Authors: Noah Andre Trudeau
Captain Duncan, Sergeant Amick, and Private Quimby—the scouts sent by Major General Howard to contact the Union fleet—spent most of this day hidden in the woods not far from Fort McAllister. They were concealed near a road in military use; not long after dawn they watched a couple of mounted enemy soldiers on their way to relieve a picket post farther to the west. No one with the party had thought to bring anything to eat, so by midafternoon stomachs were growling. Sergeant Amick went to see if he could get some vittles from the slaves living nearby. When more than an hour had passed without his return, Duncan and Quimby went looking for him. They found the noncom crouched under one of the stilted, whitewashed slave cabins. They also spotted a Confederate patrol approaching the shack, so they hurriedly joined their comrade.
Amick passed around the food parcel he had with him as they waited for the Rebels to finish inspecting the cabin. The blacks had provided “some roast pig and rice bread. We never before tasted a morsel that seemed so delicious,” declared the sergeant. Overhead the enemy troopers had paused while one of their number had his revolver repaired by a slave blacksmith. As the man worked, a soldier in the group causually asked him if he had seen any Yankees hereabouts. The hidden Federals gagged as the slave answered: “Yes, Massa, I see’d some.” Hands reached for revolvers, but relaxed as he went on to explain that the bluecoats in question were all “Ober de ribber.”
By the time the patrol finally moved along, the sun had set, but there was enough twilight that the three scouts decided to wait a while longer before continuing their journey down the Ogeechee River. When it was dark enough, another young slave led the Union soldiers back to their dugout. Duncan tried to talk him into joining them as a guide, but when he refused Quimby pulled out his gun to force the boy into the craft, only to realize that it was too small to hold four, so they turned him loose.
The Yankees pushed into the Ogeechee River, where they nearly bumped into a steam tug anchored mid-channel. Duncan recalled that they “lay down flat in the bottom of the dugout and let it drift by.” The
next obstacle was Fort McAllister, whose shoreline was illuminated by several fires lit to facilitate continuing efforts to strengthen the landside defenses. “The tide was rapid and strong from the obstructions as it swirled through,” related Amick. After successfully eluding a sentry boat, the three slipped past any watchful eyes on shore and eased through over a line of nautical torpedoes set for the pressure of much bigger game.
More hours passed, the men alternately rowing and drifting. They were also becoming increasingly thirsty, as no one had bothered to bring along anything to drink, forgetting that at McAllister the river water became salty from the ocean. Navigating toward the cry of nearby roosters crowing, the three grounded their craft on what turned out to be a marshy island. Then, exhausted by their labors and facing a rising sun, they pulled their boat under cover and, crammed together, all fell asleep.
he malevolent rumble of artillery firing woke Savannah’s citizens early this morning. “It was supposed in the city that a heavy engagement was going on,” reported a resident, “but it proved to be only a general shelling from the heavy guns on our lines.” All along Savannah’s defensive perimeter, the Yankee boys were becoming acclimated to their new condition. Among those learning lessons were some soldiers from the Fourteenth Corps, positioned where the Central of Georgia tracks ran straight into the city. “We found by trial that every time a man set foot on that road, a ball or shell came whizzing down it,” observed an Illinois man. Farther south along the Fourteenth Corps line the Confederates had mounted a massive seacoast howitzer whose shell, recalled a Georgian, made “noise enough to wake the dead.” A Rebel soldier was posted close enough to the Yankee pickets to hear them warn newcomers: “Better keep quiet or the Rebs will turn that wash tub loose on you again.”
Daily rhythms began to adjust to the new reality and the unpredictability of a situation where boring routine could be suddenly interrupted by tragedy. “One man had his forearm knocked off by the butt of a musket, which was stuck in the ground by the bayonet and struck by a piece of shell which cut the butt off the musket, throwing it against the man,” recorded an officer in the 63rd Ohio. Among the prides of the 4th Minnesota were its fighting cocks, the fiercest of
which was tended by an officer’s black servant named “Little Abe.” The rooster greeted this new day by crowing “lustily,” drawing an enemy shell “which exploded in front of Capt. D. L. Wellman of Company I and a piece of it cut off the front of his hat, skinned his nose and hit him on the shoulder, cutting a hole in the cape of his overcoat. The captain picked up the piece of shell…. Turning to Abe, he told him to ‘Choke that rooster and stop its crowing.’”
Elsewhere along the still-forming Union siege lines men were thinking of their stomachs. “Rations are very scarce,” wrote an anxious diarist in the 123rd New York. “The forage in the country is the only grub we eat, and that is getting rather scarce.” “All that was issued to the men today was a little rice and a little poor beef that was picked up on the march,” added another journal keeper in the regiment. “An old rice mill up the river is run night and day, hulling rice for the army. It will give but a small quantity to each man. When there is any for sale brought into Camp it brings a dollar a pound quick.” It was a double nuisance for some of the artillerymen of the Seventeenth Corps. “Our infantry came round tonight begging for ears of corn we had to feed the horses,” wrote one, “while we were but little better off.” Declared a Fourteenth Corps soldier: “Foraging is played out.”
Still, there was a war on, so military operations continued apace. Several units were ordered to block access to the rear areas of the Federal deployment by cutting down trees and wrecking bridges. Others were part of a beefed-up security force now watching over the supply wagons. It was not an idle concern. According to one of Wheeler’s troopers, today his squad “found the enemy ten miles from Savannah; captured two wagons and three prisoners.”
There were numerous reconnaissance efforts undertaken as officers worked to fix the exact locations of enemy strong points. A two-regiment probe headed out from the Twentieth Corps lines. “As we filed into the pike a round shot from a battery up the road struck just in front of the reg’t & ricocheted over us hurting no one,” wrote a relieved member of the 2nd Massachusetts. The Federals “found the rebels in a line of works on the other side of a flooded rice-swamp, and then returned.”
A more ambitious assignment was handed to Colonel William Hawley, commanding the 3rd Wisconsin. He was to take his regiment across the Savannah River onto Argyle Island, a large rice plantation
formed by a split in the river channel. Once there he was to secure as much of the rice as possible, then check out the enemy’s strength on the South Carolina side. The officer was ready for the task, his men were prepared, but the facilities came up short. The “crossing was slow,” related a Wisconsin man, “as only two small skiffs could be found.” About ten men per boat per trip was the limit, so by the time nightfall put an end to river operations, just two companies had been ferried over. The rest would have to cross in the morning.
It was also a busy day for Sherman, who spent much of it conferring with his Left Wing commander, Major General Slocum, at the latter’s headquarters. While there he had a conversation with a recently captured Confederate officer, Colonel Duncan L. Clinch, who, having known Sherman before the war, was mistakenly hoping for better treatment. The “General…gave him the sharpest talk I have heard lately,” observed Major Hitchcock, “not personal abuse, but very bitter denunciations of the rebel leaders, and a scathing rebuke to the ‘Southern gentlemen’ who had allowed themselves to be dragged by such men into rebellion…. General told him [that]…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.”
More guests, the Cuyler brothers, were waiting when Sherman returned to his own headquarters later in the day. The elder, a doctor whose unoccupied property along the Savannah River had been cleaned out by one Yankee column, was, according to Hitchcock, “very quiet, and almost sullen.” The younger Cuyler was Richard R., the recently captured president of the Central of Georgia Railroad. In what must have been a streak of masochism in the man, he asked Sherman “what portions of the railroad we had destroyed.” Cuyler listened without emotion as the General went into exquisite detail “step by step how much had been burned, how thoroughly the rails had been torn up, bent and twisted, etc., etc.,” noted Hitchcock. The aide was surprised to see the railway official take the news “very philosophically.” (He even deciphered the railway distance markers, explaining to Sherman that they were calculated using Savannah’s courthouse as the starting point.) At the end of their chat, the General provided each with a pass to allow them to exit through the rear of his lines.
Sherman still found time to monitor progress toward eliminating
Fort McAllister. Ever since reaching Savannah’s defenses, he had been obsessing about the post, making, said Hitchcock, “every inquiry about this fort, its exact location, strength, etc.” In a remarkable stroke of luck, scouts operating on December 10 procured what Sherman’s chief engineer termed “a plan of Fort McAllister.”
Now having a good idea of the layout of the place, Sherman fretted over the best way to approach it. Poring over his maps instead of sleeping, he realized he couldn’t find King’s Bridge, so at 2:00
. he had an aide chase after Major General Howard for the information. At the crossing itself serious construction was underway with four companies present from the 1st Missouri Engineers.
While two of them prepared the timber, the other pair set to work on the bridge itself. From here on the job would proceed around the clock.
In a closely related event, a signal corps detachment serving with Major General Howard’s headquarters, following up on a December 10 scouting report, marched out to the plantation of Dr. Langdon Cheves, where the men established an observation post in a rice mill located on the Ogeechee River’s northern bank. From here the communications party could see across the flat salt marshes well down toward the river’s mouth and had a direct view (some two and a half miles below on the opposite bank) of Fort McAllister. As they established the station, the officer in charge realized that they were in something of a no-man’s-land between the Federals and Confederates. When he reported this to Major General Howard, a battery and some infantry were hustled down to enhance security.
The Rebel bastion was also the object today of a stealthy visit by scouts attached to Brigadier General Kilpatrick’s command, which had begun moving south once the Left Wing infantry it had been screening assumed static positions. In an untimed December 11 report to Sherman, Kilpatrick estimated a garrison of “about 200 men and
thirteen guns mounted.” He opined that with a force of infantry added to his cavalry, and the element of surprise, he could take the fort. All he needed was Sherman’s approval.
In the fort, commandant Major George W. Anderson kept abreast of increasingly ominous tidings. He had only just learned that the Confederate forces blocking nearby crossings of the Canoochee River had been withdrawn to the city, leaving that route of approach to McAllister wide open. Also, until recently Anderson had been able to call on the scouting services of several small cavalry units stationed close at hand, but they too had been reassigned, forcing the Confederate officer to improvise. He organized his own detachment out of some of the mounted men under his direct command (most drawn from the artillery batteries, since they had the horses). Said Anderson: “I was thus thrown upon my own resources for all the information relative to the strength and designs of the enemy.”
In Savannah itself, accurate information on the enemy’s strength and designs was as much the product of wishful surmise as hard evidence. “I have been obliged to extend my line,” Lieutenant General Hardee warned his superior. “It is impossible to hold it without immediate reinforcement.” Even as he griped, Hardee was manufacturing some of the help he needed by dismounting one of Wheeler’s cavalry brigades to use as infantry. “It was a bitter pill to my men to be separated from their horses and they marched into Savannah in no good humor,” recollected the cavalry commander, Brigadier General Samuel W. Ferguson. To ease the tension, Ferguson waited until his footsore troopers had tramped into their new camp, then in a loud voice commanded: “Rear rank open order. Prepare to dismount. DISMOUNT.” “When they broke ranks they gave a cheer,” Ferguson remembered, “showing that they appreciated the joke.”
Many civilians believed that Sherman’s army had arrived at the city’s gates in an exhausted and hungry condition. Each day that the siege was prolonged, went their argument, the weaker the Federals became. “Sherman was in no condition to attack our works,” declared a civilian. “He was scarce of ammunition and had no heavy guns as well as other difficulties in the way of his giving battle.” This thread of thinking wound its way as far as Richmond, where a War Department clerk, thinking also of the militia forces he imagined were gathering behind Sherman, prophesied that a “battle must certainly occur near
Savannah, Ga. Sherman
assail our lines, or perish between two fires.”
Captain Duncan, Sergeant Amick, and Private Quimby awoke at dawn, cold and wet—very wet. It had rained some, and the dugout they were using leaked a lot. To compound matters, Quimby fell overboard as they bailed out the craft, though the water was shallow enough that he could stand up. What they could see, or could not see, was disheartening. No sign of the Union navy; instead, an expanse of water roiling with the wind and current. “Our situation at this time did not look very encouraging,” said Duncan; “we had too much water and not enough boat.”
Once more the sound of roosters crowing gave them a direction to pursue. This time it appeared to emanate from the opposite shore. Somehow the sodden trio paddled the sievelike dugout across the undulating expanse and landed. They found themselves on the grounds of a deserted plantation; no people and, as they shortly discovered, no water either. “We were quite despondent by this time,” Duncan admitted, “and would have been glad to be captured by anyone.” Their efforts had consumed much of the daylight, but with no other choice other than to continue the mission, the three drained the dugout and set off. Now the current was carrying them away from land.
“We are entering the ocean,” Duncan stated. “That cannot be,” Amick reported, “as I can see trees in front.” There was a moment of confusion before they all realized that the trees were ship masts. What was even better was that one of the vessels had spotted them. It lowered a small launch that began working toward the three waterlogged landlubbers. “When I told the men this,” Duncan recollected, “Amick gave a start that nearly upset our dugout.” The craft approaching flew the Stars and Stripes. “Never had the national colors looked so beautiful to us,” declared Amick.
No sooner had the ship’s launch pulled alongside than the three scrambled aboard. Amick was all for sinking the dugout, but the amused sailors towed it back with them to their armed steamer, the USS
Hardly had the trio reached the
’s deck when the steam tug
arrived, plucked them off, and immediately set course for Union fleet headquarters at Port Royal, South Carolina. Duncan,
Amick, and Quimby were given fresh clothes, “abundantly supplied with food and drink,” then allowed to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
From: Flag-Steamer Philadelphia
Port Royal Harbor, S.C., December 12, 1864
To: Hon. Gideon Welles,
Secretary of the Navy
Sir: It is my happiness to apprise the Department that General Sherman, with his army, is near Savannah, and I am in communication with him.
In view of his probable arrival I had stationed several steamers at different points, and had come down from the Tulifinny [River] yesterday in order to be at hand. I had not to wait many hours.
This morning about 8 o’clock the Dandelion arrived with Captain Duncan and two scouts, Sergeant Myron J. Emmick and George W. Quinby, bearing the following lines from General Howard: