Civil War in Georgia, Week 34: The Federals encircle Savannah

“With the balance of your command come here by water with all dispatch.”

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman received this message from Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant on Dec. 15, 1864, while meeting with Rear Adm. John Dahlgren aboard his flagship Harvest Moon. Only two days had passed since the fall of Fort McAllister, and Sherman continued to make plans to capture the city of Savannah.

Grant, indicating a high degree of confidence in Sherman’s campaign, wrote the above message on Dec. 6. Sherman had many things on his mind as the struggle for Savannah continued; taking his army to Virginia did not occupy a spot on his mental menu.

Sherman, writing on Dec. 17 to his Confederate adversary, Lt. Gen. William Hardee, sought the capitulation of the city. After detailing the various preparations he had made, including the positioning of artillery to launch a bombardment, Sherman suggested, “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.”

Hardee wasted no time sending his response: “Your demand for the surrender of Savannah and its dependent forts is refused.”

There was more to his defiance than might first appear.

Hardee, accountable for the protection of the city, and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard had already consulted with President Jefferson Davis. And Davis had turned to the officer he trusted most: Gen. Robert E. Lee.

What should be done about Savannah? Lee, in his customary manner, suggested Beauregard and Hardee would know the proper course of action.

Davis told Hardee that they should make “dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.” Hardee realized the magnitude of the moment. He would withdraw his soldiers from Savannah.

The Federals had virtually encircled the city, but one avenue of escape remained open, and Hardee intended to exploit the opportunity. He had his men continue working on pontoon bridges that would give them safe passage to South Carolina.

While preparations for evacuation continued, Sherman — unaware of Hardee’s intentions — decided to visit Maj. Gen. John Foster at his headquarters in Hilton Head, S.C. Foster had not moved quickly enough to suit Sherman in earlier actions, so Sherman believed a personal visit might prompt a greater degree of responsiveness in the future. On Dec. 20, while visiting with Foster, Sherman received surprising news: The Confederates had pulled out of Savannah. Sherman immediately began making his way back.

Early that morning, advance elements of Hardee’s force started crossing over the pontoons. Other soldiers stayed behind to guard the rear; then, unit by unit, they moved out to join their comrades across the water. Over the course of the day and into the evening, shadows of gray maneuvered away.

By this time, Federal artillery had opened up. A Northern soldier noted in his diary the continuing firing of heavy guns, and of shells that burst “with terrific violence.” He and his comrades watched and wondered “how long flesh and blood could endure such a rain of death and destruction.” Unbeknownst to them, they fired upon rapidly emptying lines.

Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

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