Union Blockade and Coastal Occupation in the Civil War
Confederate defensive strategy, in turn, evolved with the Union blockade. After the fall of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861, Confederate president Jefferson Davis appointed General Robert E. Lee to reorganize Confederate coastal defenses. Lee quickly realized the impossibility of defending the entire coastline and decided to consolidate limited Confederate forces and materiel at key strategic points. He countered Union naval superiority by ensuring easy reinforcement of Confederate coastal positions along railroad lines. In this way, Lee minimized reliance upon the fledgling Confederate navy and maximized the use of Confederate military forces in coastal areas, including both Georgia's Sea Islands and mainland ports with railroad connections.
Confederate Privateering and Naval Innovation
But Anderson's remarkable feat also signaled to the Union that it needed to bolster its blockade and close off access to Savannah, which, like Charleston, South Carolina, to the north, offered an access point readily able to provide Confederate armies with necessary war materiel. If the Union hoped to wear the South down by cutting it off from the outside world, then it had to put a stop to incidents like the Fingal 's arrival at Savannah.
While smaller vessels than the Fingal sometimes did evade Northern capture, their modest hauls made for paltry victories. Because Union forces took control of the seas around Brunswick and St. Simons Island in the war's beginning stages, the virtual closing of Savannah's port to privateers like Anderson greatly contributed to eventual Union success in Georgia.
Fort Pulaski and Savannah Harbor
General Lee's decision to consolidate forces in 1862 began with the withdrawal of Confederate troops from St. Simons and Jekyll islands on the southeastern Georgia coast. On March 9, 1862, two Union gunboats arrived to find abandoned the earthwork batteries overlooking the channel between the islands. Sailing farther inland to the town of Brunswick, the ships found the town deserted and the wharf and depot ablaze.
Early in the war, 1,500 Confederate troops were ordered to St. Simons Island to defend it against the Union blockade. By the end of 1862 Lee had ordered those troops to move north to help defend Savannah, leaving St. Simons open to Union occupation. In June 1863 the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, one of the Union's first African American regiments, under commander Robert Gould Shaw, spent several weeks on the island and made an expedition up the Altamaha River. On June 11 they were ordered to attack the nearby port of Darien, which was thought to be a base for blockade-running activity. Despite objections from Shaw, his troops, along with the Second South Carolina Infantry, burned and looted the town, causing the greatest wartime destruction to civilian property along the Georgia coast. The film Glory (1989) recreates this incident, along with the Fifth-fourth's suicidal assualt on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.
Fort McAllister and Savannah's Surrender
Two years passed before Union troops moved on Savannah itself, and contrary to Confederate expectations, the assault came from the west, not the east. Savannah's other protective bastion, Fort McAllister, to the city's south on the Ogeechee River, became its last remaining hope and a primary obstacle to Union forces.
Drawing on this confidence, Confederate flag officer Josiah Tattnall sought to employ his ironclads to break through the Union blockade in Savannah's harbor. However, several ill-fated attempts to engage Union forces ultimately resulted in the loss of the ironclad Atlanta at the hands of the Union ironclad Weehawken on June 17, 1863. Though a new ironclad, the Savannah, became operational in July, along with two wooden gunboats, the Macon and Sampson, Confederate leadership in Savannah generally spurned offensive operations for the remainder of the war.
Nevertheless, in June 1864 Confederate naval troops managed a minor victory with the capture of the USS Water Witch. While anchored near Savannah, the Water Witch was captured by officers and crew members of the Georgia, Savannah, and Sampson. Ultimately, however, that small conquest did not improve the Confederacy's fortunes.
With McAllister occupied, Sherman effectively linked with the Union navy, sounding the death knell for Confederate Savannah. The Confederate leadership realized the hopelessness of the situation following McAllister's capture and withdrew their remaining forces across the Savannah River into South Carolina. In retreat, the Confederates set fire to their surviving naval squadron, including the ironclad Savannah, effectively ending any resistance to Sherman's capture of the city. In a telegram dated December 22, 1864, General Sherman presented the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln, ending both the March to the Sea and major military engagement on the Georgia coast.
Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).
Paul Calore, Naval Campaigns of the Civil War (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2002).
Roger S. Durham, Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
Jacqueline Jones, Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).
Dave Page, Ships versus Shore: Civil War Engagements along Southern Shores and Rivers (Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994).
William H. Roberts, Now for the Contest: Coastal and Oceanic Naval Operations in the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
James H. Welborn III, University of Georgia
Richard Houston, University of Georgia
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