William T. Sherman’s Christmas Gift of Savannah, Georgia
Major General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea was near an end in mid December 1864. After capturing Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River below Savannah, Georgia on December 13th, there was just one objective left. That last objective was the capture of the city of Savannah itself.
The commander of the Confederate forces defending Savannah was Lieutenant General William Hardee. Hardee had about 9000 soldiers in his command, plus artillery, but his forces were no match for Sherman’s overwhelming numbers. Still, Sherman did not want to assault the city “as all former assaults had proved so bloody, I concluded to make one more effort to completely surround Savannah on all sides” he wrote in his memoirs.
Hardee’s commander, General Pierre Beauregard, ordered him to build a bridge across the Savannah River to provide an escape route out of the city and into South Carolina. The South needed all the men it could get, and the city was of less importance than the soldiers. The pontoon style bridge was completed on December 19th.
Meanwhile, on December 17th Sherman issued a demand to Hardee to surrender. He promised unspecified “liberal terms” to the defenders and civilians, but warned that if he had to resort to assaulting or investing the city, he “would make little effort to restrain my army”. He said he would wait a “reasonable amount of time for your answer before opening with heavy ordnance”. Hardee refused, and continued preparations for withdrawal.
Sherman felt that a crossing of the Savannah River to get behind the city and cut off an escape route would be too costly as Confederate gunboats held the opposite shore and could destroy any pontoons deployed and isolate the crossing force. He ordered that siege guns be placed in position, and preparations made for an assault upon the city. Sherman then took a boat to Port Royal, South Carolina, to arrange for Union forces there to aid in the cutoff of Hardee’s Confederates if they were to successfully withdraw from Savannah.
On the evening of December 20th, while Sherman was at Port Royal, the Confederate withdrawal into South Carolina began. As the first wagons crossed over, Hardee’s artillery opened fire to keep the Federals from attacking. The Confederates also destroyed several ships, including the city’s namesake ironclad Savannah, to keep them from falling into enemy hands.
All Confederate forces had crossed the river by dawn on the 21st, and engineers cut the pontoon bridges loose. Realizing the Rebels had departed, Brigadier General John Geary’s 2nd Division of the 20th Corps advanced quickly, occupying the city. Geary accepted the surrender of the city’s mayor and Savannah was in Union hands.
Sherman had been delayed by weather and was not present as his troops entered the city. He returned later in the afternoon of the 21st. Sherman sent a message to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant: “I take great pleasure in reporting that we are in possession of Savannah and all its forts.” The March to the Sea was over.
Sherman set up his headquarters in the city. When it was suggested that Sherman notify President Abraham Lincoln that Savannah had been captured by offering it as a Christmas gift, and that such as message still had time to reach the President in time for the holiday, Sherman accepted the suggestion. “I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton” he wrote. The message was sent by boat to Fort Monroe, Virginia and telegraphed to Washington. It reached Lincoln on Christmas Eve.
- Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman by William T. Sherman.
Reprint. New York: The Library of America, 1990
- Sherman’s March by Burke Davis. New York: Vintage Books, 1988
- War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington DC: U.S. War Department 1880-1901 (Series I, Vol. XLIV)