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The Best Station of Them All

The Savannah Squadron, 1861-1865

Maurice Melton

Publication Year: 2012

The Best Station of Them All is the story of the Confederate navy’s Savannah Squadron, its relationship with the people of Savannah, Georgia, and its role in the city’s economy.

In this well-written and extensively researched narrative, Maurice Melton charts the history of the unit, the sailors (both white and black), the officers, their families, and their activities aboard ship and in port.

The Savannah Squadron worked, patrolled, and fought in the rivers and sounds along the Georgia coast. Though they saw little activity at sea, the unit did engage in naval assault, boarding, capture, and ironclad combat. The sailors finished the war as an infantry unit in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, fighting at Sayler’s Creek on the road to Appomattox.

Melton concentrates on navy life and the squadron’s place in wartime Savannah. The book reveals who the Confederate sailors were and what their material, social, and working lives were like.

The Best Station of Them All is an essential piece of historical literature for anyone interested in the Civil War, its navies, or Savannah.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiii

This is Bob Holcombe’s book. For more years than I’m willing to admit, whenever we met, Bob would ask: “How’s the Savannah Squadron coming?” Never with exasperation at the lack of progress but with interest and enthusiasm, and sympathy for a fellow writer burdened with real-world responsibilities that devoured research...

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1. The Georgia Navy

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pp. 1-7

All eyes were on Charleston. South Carolina’s efforts to negotiate with the new Republican administration had been rebuffed. There was no agreement on formerly shared property—like the newly built Fort Sumter in Charleston’s outer harbor. The U.S. Army had occupied it, moving there in the dead of night from...

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2. Tattnall: The Legend Comes Home

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pp. 8-12

In February seven seceded states sent representatives to Montgomery, Alabama, to bring the long anticipated Southern Confederacy into being. The transition period left Georgia’s armed forces in limbo. Henry Wayne wrote Commander Morris that naval matters now depended “upon the whim of the Provisional Government”—...

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3. The Georgia Coast Guard

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pp. 13-20

On the first Sunday in March, Commanders Morris and Kell, in their navy dress blues with new state brass, attended service at Christ Episcopal Church, with Bishop Stephen Elliott in the pulpit. The church was old Savannah’s social as well as spiritual center. This Sunday it was bright with the uniforms of the city’s military elite—...

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4. “Old Abes Blockade Is No Good in This Section”

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pp. 21-29

Lincoln’s call for volunteers to invade the South forced the last Southern army and navy officers to search their hearts, make a decision, and seal their fate, one way or another. They wrestled with their conscience, caught up in the crosscurrents of duty and family and allegiance....

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5. “All We Want Is to Be Let Alone”

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pp. 30-46

John Maffitt didn’t like the Savannah. He denigrated her to everyone who would listen. She was a fraud, he said, a frail little passenger steamer gussied up with a few guns and called a warship. He thought Tattnall’s entire flotilla a perfect example of Stephen Mallory’s chuckle-headed incompetence.1 Maffitt was full of grand ideas:...

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6. Sailors

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pp. 47-58

As Bulloch, Huse, and Anderson adventured overseas, Josiah Tattnall was trying to build a squadron. He was a good man for the job—famously courageous, a disciple of discipline, and a gifted teacher who protected and guided his young officers with fatherly concern. And they thought the world of him. To John Kell,...

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7. The Bermuda Shows the Way

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pp. 59-61

Henry Decie spent the summer ferrying Confederates between England and the Continent. To divert attention from those missions he kept a high profile challenging British yachts to races. At the end of August he sailed for the Confederacy. Fearing the blockade off Savannah, he made port at Jacksonville, Florida, and left the...

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8. A Future Navy

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pp. 62-67

When the Mosquito Fleet acquired the Firefly, Tattnall gave her to Lieutenant Oscar Johnston. She broke down on her trial run. Tattnall cautioned Johnston to be frugal in repairing her and offered the Savannah’s carpenter, Robert Bain, to oversee repairs. But the primary problems were with the machinery, and the little...

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9. Port Royal

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pp. 68-73

While the South celebrated its first victories at Big Bethel and Manassas and basked in the glow of independence, hard men in the North planned retribution. And the U.S. Navy was building its strength. Frigates and sloops of war hurried home from foreign stations, and construction and purchasing added scores of new vessels....

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10. Enter the Fingal

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pp. 74-78

Now that Bulloch had his first ship contracts (and understood something of the tactics and political resources of the U.S. ambassador, Charles Francis Adams), the need for a quick return to the Confederacy for consultation and a reconsideration of his instructions seemed imperative. And he had a major arms shipment to bring...

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11. “Happy Hearts and Happy Homes Are Now No More”: The Battle for Port Royal

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pp. 79-87

While the Fingal awaited her turn at the coaling wharf in St. George’s, Captain Du Pont’s scattered fleet began to regroup off the Carolina coast. The weather subsided and one by one the ships topped the horizon, altered course, and joined in the flagship’s wake. When the C.S.S. Savannah arrived in Port Royal Sound,...

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12. Bringing the Fingal Home

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pp. 88-92

Makin wanted to run for Port Royal. Bulloch and Anderson decided not; it would be Savannah as planned. Bulloch wanted to get the Fingal inside the blockaders and hug the shore as closely as he dared. Major Anderson understood the strategy: “My naval education had taught me that of all things most dreaded by...

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13. The Fingal, Tattnall, and Robert E. Lee

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pp. 93-103

The Georgia-Carolina coast had been without a military commander since Beauregard’s departure for Virginia six months earlier. Du Pont’s threat brought the region back to the government’s attention. The War Department created the Military District of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida, and gave Major General...

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14. The Enemy Outside

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pp. 104-115

The new year opened with four blockaders off Tybee Bar. Down in Wassaw around Romerly Marsh were two gunboats and a large steamer, and one of the gunboats was snooping up Wilmington River again.1 There were also three old hulks—part of the Great Stone Fleet of derelict whalers and merchantmen intended to...

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15. Lee Goes, and Tattnall Follows

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pp. 116-125

The administration ordered General Lee back to Richmond.2 As he left Coosawhatchie, Federal gunboats were pushing up the Savannah River, probing the woods with their guns. Tattnall’s officers gathered atop their pilothouses in the downpour, watching the enemy as they fired. A Union patrol on Whitemarsh Island...

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16. The Ladies’ Ironclad Gunboat

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pp. 126-128

Over the same weekend that Mallory ordered Tattnall to Virginia, John Stoddard of the Ladies’ Ironclad Gunboat steering committee asked Georgia Militia general Henry Rootes Jackson to build their ironclad. Some of Jackson’s state troops were already building small boats for the army at Harding’s Shipyard near Alvin Miller’s...

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17. Pulaski Goes Up

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pp. 129-135

The first day of April was pleasant enough, sunny and warm with a brisk wind blowing. But the next night the wind died and swarms of mosquitos appeared. The weather turned “miserably hot,” and clouds of mosquitos and sand flies assaulted everyone.1...

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18. The Lull

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pp. 136-145

New Orleans, where the brothers Tift were building their ironclad, was under siege. Down the Mississippi, David Farragut’s and David Dixon Porter’s squadrons were pounding Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Captain William B. Robertson, commanding Fort Jackson’s water battery, described the bombardment at night:...

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19. Ironclads for Savannah

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pp. 146-154

Up the river, hidden away at Purrysburg, the brothers Tift were working on the Fingal. They began buying tools—carpenters squares and rules, wedges, chisels, augers and bits, several big grind stones, carpenters’ hammers and sledge hammers and caulking mallets and spare handles for them all, caulking irons, rip saws and...

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20. The Interim

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pp. 155-158

The Savannah Squadron suffered through the summer. Dysentery was rampant. So were “rice field dropsies” and “intermittent river fever,” which often evolved into dangerous, and lingering, pulmonary problems. In late August the city received a fright when Dr. T. B. Ford diagnosed a case of smallpox aboard the...

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21. “The Poetry of the Profession Is Gone”

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pp. 159-170

The Atlanta’s captain would be Commander William McBlair, a bluff, hearty veteran of the quarterdeck with silver hair, a lantern jaw, and a ready smile. Now fifty-five, McBlair had ridden out the slave patrols and routine postings of the Old Navy alongside Farragut, Buchanan, Tattnall, and others whose stars had ascended, while...

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22. Training and Trials

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pp. 171-175

On December 5 all hands aboard the Atlanta were roused at four forty-five to greet a cold, black morning and a rising wind. Below, firemen stoked the furnaces. While the boiler heated, the crew weighed the stern anchors then went to breakfast. At 8:00 a.m. sailors invaded the junior officers’ quarters to raise the bow anchors...

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23. Christmas, 1862

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pp. 176-182

Two days before Christmas Dabney Scales went to town to shop for his mess. It was warm for December, the temperature in the low sixties.2 Scales dined with William Van Comstock (now first luff aboard Pelot’s flag boat Savannah), then enjoyed an evening with friends who introduced him to several young ladies. Around...

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24. The Promise of Ironclads

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pp. 183-197

The Yankees were gathering at Port Royal. Their fleet was crowding the harbor, no doubt preparing for an assault on Charleston or Savannah. This would be a perfect time for the Atlanta to strike. That was the kind of defense Tattnall relished—and Savannah wanted. The Atlanta’s crew was green and the ship not shaken down,...

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25. The Revolving Door

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pp. 198-216

A year to the day after orders carried him away from Savannah, Commander Richard Page’s path brought him back. After the battle of Port Royal he had been posted to the great naval manufacturing and repair facility at Gosport Navy Yard. When Norfolk was lost he salvaged most of the yard’s heavy equipment and built...

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26. “With a Few Blows Crushed Out All Hope”

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pp. 217-230

William A. Webb knew as much about fighting monitors as anyone in the Confederacy. As captain of the Teaser he’d been present at the dawn of armored combat, watching ringside as the Monitor and Virginia slugged it out. During Tattnall’s tenure in Hampton Roads he’d trained a team to board and capture the Yankee....

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27. The Aftermath

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pp. 231-250

Joel Kennard gave the department a thorough report of the Atlanta disaster. He stated the time the Atlanta opened the action—five minutes until five—and laid out Webb’s plan of battle: torpedo one monitor, then shoot it out with the other. He described the ironclad getting aground, afloat, then aground again, and the...

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28. Prisoners

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pp. 251-260

Fort Warren, on George’s Island at the outer reaches of the harbor, was the country club of prisoner camps. Early in the war it housed political prisoners from Maryland and Kentucky, resigning U.S. officers who refused to take an additional oath of allegiance, and Confederate officers and enlisted men captured at Cape

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29. Fall, 1863

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pp. 261-265

Autumn in Savannah was marvelous. People working indoors longed to be out, and families lingered on porches in the early evening. At naval headquarters, Captain Hunter may have barely noticed the weather. He was trying to run a squadron so depleted by transfers it could barely function. Hunter and Tattnall had both...

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30. The Great Christmas Riot

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pp. 266-275

On the second Sunday in November the first hint of winter arrived, the wind blowing hard and cold from the northeast. Four sailors from the Savannah chose that night to desert. About ten o’clock Bosun’s Mate Martin hurried aboard and told the officer of the deck that several women in town had heard some of his...

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31. Early 1864

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pp. 276-287

In early December Fort Warren’s command changed. Colonel Dimick was out, replaced by Major Stephen Cabot of the 1st Battalion Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers. Gibbes called him “a Boston cur—a cod fish-stinking, onion eating, Black Republican.” Cabot cut the prisoners’ ration drastically and answered...

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32. In the Doldrums

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pp. 288-292

For the officers at Fort Warren, the departure of Doctors Freeman and Gibbes deepened their despair. Early in their captivity a promise had come from Confederate commissioner of exchanges Robert Ould that at the first opportunity he would get them exchanged. They heard they would be exchanged for the...

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33. The Florida Boys

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pp. 293-304

Wednesday, February 25, 1864, dawned foggy and cold, and it stayed cold all day. The Federals began feeling the army’s front at dawn. The skirmishers held their ground, trading fire with Union infantry all morning and well into the afternoon. The Yanks brought up field batteries and began raking them with canister....

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34. Blockaded

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pp. 305-309

When old John Boston died, the Savannah Republican editor, James Sneed, succeeded him, both as collector of customs and head of the Confederate States Depository. To keep the books Sneed hired Charles Hardee, who counted among his uncles both Savannah cotton merchant Noble Hardee and General William J....

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35. The Water Witch

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pp. 310-329

Since the monitor assaults on Fort McAllister, a lone gunboat had been keeping the blockade in Ossabaw Sound. The Cimarron, Sonoma, and Fernandina had each marked time there, but by the spring of 1864 a little side-wheeler called the Water Witch was holding the sound. Built in 1852, she’d seen her share of gunboat...

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36. After the Capture

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pp. 330-333

The wounded arrived at the Liberty Street Naval Hospital at dusk. There were fifteen injured Yanks, seven of them officers and two petty officers, “wounded, with a few exceptions, in the head, with sabres,” reported the Savannah Republican. Assistant Paymaster Billings described the hospital as “a most commodious dwelling which...

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37. Securing the Prize

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pp. 334-342

The Yankees already knew they’d lost her. Around nine thirty Friday morning, as the Rebels were trying to get the Water Witch into the Vernon, the blockader Fernandina saw a man signaling furiously from Ossabaw Island. It was Peter McIntosh, the black sailor who had slipped overboard and escaped.1 When the...

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38. The Newlyweds

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pp. 343-348

The ranking Chattahoochee officer in the new Savannah contingent was Lieutenant George W. Gift. He expected to soon command the Water Witch. A Tennessee veteran of the Old Navy, Gift was gregarious and confident (overly so, many thought), a man of big ideas, and a big talker who too often confounded his critics...

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39. Waiting

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pp. 349-362

In late July the Savannah lost three of her black crewmen. Attorney D. A. Byrne wrote Commodore Hunter on behalf of William P. Ryan, who sought to recover his slaves Edward, William, and Charles. Byrne said Ryan “has never given his consent for these boys to enlist in the Navy—nor has he permitted any agent for...

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40. John Thomas Scharf, Midshipman

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pp. 363-368

There, in the war zone, the midshipmen were often called from the Patrick Henry’s classrooms to help man batteries ashore and fight the Yanks. Professors used these assignments to reward the best students, and Scharf was frequently among those sent ashore to fight. At the end of January 1864, he volunteered for...

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41. Savannah Feels the Pressure

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pp. 369-380

Sixteen months after being ordered overseas, Robert C. Foute returned to the Confederacy. While in Paris, Foute had been promoted to lieutenant. And there he had fallen in love. Life could be good for a Confederate naval officer in Europe. But at home, the country was fighting for its life. So he volunteered for assignment...

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42. Savannah Goes Up: The Squadron Shattered

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pp. 381-395

On December 8, John Tattnall’s marines were called into the trenches. They left Fairfield in a driving rain and marched to King’s Bridge on the Ogeechee, just above the Savannah & Gulf Railroad bridge. There they dug in, wet and chilled to the bone. Assistant Surgeon Marcellus Ford went along to look after them....

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43. Wilmington

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pp. 396-402

Off Wilmington, North Carolina, Admiral David Dixon Porter and Major General Benjamin Butler had Fort Fisher under siege. Wilmington and its flow of supplies were vital to the Army of Northern Virginia. General Lee wrote Major General W. H. C. Whiting that Wilmington must be held. Chase Whiting replied: “Stripped...

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44. Augusta

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pp. 403-409

The Macon, three years abuilding and less than a year in service, was rotten; so rotten that sailors could pull chunks of wood from her planks—even her timbers— with their bare hands. So rotten that the action of her engines had hogged her nearly eighteen inches. And she arrived at Augusta crippled. Above Shell Bluff she...

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45. Richmond, the “Aye, Ayes,” and Sayler’s Creek

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pp. 410-417

The Wilmington and Savannah sailors reached Richmond just before midnight on February 27. They formed up at the car shed and marched two miles through the city. When it started to rain the column halted. The officers sought shelter, leaving the men in formation in the rain. They stood it for half an hour, then...

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46. The End

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pp. 418-423

In Savannah the Federals expelled the families of all Confederate officers. The sorrowful group—reported to be a hundred in number—made their way to Sister’s Ferry. General Fry asked Hunter to send the steamer Leesburg to rescue them. Hunter gave the job to Joel Kennard. Then Fry added another duty. Major General...

Notes

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pp. 425-503

Bibliography

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pp. 505-516

Index

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pp. 517-541


E-ISBN-13: 9780817386108
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317638

Page Count: 532
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Confederate States of America. Navy. Savannah Squadron.
  • Savannah (Ga.) -- History, Military -- 19th century.
  • Georgia -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Naval operations.
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