As Sherman’s columns were working their way across the Georgia countryside to Savannah, help came from an unexpected source. Maj. Gen. John G. Foster dispatched 5,500 men and 10 guns under Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch from Hilton Head, hoping to assist Sherman’s arrival near Savannah by securing the Charleston and Savannah Railroad.
On November 30th, the Union troops met Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith‘s 1,500 Georgia militiamen at the Battle of Honey Hill. The battlefield was 3 miles south of Grahamville Station, South Carolina. Determined attacks were launched by U.S. Colored Troops including a brigade led by Alfred S. Hartwell that included the 54th Massachusetts and 55th Massachusetts. Smith’s militia fought off the Union attacks. Fighting kept up until dark when Hatch, realizing the impossibility of successfully attacking or turning the flank of the enemy, withdrew to his transports at Boyd’s Neck, having lost 89 men killed, 629 wounded, and 28 missing, versus Smith’s 8 killed and 39 wounded.
By December 10th, Sherman’s troops had reached the outskirts of Savannah where they found that the Confederate commander, Lt. Gen. William Hardee, had entrenched some 10,000 men in well-fortified positions. Furthermore, they had flooded the rice fields, leaving only several narrow causeways into the city. Sherman’s force was thereby blocked from linking up with the U.S. Navy as he had planned.
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In order to circumvent the blocking force, Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s division of Howard’s wing with cavalry support to the south of the city. By December 13th, the Union force was outside of Fort McAllister which guarded the crossing over the Ogeechee River. The 4,000-man Union force overwhelmed the 230-man garrison in a swift 15-minute engagement. Some of the 134 Union casualties were caused by torpedoes, a name for crude land mines that were used only rarely in the war.
Sherman now linked up with the Navy and was able to receive supplies and heavy artillery that would be necessary to sustain a siege. But first Sherman sent a messenger through the lines asking for Hardee’s surrender.
I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah, and its dependent forts, and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer, before opening with heavy ordnance. Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge the national wrong which they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.
— William T. Sherman, Message to William J. Hardee, December 17, 1864, recorded in his memoirs
Deciding to forgo Sherman’s invitation to surrender, Hardee organized a breakout from the trap that Savannah had become. Ordering his engineers to build a pontoon bridge, the entire Confederate force slipped across the Savannah River on December 20th. The following morning, Savannah Mayor R. D. Arnold rode out to formally surrender the city, in exchange for Brig. Gen. John W. Geary’s promise to protect the city’s citizens and their property. Sherman’s men, led by Geary’s division of the XX Corps, occupied the city the same day.
Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
The President replied on December 26th,
“Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah. When you were leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honour is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. And taking the work of Gen. Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantage; but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole – Hood’s army – it brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide. Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”
After a brief stay in the conquered city, Sherman prepared his army for what he hoped would be the final chapter in the war. His intention was to march north through South Carolina and North Carolina. He expected to link up with Grant’s armies at Petersburg.
The March to the Sea was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars) in destruction, about one fifth of which “inured to our advantage” while the “remainder is simple waste and destruction.” The Army wrecked 300 miles of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills.
Historian David J. Eicher wrote that “Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South’s potential and psychology to wage war.”