December 8, 1864 (Thursday)
Since last we touched base with William Tecumseh Sherman, marching his way through Georgia, little, apart from marching, had taken place. On the 5th, his infantry passed by freshly-dug earthworks about fifty miles west of Savannah, but the Rebels who had scratched them out of the ground had, according to Sherman, anyway, “must have seen that both of his flanks were being turned, and prudently retreated to Savannah without a fight.”
“The weather was fine, the roads good, and every thing seemed to favor us. Never do I recall a more agreeable sensation than the sight of our camps by night, lit up by the fires of fragrant pine-knots. The trains were all in good order, and the men seemed to march their fifteen miles a day as though it were nothing. No enemy opposed us, and we could only occasionally hear the faint reverberation of a gun to our left rear, where we knew that General Kilpatrick was skirmishing with Wheeler’s cavalry, which persistently followed him. But the infantry columns had met with no opposition whatsoever. McLaw’s division was falling back before us, and we occasionally picked up a few of his men as prisoners, who insisted that we would meet with strong opposition at Savannah.”
That was, until this date – the day that Sherman first witnessed the effects of what would later be termed “landmines.”
“On the 8th, as I rode along, I found the column turned out of the main road, marching through the fields. Close by, in the corner of a fence, was a group of men standing around a handsome young officer, whose foot had been blown to pieces by a torpedo planted in the road. He was waiting for a surgeon to amputate his leg, and told me that he was riding along with the rest of his brigade-staff of the Seventeenth Corps, when a torpedo trodden on by his horse had exploded, killing the horse and literally blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs. I saw the terrible wound, and made full inquiry into the facts.
“There had been no resistance at that point, nothing to give warning of danger, and the rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road, with friction-matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry. I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard, armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road, where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode at each step, but they found no other torpedoes till near Fort McAllister.”
But until they reached the fort, which they would in a few days, it was marching. The closer they drew to Savannah, however, the more of a roll Sherman took in directing each of the four corps. Sherman, with the Seventeenth Corps, reached Pooler’s Station, eight miles from Savannah. The word of locals placed the Confederate defenses four miles outside of the city.
But Slocum’s Wing ran into a bit of trouble with finding a road – one that apparently didn’t actually exist. And so the Twentieth Corps commenced creating their own. They felled trees and carved their way through swamps, laying logs upon their new corduroy road.
The Fourteenth, holding the extreme left of Sherman’s advance, had themselves a perplexing day as they came under fire from the Confederate gunboat Macon. Since the 3rd, the Rebels had been trying to coordinate with the vessel so that she might steam up the Savannah River as far up as possible. As the Federals were fixing a bridge so that the corps might cross, the Macon came upon them. One brigade was able to cross, but the others had to wait.
After about six shots, the Union soldiers realized it was too far off to do any real damage, and began to cross once more. “The curiosity of all to see a live Rebel Gunboat in operation,” recalled one of the soldiers, “overcame whatever alarm might have been felt and there was a rush to the river bank in such numbers that the boat was frightened away and soon disappeared up the river.”
Accompanying the Macon was some cavalry and infantry. They swooped in, driving the Union cavalry before them. But the Federal infantry, irate over having their lunches interrupted, formed line and held their ground. The attack faded, but the Rebels remained near by.
On Sherman’s extreme right, the Fifteenth Corps pushed toward the Canoochee River, south of Savannah. There had been Rebels before them, but when a division arrived at the crossing, it was found to be abandoned.
“This is an important point gained,” wrote one of Sherman’s staff that evening,” was a surprise the the rebs who were expecting to oppose Howard’s passage of the Ogeechee lower down – and we learn that they have at once abandoned a strong and well-built line of defensive works reaching from the Little Ogeechee clear across to Savannah….”
This was such an important point because it almost gave Sherman a link to the sea. “If you can possibly do so,” wrote Sherman’s Aide-de-Camp to Olive Otis Howard, commanding the Right Wing, “he [Sherman] wishes you to send a note by a canoe down the Ogeechee, pass the railroad bridge in the night, and inform the naval commander that we have arrived in fine condition and are moving directly against Savannah, but, for the present, do not risk giving any details.”
But details did slip out in the form of a captured messenger, though not the one delivering the above message. From this, Confederate General William Hardee, commanding at Savannah, learned the position of Sherman’s entire army, though he could hardly do anything about it. This complete lack of ability to even defend Savannah was not lost on either Hardee or P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding at Charleston.
“Having no army of relief to look to, and your forces being essential to the defense of Georgia and South Carolina,” wrote Beauregard to Hardee, “whenever you shall have to select between their safety and that of Savannah, sacrifice the latter, and form a junction with General Jones, holing the left bank of the Savannah River and the railroad to this place as long as possible.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p658, 925, 930, 940-941; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Marching with Sherman by Henry Hitchcock; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]