Taking Fort McAllister with the 70th Ohio

     Private Thomas W. Connelly served four years in Co. G of the 70th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and saw action throughout the western theater, from fighting at the first day of Shiloh through Vicksburg and then the Atlanta campaign. As part of the hard-fighting 15th Corps, Connelly had seen and survived a lot but storming a Confederate fort with 21 frowning heavy guns must have given him pause. 

    It was December 13, 1864, and the place was Fort McAllister near Savannah, Georgia. Connelly and his comrades in the 70th Ohio had marched from Atlanta nearly a month ago on the epic March to the Sea. The men marched roughly 20 miles a day and subsisted off the country; they avoided pitched battles for the most part but with the Atlantic Ocean nearly in sight and the campaign drawing to a close, Fort McAllister needed to be taken to open the Ogeechee River to Federal ships. Opening communication with the powerful Union Navy would ensure General William T. Sherman's army supplies and bring the successful campaign to a conclusion. But Fort McAllister needed to be taken first.

    Fort McAllister was an earthen fort built along the shore of the Ogeechee River and was one of three primary defensive points protecting the important Confederate seaport of Savannah, Georgia. The fort had been built in 1861 and had fought and survived a number of engagements with the Federal navy. As the end of 1864 approached, Major George Wayne Anderson, commanding the garrison of 230 men, learned of the approach of Sherman's army but in the absence of direction from local commander General William J. Hardee, Anderson resolved to defend the fort to the last. Thomas Connelly picks up the story from here in an account he published in the 70th Ohio's regimental history...

Corps badge depicting a cartridge box with "40 Rounds" and a U.S. cartridge box plate. The apocryphal story as to the origin of the design of the corps badge goes back to Chattanooga at the end of 1863. The men of the 11th and 12th Army Corps from the Army of the Potomac had arrived in theater and sported their corps badges (crescents for the 11th Corps, stars for the 12th Corps) upon their hats and jackets. Spying a soldier sporting a corps badge, one soldier from the 15th Corps asked what the badge was. Upon being told that it was a corps badge, the 15th Corps patted his cartridge box and said that "this is the only corps badge I've ever had." 

On the morning of December 13th, our Second Division of the 15th Corps under the command of General [William B.] Hazen crossed the bridge to the west bank of the Ogeechee and marched down with orders to carry by assault Fort McAllister, a strong enclosed redoubt manned by two companies of artillery and three of infantry, in all about 200 men mounting 23 guns en barbette and one mortar. We reached the vicinity of Fort McAllister about 1 p.m. General Hazen deployed our division about the place with both flanks resting upon the river; our skirmishers were posted judiciously behind the trunks of trees whose branches had been used for abatis and about 5 p.m. assaulted the place with nine regiments at three points, all of them successfully.

General William B. Hazen
Library of Congress

About the middle of the afternoon a light column of smoke made its appearance and soon after the spars of a steamer became visible and then the flag of our Union floated out. What a thrilling joyful sight when the answering signal waved above us, we saw that the brave tars had recognized us and knew that our General was here with his army. The sun was now fast going down behind a grove of water oaks; all eyes once more turned toward the Rebel fort. General Hazen with our division was closing in, ready for the final rush of his columns directly upon the fort. General Sherman, from his position at the rice mill on the opposite side of the river, walked nervously to and fro, turning quickly now and then from viewing the scene of conflict to observe the sun sinking slowly behind the tree tops. No longer willing to bear the suspense, he said, “Signal General Hazen that he must carry the fort by assault tonight, if possible.” The little flag waved and fluttered in the evening air, and the answer came: “I am ready and will assault at once!”

The interior of Fort McAllister

          Our lines were formed as the bugle sounded softly the assembly.[Lieutenant] Colonel [Henry L.] Phillips of the 70th Ohio said to us in his cool, deliberate manner: “Boys, do you see that pile of dirt off yonder?” Answer: “yes.” “When we capture that, we will get something to eat.” We had been living on rice, cooked without salt or sugar, for about nine days and of course we were hungry. A warning answer came from the enemy in the roar of heavy artillery- and so the battle opened. Out from the encircling woods our lines moved with bright bayonets and our flag waving proudly to the breeze. Then the fort seemed alive with flame: quick, thick jets of fire shooting from all its sides, while the white smoke first covered the place and then rolled away over the glacis.

Our line moved steadily on with measured steps, unfaltering. Now the flag goes down. David Roderick fell mortally wounded with the colors in his hand; they are quickly gathered up, and a moment longer and our flag again is in the front. The line does not halt. The enemy’s fire redoubled in rapidity and violence; one and on we moved across the open field and through their netted abatis work. The darting streams of fire alone told the position of the fort. On and on, down into the great deep ditch and up the walls of the fort, not a man in retreat, not a straggler in the line of blue. The firing ceased: the wind lifted the smoke, a few scattering musket shots, and the sounds of battle ceased with the flag of the 70th Ohio flying from the highest parapet of the fort. The 70th Ohio was the first to plant her flag on the bombproofs of the fort, which was done in seven minutes after our lines began the charge upon the fort. The parapets were soon covered with the boys in blue who fired their pieces in the air over our victory! The fort was won; Fort McAllister is ours, it has been gallantly and bravely.

View from inside Fort McAllister overlooking the Ogeechee River with Federal vessels at anchor.

Then all of us who had taken part in the charge exulted in the triumph, grasped each other’s hand, embraced, and were glad, and some of us found water in our eyes. In half and hour we were congratulating General Hazen and in an hour more Generals Sherman and Howard were pulling down the stream, regardless of torpedoes, in search of the signaled vessel of the Navy. General Sherman opened the communication in person, sending a message home, and appointing an hour of meeting the next morning with Admiral Dahlgren and General Foster.

This evening we have enjoyed unrestricted opportunities of examining Fort McAllister. It is a large enclosure with wide parapets, a deep ditch, and thickly planted palisades, which latter are broken in several places where our men passed through. The dead and wounded are lying where they fell. Groups of soldiers are gathered here and there, laughing and talking of the proud deed that had been done. One said, “If they had had embrasures for these guns,” pointing to them, “we should have got hurt.” Another said, “It’s of no use, you can’t defend a work of this sort with guns en barbette.” This soldier was right. There were 21 guns large and small in the fort, all mounted en barbette, and the deadly aim of our sharpshooters had killed many of the garrison at their pieces. The artillery did very little execution, for we have lost only 90 men killed and wounded in our division, and many of these were killed and wounded by the explosion of the torpedoes which the Rebels had planted around and near the fort. Major [George Wayne] Anderson, who commanded the fort, says he did not anticipate an assault so soon and was hardly prepared for it when it came. In the history of the war, there will scarcely be found a more striking example of the wisdom of quick and determined action than this assault. Had we waited, built entrenchments and rifle pits, and made the approaches which attend siege operations, we would have lost many men and much time, and time at this crisis of the campaign was invaluable.

The photo identified by the Library of Congress as showing Sherman's men transporting ammunition from the magazine at Fort McAllister. Could these be men from the 70th Ohio? They give every indication of being western Federals, especially the fellow near the front of the line with the torn sack coat and misshapen hat. As Connelly indicates in his narrative, the 70th Ohio was on duty at Fort McAllister after its capture and perhaps this was the "light and pleasant" duty they performed. 

The victory of Fort McAllister, and the way it was done, is a grand ending to this most adventurous campaign. It is in reality the end, for here terminates our march. It is a fitting compliment to the 70th Ohio to say in this connection that for the bravery of this regiment in the storming of Fort McAllister, being first to plant her colors upon the fort in seven minutes from the commencement of the assault, as a just recognition of the splendid work done by both officers and men, General Sherman placed the 70th Ohio in charge of the fort as guardians of the castle, including all the captured siege guns, arms, and munitions. Our duty was light and pleasant, except at times when we were fighting the giant sea gnats.


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