Nearing the end of his militarily unorthodox March to the Sea through the heart of Georgia, in early December 1864, Sherman approached the outer lines of Savannah cautiously. Wishing to avoid a frontal assault on the Confederate lines, which would be costly, the red-headed general had already decided that he would instead lay siege to the city. But first, Sherman wanted to make contact with the U.S. Navy to resupply his army and coordinate efforts to cut off Confederate forces in Savannah.
Waiting in Ossabaw Sound, the navy was looking for Sherman just as he was looking for them. The Ogeechee River, covered by Gen. Howard’s army, led down into Ossabaw Sound, but an old earthwork fort – Fort McAllister – prevented the navy from steaming up any further. Clearly, Ft. McAllister would need to be reduced.
In point of fact, the Federal navy had tried twice already to reduce Ft. McAllister and failed. With its heavy guns and thick earthen walls, the fort seemed impervious to naval attack. On the other hand, it did not seem especially well suited to defense against an infantry attack. In a stroke of luck, Sherman had been able to lay his hands on a reliable sketch of the lay out of the fort and had been able to discern it vulnerability.
Howard chose the division commanded by Gen. William Hazen for the assault. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “I gave General Hazen, in person, his orders to march rapidly down the right bank of the Ogeechee, and without hesitation to assault and carry Fort McAllister by storm.” His confidence in Hazen was substantial and bolstered by the sentimental reflection that his division – the second of the Fifteenth Corps. – had been the one that Sherman himself had once commanded at Shiloh and Vicksburg.
The assault took place on December 13th – 154 years ago. Sherman watched the assault from a vantage point about three miles opposite the fort, atop an old rice mill. There Howard had set up a signal station, which was actively searching for signs of the navy. The roof of the mill made a fine ringside seat.
Waiting for the assault on the fort was no easy thing for Sherman, who reflected later, “I was dreadfully impatient.” But then his attention was riveted to a new welcome development. “At that very moment some one discovered a faint cloud of smoke, and an object gliding, as it were, along the horizon.” Before long a steamer flying the U.S. flag came more clearly into view. From the steamer came the question, “Is Fort McAllister taken?” Sherman answered, “Not yet, but it will be in a minute!” Moments later the assault began, as if on cue from Sherman.
The assault was brief but furious. Hazen’s men had been deployed in a long line that essentially surrounded the fort on the landward side. With some 4,000 men Hazen opposed a Confederate force just over two hundred. Sherman delighted in recalling the sight, “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…Fort McAllister was taken.”
After touring the fort that evening, Sherman boarded a small boat and went downstream in search of the steamer they had seen from the rice mill. About six miles from the fort they came upon the U.S. tug – the Dandelion – which took Sherman to the fleet downriver. Communication had been reestablished between Sherman’s army and the navy – and the outside world. Soon Sherman sent a wire to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton announcing his arrival in front of Savannah. “The army is in splendid order,” the general wrote, “and equal to anything.”