Thursday, September 4, 2008

Durham: "Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond"

[ Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond (Studies in Maritime History series) by Roger S. Durham (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008). Cloth, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 220/301 ISBN: 978-1570037429 $39.95 ]

Built on the Great Ogeechee River's south bank at Genesis Point, the Confederacy's Fort McAllister guarded the southern flank of Savannah and successfully prevented Union amphibious forays against the nearby rail line before falling to General Sherman's army in December 1864. The small in size yet powerfully armed earthen fortification has been the subject of a handful of minor book length publications before finally receiving full treatment in Roger Durham's latest book Guardian of Savannah.

According to Durham, beyond the fort's intrinsic importance to the Confederate war effort, McAllister is worthy of study for two other reasons. First, the installation served as a testing ground for the Union navy's new ironclad warships, assessing the vessels's defensive and offensive capabilities, all with a mind toward ultimately defeating Charleston's ring of earthen and masonry fortifications. This context has been examined in the literature before, perhaps most notably by naval historian Robert M. Browning for his study of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, but not at Durham's level of detail. Finally, with the vast majority of earthworks victims of man-made destruction and/or natural erosion, McAllister remains one of the best surviving examples of a Civil War enclosed earthen fort. It's existence today is owed to the preservation efforts of industrialist Henry Ford and the International Paper Company, the latter deeding the site and surrounding land to the Georgia Historical Commission. All of these preservation initiatives are summarized by Durham, the text supported by a number of period photographs.

In addition to providing a carefully researched service history of the garrison units and a recording of Fort McAllister's planning and construction, Durham's narrative covers the various Union naval attacks in some detail (especially those conducted in early 1863). Throughout his study, the author reproduces extensive block quotes from primary sources, preferring to convey the most important events to the reader in the words of the participants. The December 13, 1864 twilight infantry assault by Hazen's division that finally captured the fort is reconstructed in minute detail and in stirring fashion. It is by far the best account I've come across.

Durham's bibliography and notes are heavily weighted toward materials from various manuscript collections. Author and publisher should also be applauded for including so many maps and photographs. In addition to the archival reproductions spread throughout the text, there is a wonderful appendix included that graphically traces (in eight exquisitely detailed drawings) the progressive development of the fort, from a simple entrenched battery to a fully enclosed earthwork. What's missing are some original maps better depicting the terrain surrounding the fort and how McAllister was integrated into Savannah's overall defense network.

Another appendix reproduces and analyzes 26 of the Samuel A. Cooley photographs. Taken only days following the fall of the fort to Hazen's assault, these images provide the reader with beautifully crisp and panoramic views of the fort's interior and surrounding landscape. The photos also include rare images of Sherman's men at the conclusion of their famous March. Cooley's work is a wonderful visual history of the fort and battle.

Guardian of Savannah is a thoughtfully produced, deeply researched, and well rounded study that should be regarded as the standard historical work dealing with Fort McAllister. It's a useful and attractive addition to any Civil War library. Highly recommended.

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