Since mid-November of that year, Sherman’s army had been sweeping from Atlanta across the state to the south and east towards Savannah, one of the last Confederate seaports still unoccupied by Union forces. Along the way, Sherman destroyed farms and railroads, burned storehouses, and fed his army off the land. In his own words, Sherman intended to “make Georgia howl,” a plan that was approved by President Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of the Union armies.
The city of Savannah was fortified and defended by some 10,000 Confederates under the command of General William Hardee. The Rebels flooded the rice fields around Savannah, so only a few narrow causeways provided access to the city. Sherman’s army was running low on supplies and he had not made contact with supply ships off the coast. His army had been completely cut off from the North, and only the reports of destruction provided any evidence of its whereabouts. Sherman directed General Oliver O. Howard to the coast to locate friendly ships. Howard dispatched Captain William Duncan and two comrades to contact the Union fleet, but nothing was heard of the trio for several days. Duncan located a Union gunboat that carried him to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Supply ships were sent to Savannah, and Duncan continued on to Washington, D.C.,to deliver news of the successful March to the Sea to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
For ten days, Hardee held out as Sherman prepared for an attack. Realizing the futility of the situation, Hardee fled the city on December 20 and slipped northward to fight another day.