Civil War Surprises: Capturing Fort McAllister

As Sherman and his army marched to the sea, crossing Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, late in 1864, the red-headed general needed to establish a base on the coast to resupply his men.  An interesting surprise moment came as he sought the U.S. navy and it sought him.  As he approached Savannah, needing to secure Fort McAllister, the surprise came.[i]

About December 1, Sherman crossed over to the right wing and rode with Blair’s corps. Howard received notification to move his wing along the Ogeechee River, preparatory to a move on Savannah. The soil grew increasingly sandy and the land marshy. Except for rice growing in roadside paddies, there would be little for the foragers to gather, unless they wished to tangle with alligators. Anticipating that Savannah would be fortified and garrisoned, which would slow progress during which time supplies would be used up, Sherman wanted to establish contact with the Union navy as soon as possible. As it turned out, they were looking for him, just as he sought them out.

The key to making contact with the navy was control of the Ossabaw Sound, below Savannah. But an old earthwork fort guarded the approach, preventing ships from steaming up. Fort McAllister would have to be taken. Aggressive as always, Kilpatrick volunteered for the job, but Sherman wanted infantry to storm the place. The job fell to Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s Second Division, XV corps.

Awaiting the assault, Sherman joined Howard atop an old rice mill about three miles opposite the fort. In his memoirs, the impatient commander recalled in detail his anticipation. “At that very moment,” he recalled later, “some one discovered a faint cloud of smoke, and an object gliding. . . along the horizon. . . which little by little grew till it was pronounced to be the smoke-stack of a steamer coming up the river. . . . Soon the flag of the United States was plainly visible.” Still excited over the experience year later, the redheaded general remembered the exchange that followed. “Who are you?” the boat signaled. “General Sherman,” army signalmen answered. “Is Fort McAllister taken?” they asked. “Not yet,” Sherman answered, “but it will be in a minute.” Right on cue, Hazen’s troops stormed the fort.[ii]

William Tecumseh Sherman

It took more than a minute to subdue the fort, but not a significant length of time. Blue troops swarmed over the parapet and overwhelmed the small garrison. Soon Sherman and Howard dined with Hazen near the fort, the former already making plans to drop downriver to find the fleet. After the meal and a quick tour of the fort, they set out. Six miles down they found the Dandelion, a tender from the U.S. gunboat Flag. Contact established, Sherman sat down and penned letters to all necessary parties and made arrangements to open the supply line to his army behind Savannah. Once it had been refitted and resupplied, he would be ready to take the city.[iii]


[i] Excerpt from Derek D. Maxfield, Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2023).

[ii]  William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman (New York: Literary Classics, 1990) 673-676.

[iii] Ibid.

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