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The March to the Sea

The Ogeechee River at Fort McAllister in Richmond Hill, Ga. Sherman's capture of the Rebel held fort would lead to his occupation of Savannah in 1864.

Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River in Richmond Hill, Georgia was Sherman’s final obstacle in his March to the Sea. Captured by Union troops in December 1864, the fall of Fort McAllister would lead to a Confederate withdrawal and Sherman’s occupation of the City of Savannah.

On December 8th 2014 I arrived in Atlanta, Georgia to begin a sesquicentennial journey tracing the route of the 1864 campaign known as Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Live Oak drive at the Wormsloe Plantation

Live Oak drive at the Wormsloe Plantation

The March to the Sea was a military campaign conceived by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman who successfully led an army of 60,000 veteran soldiers three hundred miles through the heart of enemy territory, with no base of supplies or communication, and arrived at his intended destination Savannah, Georgia –  capturing the Rebel held city and opening up a Union supply route to the sea.

Sherman would become wildly famous for the campaign known as the March to the Sea. At the time it’s success and daring had stunned both his supporters and critics solidifying Sherman’s place in military history. What would later become known as his “total war strategy” just the name Sherman came to define a new concept in warfare.

150 year old evidence of Sherman's March to the Sea. Chimney and hearth in Bostwick, Ga -2014

150 year old evidence of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Chimney and hearth in Bostwick, Ga -2014

It took five weeks for Sherman’s men to make the three hundred mile journey. Averaging 12-15 miles a day and broken up into two wings, Sherman’s Army marched across a huge swath of southeastern Georgia burning and destroying plantations and railroads as they went.

“Both Grant and Sherman shared the same theory of war: anything that might help the enemy’s war effort should be considered a military target. Grant explained to Sherman that the Confederates must be “demoralized and left without hope,” and he instructed Sherman, “Take all provisions, forage and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy…This strategy sought the total economic collapse of the South, as well as completely disabling the South’s capability of fielding armies.”  *

This elevated road between old rice paddies was used by Union troops in the brief Battle of Shaw's Dam in 1864. The "Union Causeway" is now part of a nature trail on the grounds of the Savannah Christian Preparatory School in Savannah, Ga

This elevated road between old rice paddies was used by Union troops in the brief Battle of Shaw’s Dam on the outskirts of Savannah in 1864. The “Union Causeway” is now part of a nature trail on the grounds of the Savannah Christian Preparatory School in Savannah, Georgia – 2014

What would remain, what evidence would there be 150 years later from a pilgrimage that, unlike previous campaigns of the war, was devoid of pitched battles and basically a military offensive of destruction?

Riddleville, Georgia 2014

Riddleville, Georgia 2014

The route the armies took in 1864 can be traced by following the old country roads, now mostly paved, that still meander through this region of Georgia today. Occasionally along the journey the skeletal remains of a 19th century home and the evidence of Sherman’s passing can be seen by the side of the road in the form of a lone chimney and hearth.

The march route takes you through some small towns that no longer exist or were so small in 1864 to burn a few buildings was to effectively wipe the town off the map. These small towns of old southeastern Georgia were defined by their cross-roads and their proximity to a river or the railroad.

Pine forest in Ogeechee, Georgia 2014

Pine forest in Ogeechee, Georgia 2014

It is the same today and most of the bigger towns that survived Sherman’s march unscathed are preserved architectural gems featuring rows of 18th and 19th century municipal buildings, grand homes and old country churches. Also, look closely at the myriad of river and creek crossings along the march route and you’ll see the rotted-out pilings of a Civil War era bridges burned by one side or the other during the campaign.

But what is most remarkable today is how closely the region resembles the writings of the period. Sherman chose his route to Savannah based on census maps of the day marching his army through farm country to sustain his soldiers. Known as a bread-basket to the Confederacy in 1864 this middle part of southeastern Georgia is still predominantly rich farm country.

Savannah Wildlife Refuge

Savannah Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina

As the Union army progressed and moved closer to the coast they encountered vast pine forests. The soil and climate here in Georgia seems perfect for the growth of these fragrant trees and today vast stands of these wild pine forests can now be seen alongside perfectly manicured stands, in various stages of growth, intended for the mill.

As you move closer to Savannah you enter Georgia’s coastal lowlands and experience a landscape of rice fields and thick dreamy swamps dominated by Palmetto, Cyprus, Cedar and Live Oak trees hauntingly festooned in Spanish Moss. Savannah itself, saved from a siege by the Confederate garrison evacuating the city at Sherman’s approach, remains and is one of America’s most beautiful coastal cities.

The landscape remains the same….

The Burning of Atlanta

“I can make this march, and I will make Georgia howl!”

Leaving Atlanta Sherman and the XIV Corps passed Stone Mountain as they marched east toward Savannah

Leaving a smoldering Atlanta behind Sherman and the XIV Corps passed Stone Mountain as they marched east through Georgia toward the coast and the City of Savannah

Although the Union commander is blamed for the fire that eventually consumed a good part of Atlanta, “in reality, the notorious fire that destroyed so much of the city began during the brief siege of the city and spread when Hood burned and detonated what he could not carry. It climaxed when Sherman and his armies left the city, with the commander having given final permission to his soldiers to grab what they could before the final detonations. The fire should be seen as a natural effect of a siege and an intense battle of its kind.”

The remains of Manchester Mills on Sweetwater Creek burned by Union troops in 1864

The remains of Manchester Mills on Sweetwater Creek burned by Union troops in 1864

“The air was resonant with explosions, while flames were mounting to the sky from burning depots and factories all over the city….men were cheering and singing patriotic songs, and fairly reveling in the excitement and novelty of the situation.” *

Henry Hitchcock serving on Sherman’s staff contemplated the coming campaign and while preparing to evacuate the ruined City wrote mournfully in his journal, “Doubtless it will be death to those of us who may fall into Rebel hands.”

Highlighted in the famous hollywood film, “Gone with the Wind”, the burning of Atlanta would make Sherman notorious in the south and be just the beginning of the total war strategy Sherman and Grant envisioned that was slowly and methodically bringing an end to the Confederacy.

Union troops on the march in Richmond Hill, Georgia 2014

Union troops on the march in Richmond Hill, Georgia 2014

The March to the Sea

Sherman proposed to Grant continuing his campaign in Georgia marching his army across a vast swath of the state destroying railroads and infrastructure as they went and eventually leading his army to the coastal City of Savannah. In cutting his supply lines and communications Sherman’s 300 mile march would show the Rebels that the Union could drive an army right through the heart of the Confederacy with impunity.

American flag over the marsh on Tybee Island, Ga

American flag over the marsh on Tybee Island, Ga

In fact the Confederacy would have no army to oppose Sherman’s March to the Sea. “The forces that should have protected eastern Georgia were instead in Tennessee, and a mere 5,000 or more militia forces stood between Sherman’s 60,000 men and the Georgian coast.” *

In preparing for the march Sherman would cull his army honing it down to its barest essentials forming a force of 60,000 lean veterans. To supply his army on the march Sherman argued, “Georgia has a million inhabitants. If they can live, we should not starve”.

Monticello, Georgia 2014

Monticello, Georgia 2014

As the march began Sherman issued his orders;

“IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command…” 

V. To army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility…..In all foraging , of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.” **

Reenactors skirmish outside Fort McAllister

Reenactors skirmish outside Fort McAllister

These roving bands of foragers, later termed “bummers”, would be responsible for some of the more heinous acts of thievery and wanton destruction recorded during the march. With food plentiful foraging became more about finding hidden treasure troves of plantation tableware and silver. These orders would be liberally carried out by Sherman’s troops during the march and add to the commanders reputation as the man who brought the Civil War to the women of the South.

Slave cabin with empty moonshine bottles, Sylvania, Ga 2014

Old cabin with empty bottles, Sylvania, Ga

Sherman also anticipated the liberation of thousands of slaves during their journey and detailed his commanders to employ the freedmen as a Pioneer Corps to help corduroy roads and build bridges during the march. Feared by white of Georgians, Union Bummers descending on a plantation would on the contrary be seen as liberators to the resident slaves. It was often recorded that slaves would tip-off the foragers as to their masters’ recently buried stashes of food and valuables before joining the march themselves.

Sherman’s individual commands were ordered to feign towards two other vital southern cities along their march route – the Right Wing toward Macon and the Left Wing toward Augusta – in hopes of confusing the Confederates as to Sherman’s final goal – the City of Savannah and a permanent foothold and link to the sea for the Federals in the South.

Riddleville, Georgia 2014

Riddleville, Georgia 2014

As the march began Sherman writes, “Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. Away off in the distance…was the rear of Howard’s column, the gun barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteen Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond. Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of “John Brown’ s Soul Goes Marching On”; the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of “Glory glory hallelujah!” done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.” **

The Casulon Plantation in Good Hope, Ga was spared during the passing of Sherman's armies only to be destroyed by fire in 2003.

The early 19th century Casulon Plantation in Good Hope, Georgia was spared during the passing of Sherman’s armies only to be destroyed by fire in 2003.

“Then we turned our horses’ heads east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seemed like a memory of a dream. The day was extremely beautiful, clear sunlight, with bracing air, and an unusual feeling of exhilaration seemed to pervade all minds – a feeling of something to come, vague and undefined, still full of venture and intense interest.”**

Slave cabins in Ellabell, Ga 2014

Slave cabins in Ellabell, Ga 2014

“Severing their only remaining line of communication to the north, a number of Sherman’s men were put in mind of the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés burning his ships behind him before marching against the Aztecs—while another soldier thought, somewhat less gloriously, that the army was “going into the hole, and pulling the hole in after us.” *****

The march would take the Union forces through a sparsely populated region of Georgia dotted with tiny towns and large plantations that up until 1864 had not seen much of the hardships of war…Georgia’s moment had arrived with the coming of Sherman’s Army.

Milledgeville, Ga

The old State Capitol building in Milledgeville was the scene of a mock gathering of the Georgia Legislature by Sherman's troops in 1864

The old State Capitol building in Milledgeville was the scene of a mock gathering of the Georgia Legislature by Sherman’s troops in 1864. The troops voted Georgia back into the Union.

Milledgeville was the capitol of Georgia in 1864 and is one hundred miles due east of Atlanta.

General Sherman and 30,000 troops comprising the Left Wing marched into town with their bands playing and flags flying for the benefit of the local populous. Union engineers were ordered to destroy the town arsenal, the train depot and the bridge over the Oconee River while Sherman settled in to the Governors Mansion. Milledgeville was essentially spared by Sherman and is today a bustling college town with a large concentration of historic homes and public buildings.

Old bridge over the Oconee River at Milledgeville destroyed by Sherman's troops

Old bridge over the Oconee River at Milledgeville, Ga

“The people of Milledgeville remained at home, except the Governor (Brown), the State officers, and Legislature, who had ignominiously fled, in the utmost disorder and confusion; standing not on the order of their going, but going at once— some by rail, some by carriages, and many on foot. Some of the citizens who remained behind described this flight of the “brave and patriotic” Governor Brown. He had occupied a public building known as the “Governor’s Mansion,” and had hastily stripped it of carpets , curtains, and furniture of all sorts, which were removed to a train of freight-cars, which carried away these things— even the cabbages and vegetables from his kitchen and cellar— leaving behind muskets, ammunition, and the public archives. On arrival at Milledgeville I occupied the same public mansion, and was soon overwhelmed with appeals for protection.” **

Gov. Joseph E. Brown and the Georgia Legislature learning that Sherman was on the march made frantic appeals to the people of the State to rise up and oppose the march, to “resist and destroy” en mass the invaders of their homes and firesides.

The Governors Mansion in Milledgeville, Ga

The Governors Mansion in Milledgeville, Ga

Sherman reading the bold proclamations recounts the reaction of his soldiers,

”Of course, we were rather amused than alarmed at these threats, and made light of the feeble opposition offered to our progress. Some of the officers (in the spirit of mischief) gathered together in the vacant hall of Representatives, elected a Speaker, and constituted themselves the Legislature of the State of Georgia! A proposition was made to repeal the ordinance of secession, which was well debated, and resulted in its repeal by a fair vote!” **

The old State Capitol building here at Milledgeville is one of the oldest public buildings in America, dating to 1807, and is today the home of the Georgia Military Institute.

Griswoldville, Ga

The Battlefield at Griswoldville, Georgia 2014

The Battlefield at Griswoldville, Georgia 2014

At the time Sherman’s troops were in Milledgeville, a brigade of Union soldiers detailed to protect the army’s wagon train at Griswoldville were setting up their camp for the night when they noticed a long line of Confederates emerging from the forest about a mile away.

Setting up a hasty defense of felled tress the meager Union force of 1500 men prepared to meet 4,000 attacking Rebels in their front. This force of 4,000 “soldiers” were a corps of old men and young boys gathered from the countryside and forcibly conscripted by Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler.


The Confederates attacked across a broad front, standing shoulder to shoulder, and marched into the withering fire laid down by the Union brigade and their Spencer Carbines. In a short time the contest was over with five hundred Confederates wounded and dying in front of the Union works. A young Union soldier named Charles Willis was with his unit at Griswoldville and recorded his impressions in his memoir,

“I was never so affected at the sight of wounded and dead before. Old grey-haired and weakly-looking men and little boys, not over 15 years old, lay dead or writhing in pain. I did pity those boys, they almost all who could talk, said the Rebel cavalry gathered them up and forced them in.”*** 

The Union soldiers gathered up the wounded Southerners around their fires and cared for them through the night. In the morning the Union brigade moved out leaving the wounded Confederates for their own people and the dead buried on the field of battle at Griswoldville.

Railroad Busting

Railroad repairs outside of Griswoldville, Georgia.  150 years ago Sherman's troops would be destroying track all through the State.

Railroad repairs outside of Griswoldville, Georgia. 150 years ago Sherman’s troops would be destroying track all through the State.

One of Sherman’s main objectives in the March to the Sea was to utterly destroy Georgia’s railroad network. Sherman realized that cities along his march route like Macon and Augusta, although large manufacturing centers for the Confederate war effort, could be isolated and made irrelevant if their transportation network was destroyed.

Savannah Railroad Museum 2014

Savannah Railroad Museum 2014

The soldiers under Sherman’s command were old hands at railroad busting long before the March to the Sea started. During the Atlanta Campaign from May to July 1864 Sherman’s troops were busy busting and rebuilding railroad tracks on their way from Chattanooga toward the Gateway City and had come up with a rather genius and somewhat diabolical invention called, “Sherman’s Neckties”.

The soldiers detailed to wreck a section of track would take up the iron rails and then pry up the wooden ties. The troops would then pile up the ties and set the rails across this teepee like structure then set the whole thing alight. The huge bonfire created heat so intense the rails would glow-red at which time the soldiers would take the rails and twist them around the trucks of trees….together with hundreds of miles of track destroyed along the journey, all the train depots encountered on the march were burned as well. Sherman’s march left a trail of destruction that was biblical.

Left and Right Wings

The old Savannah Road, Riddleville, Georgia 2014

The old Savannah Road, Riddleville, Georgia 2014

Sherman divided his 60,000 man force into two individual wings that marched parallel to each other during the 300 mile advance toward Savannah. The troops averaged 12-15 miles a day and the armies together covered a sixty mile swath of territory over the Georgian countryside. The two wings would be in constant contact with each other as they made their way east and eventually converge at Savannah – columns of smoke on the horizon mark their trail…

Sandersville, Georgia 2014

Outside Sandersville, Georgia -2014

The Left Wing of Sherman’s Army pressed on east and encountered a small band of Confederates thirty miles from Milledgeville at the small town of Sandersville, Ga. The Confederates retreated through the town with Sherman and his troops bivouacking at Sandersville for the night. Sherman stayed at the Brown House and surveyed his soldiers encampment from the Brown’s front porch. The Brown House is now a museum and national landmark.

The Union troops continued east passing through Riddleville, Ga which now, as in 1864, is just basically a crossroads. The countryside is still dominated by farmland here along the Old Savannah Road. Small tuffs of cotton litter the sides of the roads – a tell-tail sign you’re in the south – and immense cotton fields with heavily laden bales set in neat rows awaiting transport by the side of the road.

Pine forests in Guyton, Ga 2014

Pine forests in Guyton, Ga 2014

As the columns moved east they would pass through a myriad of small towns and see the countryside change from cultivated farmland to dense stands of pine forests. Many a memoir recounts the sensation of walking through these pine barrens in southeastern Georgia where the forest floor, devoid of underbrush, is covered in a vast sea of pine needles.

The armies passed through the small town of Louisville, on their way toward Millen, Ga. Just north of Millen at Buckhead Church Union cavalry skirmished with their Confederate counterparts around this simple early 19th century country church. On November 27th 1864 Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler used the church pews as a pontoon bridge over the nearby Buckhead Creek while in pursuit of the Federals. The hoof prints can still be faintly seen on the old church pews today.

Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler's troops used the pews from Buckhead Church to ford a nearby creek during an action with Federal soldiers during Sherman's  march through Millen, Georgia

Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s troops used the pews from Buckhead Church to ford a nearby creek during an action with Federal soldiers during Sherman’s march through Millen, Georgia

The town of Scarboro, Georgia just south of Millen doesn’t really exist anymore. Nestled on a bend in the Ogeechee River the old town was once a stop on the railroad between Millen and Savannah. Sherman and his troops camped here on December 3rd 1864. Today a few old buildings sit along a dirt road that takes you to Scarboro Landing on the Ogeechee River where the rotted pilings of a 19th century bridge jut into the river.

Rice fields gone wild In Savannah Georgia

Rice fields gone wild in Savannah, Georgia

As Sherman’s armies neared Savannah the foraging became less abundant, Union soldiers subsisted on rice for the first time and the landscape got swampy. The coastal City of Savannah is surrounded by large navigable rivers all of which reach inland and are fed by thousands of smaller rivers and creeks that stretch through the region.

All of these rivers and creeks were forded by the armies by the use of pontoon bridges. Sherman, anticipating this terrain through Georgia, supplied both his wings with groups of army engineers with wagons and enough pontoon boats to bridge most of these rivers and creeks – as in many cases the river bridges were burned by retreating Confederates.

Ebenezer Creek

Ebenezer Creek, Springfield, Georgia 2014

Ebenezer Creek, Springfield, Georgia 2014

The unfortunately named, Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis leading the Union’s XIV Corps was having a particularly tough time moving his portion of the army with its wagon trains through the swampy lowlands near Springfield, Georgia. Rebel Gen. Wheeler with his cavalry and some infantry were in pursuit laying ambushes and nipping at the heals of Davis’ command as they slogged through the swamps.

Reenactors lounge in the Georgia woods

Reenactors lounge in the Georgia woods

Approaching the deep winding Ebenezer Creek Davis sets up a defense and orders his engineers to construct a pontoon bridge across the creek. The deep waterway was a defensible position once Davis got his men and wagons across at that point he could dismantle the bridge and be safely on the other side of the river from the enemy.

But Davis had one other big problem on his hands according to his take on the situation…

Ever since William Tecumseh Sherman began his march toward Savannah former slaves had been joining his columns. Sherman himself encouraged this when instructing his officers to form Pioneer Corps of the freedmen for their commands.

Ebenezer Creek, Springfield, Ga

Ebenezer Creek, Springfield, Ga

Sherman was worshiped on a certain level by the former slaves that joined his march to the sea but the number of freedmen and their families that now followed the army swelled to the point where Sherman’s troops could no longer protect them.

Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis had an answer for this. Davis ordered his men, once all the wagons and essentials had crossed, to cut the pontoon bridge purposely stranding the former slaves and their families on the other side of Ebenezer Creek and leaving them at the mercy of the approaching Rebels….many of the former slaves jumped in and drowned rather than be captured alive by the Confederates.

Confederate reenact stands guard at Fort McAllister, Richmond HIll, Georgia 2014

Confederate reenact stands guard at Fort McAllister, Richmond HIll, Georgia 2014

“Northern soldiers threw logs and tree branches to those in the water, and some black refugees ferried back across on a makeshift raft to rescue as many more as they could.”

When the pursuing Confederate troops arrived at the creek they hunted down the remainder of these former slaves, put them in chains and marched them a hundred and sixty miles to a slave-pen in Macon, Georgia.

Savannah’s Forts

Interior of Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia 2014

Interior of Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia 2014

Arriving in the area of Savannah Sherman observes the City’s defenses, “at Savannah we had again run up against the old familiar parapet, with its deep ditches, canals, and bayous, full of water; and it looked as though another siege was inevitable.” **

The Confederate garrison at the City of Savannah was commanded by General William J. Hardee. Under his command were roughly 14,000 troops deployed throughout the City’s extensive earthworks built facing west to guard Savannah from a land invasion. Savannah had been an important coastal city since the early 1700s and therefore was also surrounded by defensive forts on the water approaches to the City.

The pock-marked exterior of Fort Pulaski. Situated on the Savannah River the fort was bombarded and captured by Union troops in 1862

The pock-marked exterior of Fort Pulaski. Situated on the Savannah River the fort was bombarded and captured by Union troops in 1862

Fort Pulaski situated at the mouth of the Savannah River, and roughly ten miles from the City, was bombarded by the Union Navy and eventually captured closing all river traffic to the City in 1862. Pulaski’s stone and brick reinforced walls crumbled under the bombardment of the Navy’s new rifled artillery. The pock marks of the bombardment are still visible today along the fort’s eastern face.

Landslide approach to Fort Pulaski

Landslide approach to Fort Pulaski

Union forces occupied the fort but were an isolated command until Sherman’s arrival two years later. The bombardment and capturing of Fort Pulaski showed the weakness of coastal fort construction and initiated the design of reinforced earthen forts. Fort McAllister constructed by the Confederates after the fall of Pulaski is one of these and its earthen walls showed how effective these forts could be.

“Fort McAllister was only one of many large, earthen fortifications built around Savannah, Georgia, during the Civil War. The threat initially came from the sea, so efforts were made to defend navigable waterways and entrances. Many of these forts and batteries were never tested, and some were abandoned after they had been built; however, Fort McAllister attracted a lot of attention from the Union because of its location. Situated at the mouth of the Ogeechee River, the fort controlled access to the river and protected important railroad and highway bridges that crossed upstream, as well as the numerous planters living on the river.” ****

Reenactors within the earthen walls of Fort McAllister, Richmond Hill, Georgia 2014

Reenactors within the earthen walls of Fort McAllister, Richmond Hill, Georgia 2014

Fort McAllister had proven to be a difficult nut to crack. In testing out their new ironclads the Union Navy dispatched four of these armored vessels and anchored them directly across from the fort and brought to bear the largest caliber guns the Navy could mount to bombarded Fort McAllister. Firing at point-blank range for hours on end, when morning arrived Union naval officers were astonished to find that the fort had been completely rebuilt overnight. Such was the value of earthen forts in the age of rifled artillery.

Reenactor stands sentry at Fort McAllister looking to the opposite bank of the Ogeechee River where the Union Navy anchored their ironclads to bombard the in 1863

Reenactor stands sentry at Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River in Richmond Hill, Ga -2014

Fort McAllister today is a wonder. The site was preserved by Henry Ford who purchased the property when he built his winter home at Richmond Hill, Ga in the 1920’s. The fort’s high earthen walls, some thirty feet in height, are still well preserved as well as a number of interior bomb proofs and ordnance bunkers.

The fort is ringed on the land side by a moat filled with sharpened stakes that look more medieval today then anything else. The fort walls are now shaded by century-old live oak trees draped in Spanish Moss. The surrounding forest, cleared in 1864, has regrown and is now a dense mixture of Georgia lowland vegetation.

Fort McAllister was correctly seen by Sherman as the key to Savannah. By capturing the fort Sherman would open up a supply route to the sea via the Ogeechee River thus a permanent supply for his army to conduct the predicted siege of Savannah.

The Ogeechee River at Kings Bridge, Richmond Hill, Ga

The Ogeechee River at Kings Bridge in Richmond Hill, Ga. Union volunteers on the evening of December 12th 1864 paddled from here past Fort McAllister to reach Ossbaw Sound and a rendezvous with the Union Navy. The volunteers brought news that Sherman’s March to the Sea had been a success.

As Sherman’s two wings converged around the City the commander asked for volunteers to paddle down the Ogeechee to make contact with the Union Navy anchored in Ossabaw Sound. A number of volunteers stepped forward to attempt the clandestine river journey. Slipping past the Rebel defenses on the river during the night these soldiers reached the fleet and brought the first news that Sherman had completed his march and had finally reached the sea.

The landside approach to Fort McAllister with moat and sharpened stakes was made more lethal by the placement of land mines by the Confederates

The landside approach to Fort McAllister with moat and sharpened stakes was made more lethal by the placement of land mines by the Confederates

“On December 13, 1864, he sent a division of infantry against Fort McAllister. In spite of all the efforts made by the 150-man garrison to withstand the attack, it was overwhelmed by a mass assault made by over 3,500 Union soldiers. With the fall of the fort, the Ogeechee River was opened, Sherman had his supply route, and Savannah was doomed, being evacuated by Confederate forces a week later.” ****

The earthen walls of Fort McAllister would again be shrouded in gun smoke in December 2014 during the reenactment of this famous battle. Union reenactors stormed the fort 150 years to the minute of the historic attack moving through the woods at dusk as the Federals had on December 13th 1864.

Union reenactors storm Fort McAllister at dusk

Union reenactors storm Fort McAllister at dusk 150 years to the minute of the historic battle in 1864

As in 1864 the assault was fierce but of short duration. The meager Confederate garrison fought gallantly but were overwhelmed by the attacking Union soldiers and capitulated within fifteen minutes of the start of the battle. Gun smoke filtered through the Palmetto trees their fronds casting linear lines of steaming light as the victorious Union troops poured into the fort and gathered up the remaining Rebel reenactors, now prisoners-of-war.

In 1864 anticipating the coming assault Sherman led his staff across the marshes to a location opposite the fort. With binoculars in hand the Union commander had a full view of the attack.

Confederates defend Fort McAllister during the 150th anniversary of the Battle for Savannah

Confederates defend Fort McAllister during the 150th anniversary of the Battle for Savannah

“…we saw Hazen’s troops come out of the dark fringe of woods that encompassed the fort, the lines dressed as on parade, with colors flying, and moving forward with a quick, steady pace. Fort McAllister was then all alive, its big guns belching forth dense clouds of smoke, which soon enveloped our assaulting lines . One color went down, but was up in a moment . On the lines advanced, faintly seen in the white, sulphurous smoke; there was a pause, a cessation of fire; the smoke cleared away, and the parapets were blue with our men, who fired their muskets in the air, and shouted so that we actually heard them, or felt that we did.” **

Union reenactors skirmish around Fort McAllister 2014

Union reenactors skirmish at Fort McAllister 2014

That evening, after the fort’s capture, an anxious Sherman boarded a small boat and paddled down the Ogeechee to make contact with the Navy himself. Although Savannah wasn’t in his hands yet Sherman immediately sent telegrams to Secretary of War Stanton informing Washington that his march had been a success.


The capture of Fort McAllister precipitated the retreat and evacuation of the Confederate garrison at Savannah. General Hardee saw the fruitlessness of trying to defend the City being surrounded and out numbered nearly 5 to 1. Hardee constructed a pontoon bridge across the Savannah River and took his forces into South Carolina leaving the City to Sherman’s Army.

Savannah, Georgia 2014

Savannah, Georgia 2014

Union soldier Charles Willis records the relief he and his fellow soldiers felt when they realized the Confederates had abandoned the City.

“Most unaccountably, to me, the Rebels evacuated an impregnable position (if there is such a thing), and our brigade was saved thereby from making some more history, for which I am grateful. A straight pike or causeway three quarters of a mile long and in which there are 24 bridges, was our only chance of crossing.” ***

Sherman’s troops marched into the City and soon the famous squares of Savannah were filled with the tents of 60,000 Union soldiers.
Sherman took up residence at the Green-Meldrim House in the center of the City and basked in his accomplishment. It was here at the Green-Meldrim House that Sherman held his 1864 Christmas dinner and met with prominent black leaders about the future of America’s newly freed slaves.

The drawing room at the Green-Meldrim House Sherman's HQ in Savannah in 1864

The drawing room at the Green-Meldrim House Sherman’s HQ in Savannah in 1864

Sherman declared, “The city of Savannah was an old place, and usually accounted a handsome one.” **

The City of Savannah today is a beautifully preserved southern metropolis. Designed in the 18th century Savannah still retains much of its antebellum character with a large concentration of historic buildings and residences.

The monument of Silence looks over the graves of Georgian Confederates at Laurel Grove Cemetery

The monument of Silence looks over the graves of Georgian Confederates at Laurel Grove Cemetery

The City’s cemeteries are famous as well. Landscaped with old Palmettos and Live Oaks draped in moss, both Bonaventure and Laurel Grove cemeteries contain the remains of all the prominent sons of Savannah, revolutionary war heroes as well as the graves of the many Georgians who died defending the South during the Civil War.

Savannah is a busy seaport today. Giant container ships now glide past the old Cotton Exchange on the Savannah wharf where masted ships used to load their cargo. Tourists hop aboard horse-drawn carriages and clop their way through the City having local guides happily point out the famous architecture and history that exudes from every pore of this southern city.

Old warehouses near the Savannah River 2014

Old warehouses near the Savannah River 2014

On Christmas eve 1864 Sherman sends a telegram to Lincoln offering the City of Savannah as a Christmas gift to the President. Sherman wrote,

“I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” **

Forsythe Park, Savannah, Ga

Forsythe Park, Savannah, Ga

In response Lincoln wrote back to Sherman, “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 honor is all yours

Amazingly, Sherman arrived in Savannah despite the long march better equipped and the troops healthier then when they had left Atlanta five weeks before.

Fort Jackson, Savannah, Georgia -2014

Fort Jackson, Savannah, Georgia -2014

“Sherman would next make a similar march into the Carolinas, where the burning of Columbia rivaled the notoriety of what Sherman had done in Atlanta.”

“We are not only fighting armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience.” *

The sea from Tybee Island, Georgia 2014

The sea from Tybee Island, Georgia 2014

“Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why we did not go to South Carolina; and, when I answered that we were enroute for that State, the invariable reply was, “Well, if you will make those people feel the utmost severities of war, we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.”**

Sherman’s troops longed to take their fight into South Carolina seen as the great agitator of the war. Sherman wrote,

“The truth is, the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.” **

Spanish moss covered Live Oak trees at Savannah Wildlife Refuge 2014

Spanish moss covered Live Oak trees at Savannah Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina – 2014




* “Sherman’s March to the Sea” – Charles River Editors

** “Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman”

*** “Army Life: Of an Illinois Soldier” – Charles Willis

**** “Fort McAllister” – Roger S. Durham

***** “War Like The Thunderbolt” – Russell Bond

Special thanks goes to Jim Miles, author of – “To the Sea”

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. George LeCroy #

    Wow! I am so impressed with the images that you were able to capture in this project. As a reenactor that was at and participated in many of these reenactments, I must thank you for bringing this to life for my friends and family that can’t see or understand my passion. This whole thing was well done and I look forward to seeing more.

    February 8, 2015
    • George, great to hear from you. Thanks for your comments. Ill be traveling through the Carolinas in March and will be at Bentonville, hope to see you there.

      February 8, 2015
  2. Mike #

    Great examples of locations and good use of historical writings and photos. As a Georgian, and a descendant of Union and Southern soldiers, it was a pleasure to read your material and wonder what it was like to be living during this era. Thanks!

    November 10, 2015
  3. Dennis Durbin #

    My wife and I have been planning a move to Richmond Hill from Ohio for a while now. After reading this I too want to travel this route and take photos. I love the feelings of traveling historic places and where battle were fought.

    February 22, 2018
    • Dennis,
      Hello. So glad you liked the piece on the March to the Sea. You might be happy to know that this work has been turned into a book entitled, “Echoes of the Civil War:Capturing Battlefields With A Pinhole Camera” you can find at all major book stores or online at places like Amazon etc. Also for your journey there are a few books i recommend at the end of the blog piece. They might be very handy for your trip.
      Good Luck and Enjoy!
      Mike Falco

      February 27, 2018
      • Dennis Durbin #

        I just re read this article. Since reading it and commenting the first time we have moved to Richmond Hill July 2018. I work for the railroad and run the same track and through the same towns the union army marched through and destroyed. I also metal detect at a “secret” location not far from me where the Union army camped. I’ve found buttons, bullets, and some other relics. I gotten to detect some other civil war sights as well and have found some neat stuff. The weather sure beats N.E. Ohio winters too!

        November 26, 2019

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