus — lying about three miles above the fort — was also burned.”
Along the rest of the seine lines, there was precious little to report. While General Sherman met with Olive Otis Howard, commanding the Right Wing, his Aide-de-Camp, Henry Hitchcock remained at headquarters, and spent the day mostly being bored.
“Rebels firing more or less all day, to little or no purpose” he recorded in his journal, “haven’t heard of anybody being hit. Our camp is entirely within range of shells from their battery on the R.R. [Railroad] – the same that sent the 32lbs. compliments to us the other day, – if they only knew it, but they don’t.
“Every now and then we hear the deep tone of those guns, sometimes quickly followed by the equally loud explosion of a shell, to front and left of us some hundred yards ahead. Then other guns off to our right and front, over at the canal; and now others far over to the left, with occasional popping of musketry. Very few guns have been fired on our side – we are not ready.”
With all this time to himself, Hitchcock began to muse on the importance of Fort McAllister – it was the biggest obstacle lying between Sherman’s army and the Union naval fleet just off the coast. “It is a strong fort,” he wrote, “built to command the entrance to Ogeechee River, about five miles (so I am told) above its mouth, and has twice successfully resisted the attack of our gunboats. It must be taken, for we must communicate without delay with the fleet which is already is Ossabaw Sound; but it is sure, even if we take it, to cost heavily.”
Supplies were becoming somewhat of a concern, and opening up a line of communication to the sea would certainly snuff such worries. And though McAllister stood in the way of such a line, it did not prohibit a small party dispatched a few days previous from slipping past its walls and making their way to the shore.
The day previous, the party of three, led by Captain William Duncan, finally made contact with the Union navy. They were scooped up and taken to the USS Flag. There, they found Captain Williamson. “Let me tell you that in our circumstances,” wrote Duncan after the war, “it is a glorious privilege to fall into the hands of marines. The changes from despondency, privations an ddespair were very sudden. Our object was accomplished; surrounded by friends, and with the United States Flag floating over us, every comfort was provided for us.”
On this date, they were steamed north to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where Admiral John Dahlgren and General John Foster made their headquarters. There, they delivered the note from General Howard and communication was officially opened. Soon enough, all three would be back with Sherman’s army, but until then the general had no idea of their success.
Sherman, that evening, was with General Howard, watching a division of the Fifteenth Corps construct a span at King’s Bridge, over which the infantry would march to take Fort McAllister. “I knew it to be strong in heavy artillery,”wrote Sherman in his memoirs, “as against an approach from the sea, but believed it open and weak to the rear. I explained to General Hazen, fully, that on his action depended the safety of the whole army, and the success of the campaign.”
Sherman personally gave orders to General William Hazen, whose division would be leading the assault. He was “to march rapidly down the right bank of the Ogeechee, and without hesitation to assault and carry Fort McAllister by storm.”
As night closed the day, Sherman, Hazen, as well as Anderson, knew what was coming. 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p110, 693; Marching with Sherman by Henry Hitchcock; Historical Sketch of the Chatham Artillery by George W. Anderson; Address by Brevet-Major William Duncan as printed in Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]