Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Film tells story of 1864 battle near Savannah, team's archaeological finds

Archaeologists have uncovered and analyzed bullets, canister shot, gun parts and soldiers' personal belongings that will help tell the story of a little-known action west of Savannah, Ga., during the final days of Sherman's March to the Sea.

About 350 Confederates slowed the advance of 12,000 members of the Union 20th Corps for seveal hours on Dec. 9, 1864, at the Battle of Monteith Swamp (Monteith Station). Although it was a relatively minor confrontation, it delayed the taking of a vital Southern railroad for a day.

The Federals were able to force the Rebels off the field near the Chatham and Effingham county lines, employing an effective flanking movement in the snake-infested swamp.

The LAMAR Institute team found the rusted and smashed remains of a Union soldier's Springfield rifle (below) in that portion of the battle.

"I guess someone lost the gun. It was pretty much laying in the swamp with the barrel still sticking out," said Dan Elliott, director of the non-profit archaeological group.

The group's research and the battle are detailed in a 15-minute film that will premiere April 12 at Fort Pulaski National Monument, which next week is marking the 150th anniversary of the fort's fall to Union forces.

The LAMAR Institute in 2010 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."

( Previous Picket coverage of the battle )

Local historian and documentary producer Michael L. Jordan worked with Elliott and re-enactors to make the film, entitled "Stalling Sherman's Army: the Battle at Monteith Swamp."

"It was a real chokepoint," Jordan told the Picket of the Confederate artillery-supported positions.

Union forces were anxious to lay siege to Savannah.

"When they got here they were hungry, tired and running out of supplies," said Jordan, owner of Cosmos Mariner Productions. "A small number of Confederate troops forced thousands of Yankees into one spot."

The team, working in late 2010 and early 2011, found about 50 bullets, most of them Yankee, the rifle, canister rounds, an artillery friction primer, buttons and personal items, including jewelry, the latter found at the site of an encampment occupied by Federal soldiers after the battle.

"It's always fun to go where we are supposed to find something and be able to prove it," Elliott said, who expects to submit his formal report on the project during the summer.

The battle was typical of desperate Confederate efforts to stall Union advances on Savannah.

The small force 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 advanced down Monteith Road from Zion Church. Around noon they hit Confederate positions.

“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,” historian Barry 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 one or two dead and six wounded.

"We have a pretty good understanding of where the battle is, based on the distribution of bullets," said Elliott.

Elliott is heartened by the fact that a local resident whose family has owned much of the battlefield since the 1870s is committed to its preservation.

That family has a trove of artifacts picked up over the years. Most of what was documented and analyzed by the LAMAR Institute was on their property.

But that doesn't mean parts of the battlefield in private hands aren't at risk.

Elliott cites the construction of a couple retail establishments and the anticipated rebirth of housing developments in the area.

He hopes the film and project will be the first step in drawing attention to threats to Savannah's wartime defenses. He'd like to see the movie shown on public television.

"Very little is done to preserve the area," Elliott said.

The archaeologist will attend the premiere of the film, made in conjunction with his research. Fort Pulaski that same evening will premiere another film by Jordan called "Savannah in the Civil War."

Observations of the war's 150th anniversary are "a good opportunity to tell the stories of the Civil War," Elliott said. "These are the resources we need to protect."

Images from the film courtesy of LAMAR Institute and Cosmos Mariner Productions. Fort Pulaski National Monument will air the two movies beginning at 7:30 p.m., April 12, on a wide screen in the parade ground. Admission for the screenings is $5 for adults. Children 15 and under are free.

Fort Pulaski 150th anniversary events