December 10, 1864 (Saturday)
“It is my desire, after the consultation that has taken place, that you should hold this city so long as in your judgment it may be advisable to do so, bearing in mind that should you have to decide between a sacrifice of the garrison or city, you will preserve the garrison for operations elsewhere.” – P.G.T. Beauregard to William Hardee.
General Beauregard found himself in Savannah, Georgia on the 9th, just as Sherman’s men would closing to within ten miles of the city. There, he met with William Hardee, commanding the garrison, admitted now to be only 10,000-strong. Hardee had readied himself for a siege, telling Beauregard that he could hold out for a month, if necessary.
To Beauregard, however, that was hardly necessary. In fact, that was the last thing that should be done. Through the war, the Confederate strategy had been to hold cities as long as possible, even if that meant sacrificing thousands of men in the process. That philosophy had brought them to this point – Sherman’s Army of Georgia, which had originally stepped off from Tennessee, were now nearly within view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Though it was far too late for a complete shift of tactics, Beauregard was frustrated that Hardee seemed willing to do just that – sacrifice his army, rather than abandoning Savannah to retreat toward Charleston, South Carolina. To that end, Beauregard ordered a bridge to be laid across the Savannah River, and for Samuel Jones’ force from Charleston to move south to cover Hardee’s withdrawal.
Alfred Roman, General Beauregard’s aide, explained the entire situation:
“The outlook for the immediate future of the Confederacy had become very alarming. Hood’s army, near Nashville, was seriously threatened by Thomas, who was hourly awaiting his coming reinforcements. Sherman, almost unimpeded in his march through Georgia, had all but reached his destination. News had also been received that two corps of Grant’s army, reinforced by cavalry, were advancing in North Carolina, via Weldon, with a large train of wagons; and General Beauregard was asked for troops with which to oppose the reported movement.”
More immediately, Beauregard and Hardee were grossly underestimating Sherman’s numbers, believing that rather than the 60,000 he actually had, there were but 35,000 to 40,000. But in that, they at least now knew his positions – six miles from Hardee’s most outer lines, called the Overflow Line. They were also three miles from the Charleston Railroad, and by the time that Beauregard was ready to leave, the railroad would have already been cut.
Beauregard reminded Hardee of the importance of keeping his line of communication with Charleston open. But even by the 9th, the railroad was threatened. Around 9pm (on the 9th), Beauregard made his egress, having to take a ferry part of the way due to the Federals. He would return to Charleston to hurry on Jones’ men.
Hardee had spread his small army thin. In some cases, there was barely one man for every ten feet of works. But in the center, was Lafayette McLaws’ 4,000-man division and twenty-nine pieces of artillery. Surrounding Savannah were swamps and rice fields, both flooded. This left the Federals with thin strips of land over which to attack. All through the day, Sherman’s forces crept closer as the Rebel artillery pounded away. There was skirmishing, but the Federals seemed hesitant in attacking.
Writing in his memoirs, Sherman recalls this day:
Wishing to reconnoiter the place in person, I rode forward by the Louisville road, into a dense wood of oak, pine, and cypress, left the horses, and walked down to the railroad-track, at a place where there was a side-track, and a cut about four feet deep. From that point the railroad was straight, leading into Savannah, and about eight hundred yards off were a rebel parapet and battery.
I could see the cannoneers preparing to fire, and cautioned the officers near me to scatter, as we would likely attract a shot. Very soon I saw the white puff of smoke, and, watching close, caught sight of the ball as it rose in its flight, and, finding it coming pretty straight, I stepped a short distance to one side, but noticed a negro very near me in the act of crossing the track at right angles. Some one called to him to look out; but, before the poor fellow understood his danger, the ball
(a thirty-two-pound round shot) struck the ground, and rose in its first ricochet, caught the negro under the right jaw, and literally carried away his head, scattering blood and brains about. A soldier close by spread an overcoat over the body, and we all concluded to get out of that railroad-cut.’
A day or so would slip by before Sherman would make up his mind. Contacting the Federal Navy, just off the coast, was definitely a fine idea, and this had already been ordered. On the night of this date, a few scouts slipped by Fort McAllister, taking a canoe down the Ogeechee River, avoiding Rebel crafts and pickets as they went. Even through this effort, they would not reach their destination just yet.
And with the dawn would come Hardee’s artillery would pound away at Sherman’s forming lines.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p942, 946; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]