December 11, 1864 (Sunday)
Sherman’s men had arrived before Savannah, and were fanning out, falling into lines and strengthening their positions. Contacting the Navy fleet in the Atlantic, just off the coast, was a top priority, but as of yet, nothing had come back to camp.
The Army of Georgia which was investing the city now stretched from near Fort McAllister on the right to the Savannah River on the left. To be sure, swamps and flooded rice fields, as well as the Rebel artillery, made this an operation most frustrating, but the end was obviously near.
The day previous, Union foragers along the Savannah River stopped a Confederate boat chuffing its way toward Augusta. At first, the handful of men had trouble convincing the Rebels to accept their invitation, but after a regiment of infantry joined the chorus, the Southerners couldn’t help but sing along.
Aboard this craft was Col. Duncan Lamont Clinch, the Aide-de-Camp of the Confederate commander, William Hardee (and was also Robert Anderson’s – of Fort Sumter fame – brother-in-law). Before the war, Col. Clinch had served with Sherman in Charleston, and asked to see him.
On this date, like it or not, he got his chance. Sherman’s own Aide-de-Camp, Henry Hitchcock, provided the details in his journal:
“General saw him and gave him the sharpest talk I have heard lately – not personal abuse, but very bitter denunciation of the rebel leaders, and a scathing rebuke to the ‘Southern gentlemen’ who allowed themselves to be dragged by such men into rebellion. Clinch didn’t amount to much, and his efforts to parry the points the General made were feeble, even after all allowance for his position.
“General told him he had kindest feeling for him personally, but having voluntarily entered rebel service and being a prisoner of war he must take the lot of a prisoner, – that he could do nothing for him more than for any other, but he would be treated kindly, etc.”
The reunions with Sherman’s old friends was hardly over. Two days before, a train moving along the Savannah & Gulf Railroad, leaving the city toward the southwest. It was captured by Federals from the Union right, and among its prisoners were not Confederate officers, but business men from Savannah.
With that number was Mr. Richard R. Cuyler, President of the Georgia Central Railroad, which Sherman’s men had gutted. Accompanying him was his older brother, a doctor, and Miss Cuyler and friend, Miss Emma Cotton. According to a story published after the war, they “had ‘refugeed’ from Guyton on the Central Railroad to Savannah, and were now again ‘refugeeing’ to friends and relatives in Thomasville and Americus, determined to keep out of Sherman’s way.”
It was the Union cavalry that had captured them, and as soon as the prisoners were secured, the train was set on fire. Soon enough, more cavalry could be seen riding toward the burning. The two ladies, “thinking they were Confederates coming to their rescue, they clapped their hands with joy. But they were mistaken. Their supposed rescuers proved to be a company of Federals. Their captors offered no indignities, not even requiring President Cuyler to give up his watch.”
The prisoners were taken back to Sherman’s headquarters, located in the fine house of a Dr. King, and were told that they would likely be his guests for a week. The Cuylers and Kings were apparently old friends, and this seemed to work out well enough.
Additionally, General Sherman knew Mr. Cuyler from before the war. Since nobody in his part had been Confederate officers or soldiers, they were not technically prisoners of war, and according to Hitchcock, Sherman’s Aide-de-Camp, he “gave them the best accommodations we could in our camp, and so far from detaining them as prisoners promised them conveyance in the morning to our lines on he west, across the Ogeechee, with a ‘pass’ beyond.”
By Hitchock’s war-time writings, it was only from the 9th to the 13th. However long it was, the stay would be memorable. As Sherman made plans to attack Fort McAllister, the Cuylers had to stay with him. If he allowed them to go free, he feared they might inform the Rebels.
From the article published after the war:
“‘But imagine my feelings,’ I often heard one of these lady Confederate prisoners say, ‘as we sat at our window that night and looked towards the fort! How I wished for wings that I might fly over to it and tell our boys what was coming.'”
According to that tale, after the Fort was taken, Sherman set them free, though by Hithcock’s journal, it was the day before the attack.
At any rate, during the stay, Sherman and Mr. Cuyler talked about the railroad.
“R.R. Cuyler, the General things was and – so far as he dares or can be – probably is a Union man. It was very odd to hear Mr. C ask Gen. S in the most unconcerned and business-like way, what portions of the railroad we had destroyed, and to hear Gen. S detail to him step by step how much had been burned, how thoroughly the rails had been torn up, bent and twisted, etc., etc. He is what is vulgarly called a ‘regular old brick’ – is Mr. C.
“He sat with us at the camp-fire till late, though it was not very pleasant, a raw cold North wind blowing hard and chilling us through unless well wrapped up. The conversation was quite general. General alluded among other things to the abusive and lying article in the rebel papers, and the falsehood about the outrages, murdering of women, burning of dwelling everywhere, etc, etc, which they are full of.
“Mr. C says these things are not believed in Savannah, and spoke of a letter from Milledgeville, written thence since we left, and published in Savannah, in which a more truthful account was given, and one corresponding, he says, to what Gen. S told him. By the way, I had a little chat yesterday with Col. Clinch [the prisoner mentioned earlier], who said much the same thing when I alluded to these falsehoods.”
Over the next couple of days, Sherman, along with his cavalry command, Judson Kilpatrick, would plan just how to take Fort McAllister, correctly suspected to be garrisoned by around 200 men.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p736; Marching with Sherman by Henry Hitchcock; “A Thrilling Incident of the Civil War: Two Ladies Held Prisoners at Sherman’s Headquarters for a Week” by B.M. Zettler, taken mostly from the words as heard from Miss Cuyler and her husband, from Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine, Vol. 13; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]