Colonel John M. Oliver’s Report on His Brigade’s Action in the Capture of Fort McAllister
On December 10th, 1864, the leading elements of Major General William T. Sherman’s army began to arrive at Savannah, Georgia, the final objective of his March to the Sea from Atlanta. Though Sherman had encountered limited resistance on the march, capturing Savannah would be more difficult. Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, commanding the Confederate defense of Savannah, had approximately 10,000 troops, far fewer than the four Union corps approaching the city, but they were in fortified defenses. Hardee had also flooded the surrounding rice fields, limiting access to the city to five narrow causeways. While Hardee would not be able to hold off the Union advance indefinitely, he could inflict serious casualties on any Federal attackers.
Rather than launching an assault on the city, Sherman decided to set up a siege. Though his army had cut its supply lines when it left Atlanta and foraged for food for the men and horses on the march, many supplies were now running low. Offshore in Ossabaw sound, the U.S. Navy had supply ships and gunboats ready to resupply Sherman and provide help in military actions along the coast. Sherman made establishing communication with the Navy his top priority.
A few miles south of Savannah, the Ogeechee River enters Ossabaw Sound, and with Savannah still in Confederate hands, the Ogeechee was deemed the best location to receive Federal ships. The mouth of the Ogeechee River was guarded by the Confederate garrison of Fort McAllister, located on the south shore of the river. Fort McAllister was manned by about 250 Confederates, but the garrison was armed with some two dozen cannon and had successfully repulsed naval assaults in the past.
This time there would be a land based attack. Brigadier General William B. Hazen’s 2nd Division of the 15th Corps was selected to make the assault. Hazen’s 3000 or so soldiers would
seem to be an overwhelming force, but it would not be that easy. The fort’s walls were surrounded by a ditch that had sharpened wooden stakes on its floor. Further out was a ring of abatis, downed trees with sharpened tops pointed towards an advancing enemy. Beyond that were what was called torpedoes in the 19th century but were a type of land mine by modern definition. Hazen’s men would also have to charge across several hundred yards of open space before reaching the fort.
Late in the afternoon of December 13th, Hazen ordered his men forward. They advanced from three sides, converging at the fort. Many of the casualties sustained in the assault were inflicted by the torpedoes, with those unlucky enough to make contact with one were killed or wounded, and often mangled badly by the explosives. Still, the assault continued despite the torpedoes and the other obstacles. Hazen’s men reached the walls of the earthen fort and climbed up to the top of the works, overpowering the defenders at the top of the walls. The Confederates fell back into the fort, and hand to hand fighting occurred for a few minutes before the overwhelming Federal numbers were too much and the remaining Confederates surrendered. The attack had lasted about 15 minutes.
Sherman now had contact with the navy for resupply as well as sea based artillery for siege operations against Savannah. On December 20th, Hardee withdrew from Savannah to the north, and Sherman marched in on the 21st. With the city in Union hands, the general wired President Lincoln: “I beg to present to you , as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah”.
One of Hazen’s brigade commanders was Colonel John M. Oliver. Oliver’s brigade consisted of the 48th and 90th Illinois, the 99th Indiana, the 15th Michigan, and 70th Ohio infantry regiments. It formed the center of the Federal assault line. Oliver filed this report on his brigade’s action in the assault on Fort McAllister, as well as its role in the march from Atlanta to the sea:
HDQRS. THIRD BRIG., SECOND DIV., 15TH ARMY CORPS,
Savannah, Ga., January 6, 1865.
SIR: I have the honor to report the following detail of operations of this brigade in the campaign so gloriously concluded by the capture of Fort McAllister and surrender of Savannah:
On the 15th of November, 1864, we left White IIall at 10 a.. m., and marched in a southerly direction, passing through Rough and Ready; camped near Tucker’s cabin, Henry County, at 5 p.m., having marched fourteen miles. On the 16th left camp at 6 a.m., passing through McDonough. Two miles south of town we reached camp at 5 p.m.; distance marched, sixteen miles. 17th, marched from 3.30 p.m. until 12.30 night. The troops marched on the left side of the road, while the wagon train and artillery took the road. Camped at Liberty Church, having marched seventeen miles. 18th, resumed our march at 8 a.m.; encamped at Indian Springs at 1 p.m.; distance marched, six miles and a half. 19th, left camp at 3 a.m.; marched to the Ocmulgee River and crossed on pontoon bridge; halted for the night near Hillsborough, arriving in camp at 4.30; distance marched, fifteen miles. 20th, marched at 10 a.m., passing through Hillsborough and encamped five miles south of town, arriving at 7 p.m.; distance marched, twelve miles. 21st, resumed march at 6 a.m.; rained all day; roads in a terrible condition; passed through the town of Clinton and camped within nine miles of Macon; distance marched, thirteen miles. Left Fifteenth Michigan Veteran Volunteer Infantry at Clinton to guard roads leading to Macon until the trains had passed. About 4 p.m. they had a sharp skirmish with Breckinridge’s brigade of cavalry, and repulsed them, with a loss of two men wounded. On the 22d broke camp at 8 a.m.; marched in a southeasterly course, crossing the Macon and Augusta Railroad, which had been destroyed by our troops, and encamped on the Gordon road. The enemy attacked the First Division, and were repulsed. Fifteenth Michigan Veteran Volunteer Infantry reported at 6 p.m. from Clinton. Marched this day ten miles. 23d, marched at 9 a.m. in the direction of Gordon by a circuitous route, reaching camp at 12 m.; took position and fortified; marched five miles. 24th, left camp at 9 a.m., arriving at Irwinton at 3 p.m.; marched five miles. 25th, resumed our march to the Oconee River, passing through the town of Irwinton, arriving at the river at 4 p.m. The enemy, being posted on the opposite bank, prevented our crossing. Artillery was placed in position and opened on their works. The Ninetieth Illinois and Ninety-ninth Indiana Volunteers were detailed to picket the river. The Seventeenth Army Corps joined us at this point. The Fourth Division and pontoon train also arrived. Distance marched, twelve miles. 26th, the enemy evacuated the opposite bank of the Oconee at 12 o’clock (night). At 6 p.m. crossed the river, marched two miles, and encamped. 27th, marched in a northeasterly course and encamped at Irwin’s Cross-Roads at 12 m.; distance marched, eight miles. 28th, resumed march and encamped; distance, fifteen miles. 29th, marched eighteen miles; roads in a terrible condition on account of rain. 30th, marched fifteen miles; had to corduroy and bridge the roads continually.
On the 1st of December left camp at 7 a.m., passing through Cannouchee Post-Office, and encamped at the junction of the Jones Ferry and old Savannah roads, arriving at 5 p.m.; marched fourteen miles. 2d, at 8 a.m. marched on the Savannah road crossing Scull’s Creek, and encamped in Bulloch County; distance, ten miles. 3d, marched and encamped on Lott’s Creek; distance, five miles. 4th, at 8 a.m. resumed march in a southerly course. At 3 p.m. some mounted foragers of the division were attacked by some 600 cavalry near Statesborough, and driven back, until the enemy encountered the Seventieth Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, who were in advance as guard for pioneers corduroying roads. The Seventieth Ohio gave them one volley, after which the rebels hastily retreated, leaving 6 killed and 1 wounded in our hands. Our loss was slight. We encamped at Statesborough. Distance marched, fourteen miles. 5th, at 9 a.m. marched in an easterly direction, and encamped at 6 p.m.; distance marched, thirteen miles. 6th, I was ordered to march to Jenks’ Bridge and secure the crossing. Left camp between 6 and 7 a.m., leaving all my trains but four ambulances, two wagon-loads of ammunition, and the tool wagon. Upon arriving at the river found the bridge destroyed. The Fifteenth Michigan and Seventeenth Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry took position on the river-bank; the Forty-eighth Illinois and Ninetieth Illinois and Ninety-ninth Indiana Volunteers were put in position faced to the rear, with a section of artillery from the Third Division on a hill back of the river half a mile. Distance marched, fifteen miles. Stacked arms and went into camp 12 m. The vigor of the troops and their earnest effort to reach the river, secure the bridge, and strike the enemy’s cavalry enabled us to make this march with astonishing quickness. When we arrived at the camp of the Third Division, which was one mile and a half nearer Jenks’ Bridge than our camp, we waited one hour and a half at least for the artillery, which had not been notified that they were to accompany the expedition. This delay in the outset, and some skirmishing on the way, left the actual marching time less than four hours. 7th, we were ordered to the Cannouchee River to hold and save the bridge across the river if possible. We met the enemy’s pickets on Black Creek. Skirmishing commenced and continued for twelve miles, until our mounted force arrived at the bridge, which they found in flames. The officers and men of the command seemed determined to-day to strike the enemy’s cavalry, who had some twenty-three prisoners whom they fed on sorghum stalks. At Black Creek the obstructions in the ford were removed, so that our ambulances and ammunition wagons crossed the ford before the troops could get across on the stringers of the still burning bridge. The enemy were pushed so hard that they could not destroy the bridge across Mill Creek at all. At one place, near Bryan County Court-House, the men waded in four ranks through a swamp 300 yards across up to their waists in water. We captured two prisoners and five horses. The mounted force, with one regiment of infantry, remained at the river, and the rest of the brigade encamped at Eden (Bryan County Court-House). Distance marched, twenty miles. Lieutenant-Colonel Berkey, Ninety-ninth Indiana Volunteers, who was in command of the mounted force of the brigade (sixty men), conducted the operations of the advance with great skill and perseverance. 8th, at daylight enemy opened with artillery and shelled the woods fiercely, hurting no one; skirmished with them all day. Sent a detachment of the mounted men to effect a crossing up the river, which they were unable to do. The skirmishing across the river was kept up so fiercely that the enemy in two nights and a day could not destroy the bridges across the two lagoons, which were 600 feet or more across. If they had been destroyed we could not have reached the Gulf railroad or saved any portion of King’s Bridge without making a march of thirty miles. The behavior of the officers and men during this expedition was highly praiseworthy. We have no skulkers. The balance of the division and pontoon train joined us here and commenced to put in artillery during the night. 9th, the enemy left during the night, but before leaving opened a brisk fire of artillery and musketry. At daylight was ordered to secure and hold King’s Bridge, across the Ogeechee. I at once commenced to cross my brigade over the Cannouchee, by ferrying them in pontoon-boats and swimming the horses. It took us nearly two hours to cross. Pushed rapidly forward for eight miles to King’s Bridge, but were unable to save but part of it. We then returned to Way’s Station to camp, leaving two companies of Forty-eighth Illinois Volunteers to guard the crossing and prevent further destruction of the bridge. We received orders to destroy all trestles on the railroad; also the railroad bridge across the Ogeechee. We destroyed fourteen trestles, varying from 30 to 150 yards long, and the Gulf railroad bridge across the Ogeechee, a magnificent bridge 500 yards long; took 18 prisoners; finished our work at 9.30 p.m. 10th left Way’s Station at 5 a.m.; returned to the Cannoucheo River, recrossed, and marched to the Ogeechee River, and crossed at Dillon’s Ferry, and encamped within ten miles of Savannah; distance marched, eighteen miles. 11th and 12th, rested in camp. l3th left camp and marched, crossing the Ogeechec on King’s Bridge, to within about one mile of Fort McAllister and formed. The Third Brigade formed the center of division line, the Ninetieth Illinois on the right, Forty.eighth Illinois in the center, and Seventieth Ohio on the left. The Fifteenth Michigan and Ninety-ninth Indiana were in reserve. Advanced half a mile and halted until 5 p.m. to enable other troops to get in position, when the order was given to advance and take the fort. The distance from our line to the fort was about 700 yards through open fields. The taking of this fort was so cheerfully and gallantly done by the troops of this brigade that there is hardly any way to do them full justice. The conduct of Captain Grimes, Forty-eighth Illinois Volunteers, commanding skirmish line, in silencing two of the 10-inch guns bearing on our front, by his sharpshooters, and in his hand-to-hand fight with Captain Clinch, ought to be noticed in general orders. Captain Smith, of the same regiment, who rejoined us on the 27th of November, 1864, after escaping from Columbia, S.C., was the first man in the fort, and was killed inside of it. He was a gallant officer. The flag of the Seventieth Ohio was the first on the fort, though the gallant veterans of the Forty-eighth and Ninetieth Illinois were there with them almost at the same time. Both color bearers of the Forty-eighth were killed with torpedoes. The color bearer of the Seventieth Ohio was also killed just as he handed the flag to a comrade when climbing over the abatis. The men of this command under fire cannot be surpassed. The only order I gave them was that when the “forward” was sounded to march steadily until they reached our skirmishers and then go in. The action lasted twelve minutes. Our loss was 76 officers and men killed and wounded. The results of this action were most important; our communications were at once fully established. Captures in the fort by division were 24 guns, about 200 prisoners, medical stores, quartermaster’s stores, a large quantity of ordnance stores, ammunition, and small-arms. A garrison flag was taken by Captain Nelson, of my staff, and sent to your headquarters. On the 14th the Seventieth Ohio Volunteers, on account of the conspicuous part taken by them in the capture of the fort yesterday, was ordered to garrison it. 17th, left camp with three regiments–Ninety-ninth Indiana, Forty-eighth Illinois, and Fifteenth Michigan Volunteers–for the Gulf railroad. Returned on the 21st, having marched forty miles and destroyed seven miles of the road, burning every tie and twisting every rail. On the morning of the 22d our troops entered Savannah. The Third Brigade of this division consists of the Fifteenth Michigan Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchinson commanding; Ninetieth Illinois Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart commanding; Seventieth Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Philips commanding; Ninety-ninth Indiana Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Berkey commanding; and Forty-eighth Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Major Adams commanding. I know of no troops in our army that surpass them in heroism and self devotion, but few, very few, equal them.
To my staff I have been greatly indebted for success–Captain La Point, acting assistant adjutant-general; Captain Nelson, acting assistant inspector-general; Lieutenant Brown, acting aide-de-camp. I thank them all sincerely for the manner in which they have discharged their duties. Lieut. John Doyle, acting assistant quartermaster of this brigade, deserves special mention. His discharge of duty has been perfect, and I would especially recommend his promotion.
To yourself and other officers of the division staff I offer my hearty thanks for the courtesy and for the many acts which have shown how well and thoroughly you have striven for the success of all in this campaign.
I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN M. OLIVER,
Capt. G. LOFLAND,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., Second Division, Fifteenth Army Corps.
A week after submitting his report, Oliver was promoted to Brigadier General. Oliver served until the end of the war.
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman by William T. Sherman
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion,
Series I, Volume XLIV
Sherman’s Advance from Atlanta by Oliver O. Howard. In Battles and Leaders of the
Civil War, Volume IV, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea by Noah Andre Trudeau