As General William T. Sherman rode out of Atlanta, he took a moment to reflect on the campaign that would be considered a major victory of the American Civil War – a campaign which had raged for over 3 years. The fall of Atlanta boosted the moral of Northerners and led to the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.
“Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city… Then we turned our horses’ heads to the east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past.”
Thus began the great March to the Sea. With a force of 60,598 men, Sherman left Atlanta on November 16, 1864. Because supply lines were cut, the two wings of Sherman’s land forces were instructed to “forage liberally through the country.” Just outside of Atlanta, Colonel Oscar L. Jackson wrote in his journal: “Splendid foraging, exceeding anything of the kind we have ever met in previous campaigns. There is an abundance of everything, except breadstuff… and sweet potatoes make a good substitute.”
The Federals cleared a path of destruction through Georgia’s heartland, destroying railroads, mills, and manufacturing facilities. As they approached Savannah, food was not as abundant in the marshes and swamps as it had been in the wealthy cotton- roducing areas to the north. Sherman desperately needed to resupply his army and make contact with the Federal ships waiting in Ossabaw Sound. During the march, there was no communication with Washington as to their whereabouts. The Great Ogeechee River would provide Sherman the route he needed, but with one obstacle, Fort McAllister. The capture of Fort McAllister would also give Sherman the large artillery needed to take Savannah. Consequently, the reduction of the fort was crucial.
Inspector General and Chief of Staff Lt. Col. William Strong reported: “Savannah was deemed almost impregnable, surrounded by a waste of water and approachable only by a few narrow causeways which were filled with torpedoes and thoroughly commanded by artillery. It was generally conceded that it would be almost impossible to carry it by direct assault – certainly not without great loss of life.
So long as Fort McAllister blocked up our route to the sea, preventing our forming communication with the transport fleet, just so long would Savannah hold out. The fort was the key to the city and both armies were well aware of it.”
Fort McAllister had been a formidable opponent to the Federal Navy. Only 12 miles from Savannah, the land on which the fort was built, called Genesis Point, made an ideal location for a coastal fortification, being the first high ground on the Ogeechee River up from Ossabaw Sound. Using a large force of slave labor, wooden frames had been built to create walls for covering magazines and bombproofs. Dirt and sand were then compacted around the frames, which would later be removed. Heavy wooden beams were used to
reinforce the 10-to-15-inch thick layer of earth.
The fort was built to protect the Atlantic & Gulf Railroad bridge and the plantations that lay upstream. Its defenders were ready for battle, but perhaps not as prepared for the harsh living conditions on Genesis Point.
“We live very well out here (that is the officers). The planters are
very kind in sending us things; particularly Mr. McAllister and Mr.
Thos. Arnold; but our men have a pretty hard life of it. Only government rations to eat and nothing to keep (off) the mosquitoes, red bugs, etc., the miserable insects bite very badly and in every occasion, they have caused many of them to get boils and sores from the irritation caused by scratching. I have a good deal to do, but this you know. We rise here at 5 o’clock which makes the day seventeen hours long,” reported First Lieutenant Alfred L. Hartridge, CSA, DeKalb Rifles.
By the time Sherman arrived on the coast, Fort McAllister had endured seven major bombardments by Federal warships in the Ogeechee River. In four of those assaults, the Federals used their newest weapon, the ironclad. Some of these warships, protected by iron or steel armored plates, were armed with 15-inch guns. Often, the bombardments would last for several hours at a time. Unlike brick fortifications such as Fort Pulaski, damage to the earthworks could
be repaired quickly. After one attack on the fort, Private Isaac
Hermann recounted: “The Fort was badly dilapidated, our breastworks
had been blown to atoms, the guns exposed to plain view, all
port holes demolished, the barracks injured by fire, which the boys extinguished while the battle was raging; in fact, had a cyclone struck the Fort in its full majestic force, it could not have been worse.” Efforts to repair the fort began immediately after the bombardment and the fort was back to its original condition overnight.
The fort enjoyed a brief respite from battle after the Federal Navy retreated in late 1863, but on December 12, 1864, General Sherman had a new plan. He gave an assignment to 34-year-old West Point graduate, General William B. Hazen, USA: “I gave General Hazen, in person, his orders to march rapidly down the right bank of the Ogeechee and without hesitation to assault and carry Fort McAllister by storm. I knew it to be strong in heavy artillery, as against an approach to the sea, but believed it open and weak to the rear. I explained to General Hazen fully on his action depended the safety of the whole army and the success of the campaign.”
Hazen’s 2nd Division, consisting of 17 regiments with between 3,500 and 4,000 men, crossed King’s Bridge at sunrise on December 13. They then turned to the east through Cross Roads and marched down Bryan Neck. According to Hazen, the morning was “bright, and the march, after leaving the rice farms was along a lovely road of shells and white sand under magnolias and wide branching live oaks draped in long, hanging moss. About midway, we passed the old McAllister mansion, called Strother (Strathy) Hall, whose inmates I had known before the war. There was their home, but they had gone. Kilpatrick’s Cavalry had been there before us, and the contents of the house were strewn upon the floors or scattered about the lawn…”
Hazen’s men continued past the old Hardwicke town site and approached “a narrow causeway on one side of which flowed the Ogeechee and on the other side a great salt marsh.” There, they captured a Confederate Picket, Thomas Mills, who revealed the strength of the fort and warned the Federals of land mines buried beneath the causeway.
Sherman had taken his position across the Ogeechee River from the fort at a rice mill owned by Dr. Cheves. As dusk approached, he became anxious that only skirmishes had taken place during the day, fearful that the sun would set before the fort was taken.
It was not easy for Hazen’s men to advance. Hindered by land mines and the swampy terrain, it took most of the day to get almost 4,000 troops into position for the assault. Once in place, the Federal
troops formed a semi-circle around the fort from the river above the fort to the river below.
Even though they were outnumbered 25 to 1, the Confederates did not surrender. Across the marsh, a group of officers gathered with Sherman, anxiously watching. Lt. Col. Strong reported: “It was
indeed a grim struggle and for some time it seemed to us across the way, that the fort would win the day… Soon, however, the fortunes of the day seemed to be changing in our favor… Soon our fellows could be seen firing their guns into the fort and evidently shooting down the cannoneers, until one after another the heavy guns ceased firing and soon all were silent and nothing could be heard but the sharp crack of small arms and finally even this died away, and then
huge columns of dense black smoke that had hung so heavily about the fort, lifted and floated off towards the sea. The sun was down, McAllister was ours, and General Hazen had won his second star.”
The Federals reported 24 killed and 110 wounded. The Confederate casualties were 17 killed, 31 wounded.
Sherman had achieved his objective. Fort McAllister fell on December 13, 1864. Nine days later, Sherman telegraphed President Lincoln offering him Savannah and its 25,000 bales of cotton as a Christmas present.
It is hard to imagine that the road we travel each day is the same path taken by Sherman’s 4,000 troops sent to storm Fort McAllister. These soldiers were not equipped with the everyday luxuries most
of us take for granted, such as drive-through windows, ATM cards, cell phones, and… insect repellant!
Horses have been replaced by automobiles and candles by electricity. Fortunately for us, a place of war and suffering has returned to a place of natural beauty and recreation – a state park and historic site we still affectionately call Fort McAllister.