At Savannah, Georgia, on Sunday, Dec. 18, having received Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s demand to surrender the city, Lt. Gen. William Hardee refused. However, it was clear that the city would have to be evacuated by the Confederates before their one route of escape to the north would be closed by the Union troops.
Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard was with Gen. Hardee in the city and urged an immediate evacuation, but Gen. Hardee was reluctant to leave. In Washington, the Congress of the United States and President Lincoln engaged in continuing discussions about reconstruction of the seceded Southern states. The rift between the president and the Radical Republicans seemed to be getting wider. President Lincoln issued another call for 300,000 volunteers to replace the casualties in the ranks. In Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis told Sec. of War James Seddon that he opposed abolishing conscription and substituting a rigid military organization, saying that he did not have time to experiment.
From Ft. Monroe in Virginia, an immense combined Union army and navy fleet set sail to attack and subdue Ft. Fisher, at the mouth of the Cape Fear river near Wilmington, North Carolina. The fort protected the last port available in the South for ships running the blockade. Commanding the naval portion of the operation was Rear Adm. David D. Porter; for the land portion, some 6,500 Union troops were led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, lately commander of the Union Army of the James.
Once out in the Atlantic, the fleet immediately encountered very heavy seas and storms that battered the ships. In Tennessee, some skirmishing took place near Columbia, where the Federals were unsuccessful in their efforts to cross Rutherford Creek to engage Gen. John B. Hood’s Confederates on the south side of the flooded stream. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, both Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan detached troops to reinforce the lines at Petersburg. In compliance with Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s orders, Gen. Sheridan sent Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert and 8,000 cavalry to attack the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonville, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and eliminate it as a source of supply to the Confederates under Gen. R. E. Lee.
On Tuesday, Dec. 20, a fruitless effort was made by the Federals to cut off Gen. Hardee’s escape route from Savannah across the Savannah River into South Carolina. Gen. Pierre Beauregard, with Gen. Hardee in the city, again urged evacuation of the Confederate troops. Without any Federal opposition, Gen. Hardee had his army of 10,000 hastily construct a pontoon bridge of some 30 rice flats across the river. The Confederates left behind 250 heavy guns and a huge amount of cotton. Gen. Hardee’s destination was north, towards a concentration of other Confederate troops.
The following day, Dec. 21, Maj. Gen. John Geary and his division from the 20th Army Corps entered Savannah. Gen. Sherman had been on military business at Port Royal, South Carolina, when the Confederates left Savannah; he was disappointed that Gen. Hardee and his troops had escaped. On Thursday, Dec. 22, Gen. Sherman entered the city, and almost immediately wired President Lincoln in Washington: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns, and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” Gen. Sherman then had his troops replenish their supplies, fixed defenses and reorganized the army. The loss of Savannah was a tremendous psychological blow to the South.
On Dec. 23, the badly battered Union combined fleet from Ft. Monroe arrived off Wilmington, North Carolina. Gen. Butler intended to destroy Ft. Fisher and its garrison of 500 Confederate defenders, under Col. William Lamb, by floating an old ship’s hulk loaded with 215 tons of powder to the fort under cover of darkness. The powder boat was sent off but it exploded in mid-channel before reaching the fort, causing a terrific explosion but doing no damage. This was the first fiasco of the expedition, which had been plagued from the start by mistakes, storms, dissensions between Army and Navy and by Gen. Butler himself. The next day began the first of a two-day naval bombardment of Ft. Fisher, to be followed by a landing of Gen. Butler’s troops north of the fort on Christmas Day.