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Countdown to Savannah: Savannah and the Civil War

Written by AppalAnnie

In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.

With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.

Spared The Same Fate As Atlanta

Your most vivid image of Georgia and the American Civil War may be that of Atlanta burning, as seen in “Gone with the Wind”. Savannah’s fate, fortunately for history and us, was different. By the time Sherman’s army reached Savannah in late December 1864, city officials were ready to surrender, thus sparing the city the fate of Atlanta.

The Siege of Fort Pulaski

Before considering Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” though, it is important to go back more than three years to another event involving this general at Fort Pulaski. This fort had been built about 30 years before the war on Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River. In January 1861, state troops occupied Pulaski in order to keep federal forces from using it as a garrison. By November of that year, Robert E. Lee was in command of the Confederate forces in that area. He ordered Tybee Island and other islands near the fort abandoned. He expected that the very thick walls of Fort Pulaski were strong enough to withstand a bombardment from Tybee.

General William T. Sherman, by then the Union commander in that district, began a siege of Fort Pulaski in January 1862. He ordered troops to Tybee Island and built defenses on neighboring islands to keep reinforcements from reaching the fort. On April 9, bombardment of Fort Pulaski began. Two days later, the Union attack had opened two 30-foot holes in the face of the fort, allowing shells to pass through to the interior. This situation led Col. Charles H. Olmstead, the commander of the fort, to surrender, only 36 hours after the attack began. Following the surrender, Union troops were garrisoned at Fort Pulaski until the end of the war. The fort served both to bar Confederate ships from Savannah and as a prison for captured Southern troops. In 1933, Fort Pulaski became part of the National Park Service, and it is open to visitors daily except for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Sherman’s March to the Sea

After Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 7, 1864, he studied census records to see whether a route to Charleston or Savannah would provide more food for his men and forage for their animals. He chose Savannah. Though President Lincoln was hesitant, Sherman managed to convince Gen. Grant that his plan for a march to the sea was workable. The determined Sherman stated, “I can make this march and make Georgia howl.”

His plan was as much psychological as military. Sherman’s aim was to prove to the local population that the Confederate government could not protect them from the oncoming Union forces. This goal was aided by the fact that Southern leaders mistakenly believed that the federal troops would head toward Tennessee; therefore, Georgia was cleared of much of the Confederate army.

Sherman’s march began in Atlanta on November 15, 1864. Confederate forces suffered severe losses east of Macon at the battle of Griswoldville on November 22. A rather inconclusive battle at Buck Head Creek followed on November 28. As Sherman’s armies approached Savannah on December 10, they badly needed supplies. A Union fleet, with supplies, waited just off the coast, but they could not get to Sherman and his men because of Confederate fortifications around Savannah.

To alter this situation, Sherman ordered the capture of Fort McAllister, which was situated on the Ogeechee River about 12 miles below Savannah. Not only would the capture of this fort provide access to the fleet offshore, but it would also open the “back door” to Savannah for Sherman’s troops. Thus, in the afternoon of December 13, 1864, Union forces attacked and captured the fort in an intense and brutal battle lasting only 15 minutes. Sights were now set on Savannah.

Sherman prepared to lay siege to Savannah. However, Confederate Lt. General William Hardee did not want to see a repeat of the destruction of Atlanta. He realized that his small army would not be able to hold off the Union forces for long, so he ordered his troops to retreat to South Carolina. Savannah’s mayor, Richard Arnold, then surrendered the city on December 22, thus leaving it intact. Satisfied with this victory, Sherman, with his usual bravado, sent the following telegram to President Lincoln:

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

Sherman consequently became a big celebrity in the North, and the song, "Marching through Georgia" gained widespread and continuing popularity.

Meeting of Sherman with Black Ministers

Sherman was not alone in the celebration of his victory. Whatever destruction his army caused on the march to the sea, it also brought freedom to the slaves along that path. After Sherman set up headquarters in Savannah on E. Broad St., he met with Dr. William Pollard, a black veterinarian and deacon of the First Bryan Baptist Church. Sherman asked Dr. Pollard to assemble all persons of color in Chatham County and the surrounding areas to hear the reading and an explanation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Thus, on January 12, 1865, twenty black ministers and lay leaders met with Gen. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to consider the future of the slaves freed by Sherman’s advance, as well as free persons of color. Garrison Frazier acted as spokesman for the ministers in representing their views. When asked whether the black population would rather live “scattered among the whites” or by themselves, Frazier gave this very prophetic reply, “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over . . . “

Local Information

Online Sherpa Guides provide information about Civil War sites in Savannah, as well as area Confederate cemeteries, Fort Pulaski, and the Tybee Lighthouse.


Fort Pulaski
Virtual tour, Fort Pulaski

Sherman's March to the Sea
Sherman's March (Interactive History Channel site)
Battle Summary of Fort McAllister

Black Ministers Meet with Sherman and Stanton


All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)

Author: AppalAnnie is a retired college professor with interests in people, places, and public affairs; history; music of all kinds (with a few exceptions), especially "classic" folk, blues, bluegrass, and jazz; awesome vistas; Appalachian culture (e.g., folktales and music); and Judaica.

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