Monday, August 9, 2010
Monteith Swamp: Trying to save what's left of an 1864 battlefield near Savannah
Jerry Dotson remembers the dirt fortifications he crawled on when he was a child.
Those redoubts built 100 years earlier at Monteith Swamp were an unwelcome sight for 12,000 Federal soldiers only days away from securing Savannah.
To win the city, men of the 20th and 14th corps and the rest of Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s 65,ooo-strong blue mass had to bust through a line of craftily-planned defenses erected by Confederate Gen. William “Old Reliable” Hardee (below) and a group of 10,000 defenders.
A contingent of 300 North Carolinians were among the scant 800 Rebel troops deployed along one stretch on the Chatham County and Effingham County line in December 1864. They employed four guns in the redoubts near modern-day Monteith Road.
“It was here that Confederate soldiers, weary and outnumbered, tried unsuccessfully to stave off the inevitable,” writes historian Barry Sheehy, who lives in nearby Rincon.
The title of Sheehy’s 2005 article in the Georgia Historical Quarterly refers to the minor engagements at Monteith Swamp (click photo above to enlarge) and nearby Shaw’s Bridge as “Forgotten.”
The battles slipped into history, a small footnote in the March to the Sea. A Google search on the Battle of Monteith Swamp doesn’t turn up much, either.
Fortunately, the battle is about to bubble back up from the quagmire of oblivion.
The LAMAR Institute, a non-profit archaeological group, recently received a $40,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service to “conduct archeology fieldwork to identify and document the battlefield as well as foster public outreach.”
The ABPP’s mission is to "safeguard and preserve significant American battlefield lands for present and future generations as symbols of individual sacrifice and national heritage."
Sheehy and the LAMAR Institute are concerned about urban sprawl in this semirural area two miles from I-95 and just west of Savannah.
“The ultimate goal is to keep these [lands] preserved in public domain,” says LAMAR director Daniel Elliott (left).
The NPS lists the Battle of Monteith Swamp as a “devastating loss” for the Confederacy.
Sheehy, Elliott and Dotson, who owns 90 acres containing much of the battlefield, including Harrison's Field (photo below) disagree.
They believe it was a successful, if momentary, “holding action.”
“I look at it as a brief victory for the South,” says Dotson, 65, a semiretired corporate pilot who has a home not far from the mostly-gone entrenchments
Elliott is waiting for the weather to get a little cooler and less buggy before he does the bulk of the survey, which he expects to submit to the NPS in late 2011. He will study about 500 acres and learn about the regiments that fought there.
Knee boots are essential wear for a foray into Monteith Swamp. Although alligator sightings are rare, the land is home to all kinds of snakes.
The Union troops that fought in the area recall the inhospitable terrain as a “morass.” Dropping to their bellies in the swamp water, even if to escape enemy fire, wasn’t appealing.
Still, they could taste victory and just needed to push through this line and a few other positions before grabbing the vital railroad linking Savannah and Charleston, S.C.
“The dominoes were falling when they left Atlanta,” says Elliott.
In his 2005 article, Sheehy lays out the circumstances and details of the Battle of Monteith Swamp.
“The advance of enemy soldiers across the state ignited a frenzy of defensive preparations along the coast,” he writes. “The idea that an enemy might approach from the landward side had been considered so outrageous that the Confederate authorities had largely ignored the possibility.”
Gen. Hardee built a strong set of defensive lines west of downtown Savannah. Part of that included flooded land, small lakes and more swamp land.
Sheehy, who is writing a four-volume series on Savannah, slavery and the war, says land behind the modern Savannah Christian Preparatory School several miles away has magnificent surviving earthworks.
Confederate Col. Charles C. Jones dug in to slow Sherman and protect railroad tracks near “Harrison’s Place,” a plantation field at Monteith Swamp that has been cultivated since before the Civil War and is currently leased by Dotson to a hay farmer.
The 14th and 20th corps with about 30,000 men advanced on three roads -- Monteith Road, Middle Ground Road and Old Augusta Road. (Photo above is a view from Meinhard and Monteith roads)
Jones’ detachment of 300 at Monteith Swamp strengthened its defensive works, felled trees and built an abatis and trench lines for its flanks. The Rebels used a long line of swamp to its advantage against an overwhelming force.
On Dec.9, 1864, the entire 20th Corps (12,000 regulars) under Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams (below) advanced down Monteith Road from Zion Church. Around noon they hit Confederate positions.
“They had the Confederates on the redoubts, right in their face,” Dotson tells the Civil War Picket.
“The sounds of fighting could be heard for miles, as units of the Twentieth Corps began to stack up like an accordion along the narrow road,” Sheehy writes.
A flanking movement became bogged down in marsh and reinforcements flooded in to assist the 61st Ohio, the 31st Wisconsin and the 82nd Ohio. The going was slow.
Eventually, a flanking attack on the Rebel right bought some high ground and sent the Confederates out of their entrenchments, across Monteith Road and to Harrison’s Place, where they fought some more.
By late afternoon, the defenders were gone, leaving knapsacks and camp equipment but taking their colors and four guns with them. The Confederates had about 14 killed and four captured in the six-hour battle. Union losses were two dead and six wounded.
Union forces got to the railroad the next day and rolled up the Confederate defenses on the western line. The loss of Fort McAllister soon after spelled the end for Savannah. Sherman had ships to bring in supplies and a “biscuit line” to feed his massive army, Sheehy says.
Hardee skillfully escaped with the remnants of his army into South Carolina.
Subdivisions have been built in recent years near the Monteith battlefield. But the area still maintains a somewhat rural feel, with nearby churches like White Oak Baptist (right).
“It’s all doomed,” Sheehy says of remaining open land. The Georgia Battlefields Association lists Monteith Swamp as an endangered battlefield.
Sheehy believes Chatham County should buy and preserve the site, especially Harrison’s Place.
Dotson takes part in Georgia’s Conservation Use Value Assessment (CUVA) program. Landowners who donate an easement automatically qualify for the lowest property tax assessment.
He has turned down development offers and would like some government or group to buy Harrison’s field. The land currently is worth between $30,000 and $40,000 an acre.
“I would just hate to see any of my children develop that place,” says Dotson, who can trace the land back to his great-grandfather, Zachary. “It’s one of the last battlefields still intact.”
Over the years, Dotson has unearthed some treasures. A metal detector yielded what probably is a soldier’s ring. He has found hundreds of bullets, dozens of buttons, a buckle and a couple of artillery shells, including a Hotchkiss.
His grandfather and father passed down remnants of two swords and two rare rifles.
He doesn’t know how much longer the area will stay as it is.
“You can see the builders are starting back,” Dotson says.
Photos of battlefield and church courtesy of Cindy Wallace.