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A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/In front of Savannah

< A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry

In Front of Savannah

We encountered the enemy in force for the first time fourteen miles from Savannah, in Monteith Swamp, where they had built an earthwork across the road and felled trees in front of it. The First Brigade of our Division was sent around to their left, and our Brigade to their right, while the Third Brigade moved forward on the center. Our plan was to hold their attention to the front, while we got around on their rear. They discovered us in time, however, to escape. Captain Kleven of Company H, who with his skirmishers, was in advance of our Brigade, made a rapid movement forward as soon as he saw the enemy falling back, and succeeded in capturing three prisoners. The First Brigade opened fire at about the same time, sending a few bullets over our way, and severely wounding in the foot, Captain Buck of Company B. The Third Brigade also came up in time to claim a share in the honor of capturing the three prisoners. Finally, to settle the dispute, the prisoners themselves were brought to Division headquarters, where they pointed out Captain Kleven as their captor.

At Monteith Station we captured the post-office and a considerable mail. The letters, which were mostly written by the soldiers whom we had tried to capture the day before, afforded the men an abundance of fun.

On the 10th we marched to within about four miles of Savannah, where we were stopped by the entrenched enemy. While we were getting into line, a detail of foragers, gathered along the banks of the Savannah River, spied a small steamer coming up the stream from the city. They hid themselves along the shore until the boat was directly opposite, when they opened a musketry fire and compelled the craft to surrender. It proved to be a Confederate dispatch boat on its way up the river to warn the fleet that Sherman and his army had arrived. The fleet did not receive the warning, and interesting developments followed. The men who had captured the prize did not know its value, and after stripping it of everything they wanted, set fire to it.

The country between our lines and those of the enemy was a big rice plantation, which overflowed at every high tide, and which could be kept under water by closing the flood-gates. The only means of access to the city were the narrow causeways built through this swamp. At the point where we were located, the Savannah River is divided by Argyle Island into two channels, the main or navigable one being near the Georgia shore. The island is about ten miles long, and at our end something like a mile wide. It was occupied by a large rice plantation, which naturally overflowed about two feet at high tide, but which had been ditched and diked so that the flow was regulated at the flood-gates. If we could control these, we could keep the island passable. The plantation buildings were situated on the east side, near the channel, where a number of acres rose high enough above the general surface to be safe from overflow.

On the evening of the 11th our Regiment was ordered across to Argyle Island. There were on hand, but two or three skiffs, and only a portion of the men could be brought over that night. In the morning the crossing was being continued, when suddenly the discovery was made that three steamers were coming around the bend of the river on their way to Savannah. Owing to the vigilance of our foragers on the previous day, they had received no warning of the presence of Sherman's army.

Captain Winegar of Battery M, First New York Artillery, had his rifled guns in position on a slight elevation along the shore, where he commanded the river for a stretch of nearly a mile. As soon as the steamers, which were a part of Commodore Tattnall's Mosquito Fleet, came into plain view, he opened on them. They probably had never before been under fire for their crews seemed confused. The first craft, which was a gunboat, commenced immediately backing and turning. The second, the armed tender "Resolute," started to do the same, but was run into by the third, and so badly crippled that she drifted ashore against Argyle Island. The other two vessels managed to escape up the river.

While the miniature naval battle was going on, our men who were on the island, under command of Captain Barager, had hastened to the scene. When the "Resolute" drifted ashore, they were on hand to prevent the officers and crew from making their escape in small boats, as they had started to do. There were twenty prisoners in all. We afterwards had a fine lot of fun listening to the officers as they accused one another of being the cause of the disaster. The "Resolute" was towed over to the Georgia shore, near the battery, but could not be repaired in time to be of any service in our future operations on the island.

The question of rations was at this time becoming vital. One day's allowance had been issued to us on the day after our arrival in front of Savannah. We were, therefore, on the lookout for anything that might serve to supplement our supplies. As soon as my Company had come across to the island, we took the shortest route to the plantation buildings on the east side. Not a thing was left; those who had come before us had already absorbed everything. But at the landing I found a good six-oared boat that would carry about ten men besides the rowers. Impressing a crew of negroes to row the boat, I started for a plantation on the other side of the river, about half a mile up, thinking that I would be the first man of Sherman's army to invade South Carolina. On landing, however, I was told by the blacks that two of our "bummers" had been there the day before, and in an altercation with the plantation hands had killed one of them. The funeral was just going on when we arrived. Subsequent events made me believe that Wheeler's Cavalry, and not our men were responsible for this tragedy.

I placed a sentinel out on the only road by which a mounted force could approach, and then began a search for eatables. We soon were rewarded by a good supply of sweet potatoes and sorghum. In the boat-house we found a fine lot of boats; as these were especially valuable for our purposes, we shoved them all out into the river to float down to our landing on the island. We had just loaded up our supplies, when my sentinel came running in with the report that a large force of cavalry were coming. We hastily pulled back to the island and waited for them; but they did not come to close quarters and soon retired.

Three days later I was sent out with Captain Barager's Company and my own to take possession of this plantation. We knew that the enemy now held it in some force, but we did not know how strong they were. I had secured boats enough on our first raid to be able to take over both of our companies at one time. We started in the morning, when it was as yet scarcely light, hoping to come upon the enemy unexpectedly. Their sentinels discovered us, however, and fired on us while crossing. We landed about a quarter of a mile from the plantation buildings and rapidly pushed forward. I sent Barager with his Company to the right, while I took the direct course to the rice mill, in which the enemy were sheltered.

The country was broken up into a mass of ditches, dykes, and canals. We found that our only road was along a narrow dyke, and that we should either have to return or charge them in single file. We did not retreat. In less time than it takes to tell this story, we had the mill. They gave us one volley and hit nobody. We did not fire a shot. They escaped with their guns and ammunition, but we captured all their provisions, including their breakfast cooking on the fire. For the first time in three days we had all that we wanted to eat. Colonel Hawley came over soon after, with three more companies, but toward night the Confederates appeared in such force that we again withdrew to the island.

The next morning the enemy brought down a section of artillery to the Smith Plantation, as it was called, and commenced shelling our island camp. I was sent with my Company to get as close as possible to them on our side of the river, and either silence them or drive them off. I got up within about a hundred and fifty yards of them and opened fire. They immediately turned their guns on us, and for a few minutes gave it to us hot. We had good shelter, however, and lost only one man—John Furlong, a veteran of Company E. It took me about twenty minutes to drive off the battery, but their infantry held out all day.

On the 19th the whole Brigade crossed over to the Smith Plantation, with a section of artillery. Entrenchments were built at all commanding points, and preparation made to hold the position. On the 20th Colonel Hawley made a reconnoissance in force toward Union Causeway, the only Confederate outlet from Savannah, but found the enemy in such strength that he could not reach it. But from our position we could see the lines of their wagons leaving the city. On the morning of the 21st it was found that the enemy had evacuated Savannah, and our troops moved in and took possession.

We now received orders to recross the river to the Georgia side and march to Savannah. We had nothing but flatboats to cross in, and a strong wind was against us, so that we made slow progress while our Regiment covered the crossing. When all the rest had passed over, and we were about half embarked, the enemy swarmed down upon us by the thousand. They had us surrounded on three sides, with a river behind; and our chances for seeing Savannah were not brilliant. Nevertheless, we faced about and prepared to fight them. Our friends of the Second Massachusetts came, without orders, back to our assistance, and placed themselves where they could cover our flanks. We were sheltered behind a dyke, and the enemy could not get at us save by charging across an open rice field; this they did not have the nerve to do, so that when darkness settled down we got off safely to the island. I think there was not a man in our command, but thanked his lucky stars that it was not some of Lee's veterans that had us in that fix that night.