The night Savannah was evacuated by the Confederate army the rear guard of the forces was composed Companies A, B, and K of the Sixth Regiment, Confederate Reserves, commanded respectively, by Lieut. Bilboe, Capts. W. M. Davidson and J. R. Johnson. This battalion was under Maj. Cunningham as provost marshal and was composed of boys with a few men to fill out the ranks. To these boys was paid the compliment of the post of danger which is the post of honor: to protect the rear of Hardee's corps and guard the city until the last minute, and only to leave when the enemy was in half a mile of them.
It was a night of terror, for no one knew what the morrow would bring forth. Sherman had burned Atlanta and had driven the helpless women and children into exile. What he would do to Savannah was a question often asked, but no one could answer.
The day before had been one of confusion and anguish. The soldiers were passing over the Savannah river on pontoons, regiment, following regiment, infantry, cavalry, artillery. Long lines of army wagons had also gone to seek the safety of the river on Carolina soil. Here and there could be seen a carriage whose owner had been fortunate to secure a passport.
The negroes had a half-scared, half-expectant look. Let me now give full credit of the old slave negroes that the trouble the rear guard had was not with them, but with a certain class of whites, at least they had white skins, the color of their hearts was known only to their God and themselves. While the city was at the mercy of the negroes for half the night, not an act of vandalism was committed by them. The hundred soldiers who were in the city would have been helpless before them, had they been evil minded. It was the white scum of the city that came out of their dens like nocturnal beast to the work of pillage.
This disorderly element began to manifest their intentions for evil early in the morning previous to the evacuation; details had to be made to protect commissary and other stores. The buildings at the corner of Bay and Lincoln were filled with army rations and to protect them a squad was sent. Soon the street cleared of people and sentinels posted at the intersection of Bay and at the lane. To share the animus of the lower class, after all orders had been filled, after dark the officer in command wished to send more supplies to his family among other things was a barrel of lard, which was rolled out of the warehouse. The men on duty in the meantime had been withdrawn from their posts and through curiosity had gone into the building. When they returned to the street the lard had vanished. Some of the rabble had rolled it off. Another detachment guarded the market, the butchers, as was then the custom, had hung their beef on hooks in their stalls, but it is a question if any one tasted that beef except the thieves who stole it after the guard was withdrawn.
The old Oglethorpe Barracks on Bull street, now the site of the DeSoto House, was the headquarters for the battalion. The boys had slipped off during intervals to say good-bye to loved ones at home and then hurried back to quarters. Without time for a nap they were ordered into line and marched double quick to Market Square to protect the stores from the mob which was looting them. During the war what little business that was transacted was around or near the Market. Here merchants who were exempt from military duty or claimed foreign nationality made money and their stores were filled with goods.
When near Broughton and Whitaker the boys heard the crash of doors before the rush of the robbers. Men, women and children would force open a door but like hungry dogs after a bone, each for himself, indifferent to the property or the rights of others, they would grab, smash, pull, tear, anything, everything, shoes, meat, clothes, soap, hats, whatever came to hand. First they would take, then run to hide their spoils in some place, only to return and swell the crowd at some other point. If you want to know what brutes human beings can become, wait and watch them in such a time as this was.
It was a lively time. With the boys divided into squads, they would run up one street, down another clearing store after store of the toughs and the roughs, but it was all in vain, for as soon as one building would be cleared, they would hear the crash of doors on another block. It was the same work over and over.
Toward daylight the officers knew that Sherman's advance guard must be approaching the city. The whole command was then formed in line and marched to the Exchange Bank to take passage on the steamboat Swan for Screven's Ferry on the Carolina side of the river.
Companies A, B and K of the Sixth Georgia Regiment were the last Confederate soldiers under arms that trod the beautiful streets of Savannah. As these boys marched along they could hear the roar of the robbers and the breaking in of doors, which with the click of their heels on the sidewalks made melancholy music, the only music in that sad hour by which to keep time.
Every arrangement had been made for the removal of the army from Savannah.. Those who are familiar with the location of the city know that it is built on the south side of the Savannah river with Hutchinson Island in front. North of that island is also another river, so that two wide rivers have to be bridged.
To accomplish that, rice flats from the plantations had been gathered and fastened end to end. These flats after being properly secured were covered with planks and formed a safe pontoon bridge over the rivers. The city end of the bridge rested near the foot of Barnard, known Market dock. Every command had gone over this bridge except the three companies above mentioned. This little band of boys waited that December morning under the Exchange steeple for further orders.
As they were about to go on the Swan, some one of the command remembered that one company of the regiment which was on special detail had not been relieved. This company under Capt. Ben Milliken (now a merchant in Jesup, Ga.) had been on a week's detail at the old Confederate Powder Magazine about a mile west of the Canal. It was now near six o'clock in the morning and it was a question of minutes if a courier could be sent in time to notify; Capt. Milliken and save him and his company from being captured. Some of the officers ran up the bluff, then up into the Exchange steeple to see if the Yankees were in sight. There was no time for couriers then for Sherman's advance guard was near Central Railroad bridge over the Canal at the city limit. Orders were given to go aboard, the steamer started, and the city was left to the enemy.
After the war was over the writer of this article learned that owing to the confusion incident to the evacuation, no order had been issued to Capt. Milliken, and that he did not know that the city had been surrendered. The sentinels were on duty as usual when the first Yankees appeared in sight. One of these sentinels, James Horne, late of Liberty county shot down the first one that appeared and came near being killed himself. The whole command was carried to a Northern prison.
The majority of the rear guard were Savannahians and were about to leave their homes and loved ones to the foe they loathed. These thoughts can better be imagined than described. When the command was getting on the boat an affecting scene was witnessed by a few of the men. A young negro man ran down to the boat to tell his master, Capt. W.M. Davidson, good-bye. The officer told the man, "Take care of my wife while I am gone, will you?" The negro with tears and sobs said that he would. The charge was repeated and the answer reaffirmed. To his credit, be it said, that he was faithful to his trust. What white man now would be willing to leave his wife to a free negro man's care? The old time slave could be trusted with impunity.
All were soon aboard the steamer Swan, which in antebellum days plyed between Savannah and Augusta. As she slowly turned into the stream, a grand, but fearful sight met the eye. Fire, fire, everywhere on the river front.
The flats which had formed the pontoon bridge had been set on fire after the army had crossed the river. Some were entirely consumed, others had drifted and lodged against the bank on Hutchinson Island, some were still linked together and were burning fiercely. Others were floating down the river like huge torches.
Above the Habersham Rice Mill at Krenson and Hawks Shipyard, there was a number of unfinished gunboats for the Confederate government. Some had been launched, others were still on the ways. These were all on fire below the city. At Willink's Shipyard, there were other gunboats which were also in flames. In the stream were also other Confederate vessels of various descriptions which were in flames. They had been in commission and had done good service in a small way. The only war vessel saved from the flames was the Savannah, which was reserved for a time, and was anchored near Screven's ferry. The ladies' gunboat, Georgia, built in the early days of the war by the efforts of the women of Georgia, one of the first iron clads ever built, went up in smoke.
It was a quiet cool morning. Very little wind was blowing. The flames were vertical, and now and then a little breeze, enough to make their pointed tongues move from an upright position, giving them a semblance of life..
As the Swan moved down the river she passed the little steamer, Ida, making a short trip up the river, and which was to prove her last work for the Confederacy. On this midget of a steamer was the officer who had been detailed to superintend the work of destruction. The cheeks of the men were warmed by the heat from burning vessels which they passed. Their eyes were weary with looking at the flames, which the river, like a huge mirror, reflected from beneath. The men were subdued in spirit, quiet in voice and sad at heart.
Long after daylight, the Swan reached Screven's ferry, where all disembarked. The ram, Savannah, as already mentioned was at this place a weak protection from boats that could have come up the river from Fort Pulaski. In a few days she was destroyed and Sherman then had uninterrupted communication with the fleet at the mouth of the river.
In Carolina, the three companies joined the regiment and followed the Stars and Bars until the surrender of Johnston at Greensboro. Previous to the surrender, the command, like other skeleton regiments, was consolidated with other regiments. Some were assigned to the First Georgia Regulars, others to the Thirty-second Georgia, while a few were sent back to Augusta, Ga., but the end came before they reached the state.
Over thirty-eight years have passed since that December morning in 1864 when the boys were waiting on the Exchange dock for orders to take the boat that would leave Savannah without a Confederate soldier to protect her from the foe. Only a few now gray-haired men remain of that battalion of boys. It is correct to say that only two of the officers are now alive, one the senior officer, Maj. John Cunningham and Lieut. William Rogers of Savannah. All the others and most of the boys have already answered the great and last roll call.
George A. Blount, May 25, 1903
George Adams Blount (1846-1925) was born and raised in Savannah and is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery. He volunteered and entered the Confederate Army service with the Savannah Cadets in the spring of 1862 after service in the Georgia State Army for one month. This Company became Co. F., 54th Georgia Volunteers. After several months, his father had him released because he was not yet 16 years old. He enlisted again on April 16th, 1864 in the battalion which became the 6th Georgia Reserves. He was in Co. "K".