Fort Pulaski – Where War Changed Forever

lighthouse, Savannah

There Was Surprisingly Little Damage To Cockspur Lighthouse From The Cannonfire Both Toward And From The Fort During The 36-Hour Battle.

We made two trips out to Fort Pulaski which is a National Monument near Tybee Island. Our first trip was late in the afternoon and we realized there was a lot to see plus a 1.6 mile walk (round trip) to the Cockspur Lighthouse. Then we learned that ranger led tours were done on weekdays at 10am and 3pm. OK, then we would come back. If you do visit here, the tour is a must. Our ranger was so informative that we stayed and talked with him for 20 minutes after the tour. That’s when he showed us the graffiti in the brick. For something we knew nothing about prior to our visit it was a most pleasant surprise. Many of you have recently seen the fort and not known it. This was used as the prison for Mary Suratt in the movie “The Conspirator”. We stood on top of the wall where the movie used a landscape shot and had computer graphics of 1865 Washington DC with the Capitol being constructed in the distance. Since we hadn’t seen the movie we ordered it through Netflix and had fun saying “We were there… and there… and there”.

Ready for another history lesson?  This one will be on a topic I never knew anything at all about, I never even heard of Fort Pulaski until we came and spent some time near Savannah.  Again, this is a Civil War story, but it begins long before the war, going back to the time of President James Madison and the War of 1812.

During the George Washington administration, some seacoast defenses had been built to protect the United States mainland, including Fort Greene on Tybee Island at the mouth of the Savannah River. This replaced a British Colonial fort, Fort George that had been destroyed by patriots over a two-year period during the Revolution. Subsequent administrations were not led by military minded men, and with other priorities, coastal defenses were allowed to deteriorate.  The Tybee Island fort was washed away in an 1804 hurricane and not replaced.  Then came the War of 1812.  The United States mainland was invaded by the British.  We’ll probably talk about the War of 1812 at some point in the future, probably this coming Spring, as we move up the east coast and visit Fort McHenry, but for now, suffice it to say that by war’s end, it was strikingly apparent that strong coastal defenses were necessary.

President Madison ordered a new system of coastal fortifications.  Nearly two hundred forts were called for, of which thirty were built in the next few decades along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, most of which still exist today.  Known as “Third System” forts, they were structurally stronger than anything built to date.  These “state of the art” fortifications built of brick and stone were intended to withstand all but the strongest of land artillery of the day.  A young engineer, Lt. Robert E. Lee, fresh out of West Point, was assigned to Savannah in 1829 to work on the last of these forts.

Robert E. Lee

New West Point Graduate, Lt. Robert E. Lee

Fort Pulaski, photography

Moat and Exterior Wall At Fort Pulaski

Located on Cockspur Island, the new fort would be more than a mile from Tybee Island, far beyond the half-mile effective range of the largest smoothbore cannon of the day.  Ship-borne cannon, smaller by far, could not hope to penetrate the eleven-foot brick and masonry walls.  Fort Pulaski, was named in 1833 to honor Casmir Pulaski, the Polish cavalry commander who came to support the revolutionaries under George Washington. He died of wounds suffered while leading a charge against British Regulars during the Battle of Savannah. It was built of 25,000,000 bricks, supported by pilings sunk seventy feet into the mud below, surrounded by two moats (by the by, occupied by local alligators) and with draw bridges and a drop-down gate at the sally port it resembled a medieval castle.  Slits through the brick walls allowed riflemen to protect the approaches, much like archers of times past. These were called loopholes and I think this is where the current term for getting around an obstacle developed. It was indeed, a formidable structure.  Lt. Lee made the remark that bombarding Fort Pulaski would be like attacking the Rocky Mountains.

Construction was slow, and it wasn’t completed until 1845.  An interesting fact, pointed out by our Nation Park Service tour guide, was that the drop-down gate at the sally port was built of wood, not iron.  Again, at this point in our history, coastal defenses were not seen as a major priority, and probably no one thought it worth the expense.  The original wood gate and doors still stand.  But with no threat from foreign foes, only a caretaker and an ordinance sergeant were stationed there to protect the Port of Savannah.

Fort Pulaski, National Monument

Main Door To Fort Pulaski

After the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860, it became obvious that the Federal Government in Washington was preparing for the possibility of civil war.  Major Robert Anderson had spiked the cannon at Fort Moultrie and left that fort to garrison Fort Sumter at Charleston.  On January 3, 1861, sixteen days before its actual secession from the Union on January 19, Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia and Colonel Alexander Lawton of the 1st Volunteer Regiment of Georgia, decided to take control of Fort Pulaski while they had the advantage of only two men there to defend it.  134 men from the Savannah Volunteer Guards, the Chatham County Artillery, and the Oglethorpe Light Infantry boarded the excursion steamboat Ida and arrived at the fort in the rain at noon.  The largely untrained militia marched up to the gate and raised the Georgia State Flag.  Pulaski belonged to Georgia.  Under the command of Captain Francis S. Bartow, the 134 men trained well. They left the fort in May, heading for Virginia and First Manassas, where Bartow died from wounds received while leading a charge on Union artillery.

By October, Union preparations for General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, to strangle the south by blockading and taking control of all ports, were well under way.  A flotilla of fifty-one vessels and 12,000 men, commanded by Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont and Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman left Hampton Roads to establish a base at Port Royal, thirty miles northeast of Savannah.  They easily defeated the Rebels at Forts Walker and Beauregard, then moved inland to capture numerous small towns, including Beaufort, South Carolina.  No one knew where they would head next, but it became clear on November 24, when they landed on Tybee Island, that their goal was Fort Pulaski and Savannah Harbor.

Civil War, Fort Pulaski

Colonel Charles Olmstead

Now under the command of Colonel Charles Olmstead, the Confederates inside the fort were confident they could hold out.  Protected seaward by the fleet of Josiah Tattnall, and provisioned weekly by Ida, they were sure they could not effectively be hit by artillery from Tybee, and that a ground assault would require a monumental number of troops and an unacceptable loss of life.  The fort was, after all, impregnable.  Now General, Robert E. Lee was in charge of the newly formed Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  Conferring with Olmstead, he remarked, “they will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.” At a mile and more away, Union artillery, assumed to be smoothbore cannon, had no chance whatsoever of destroying the massive masonry walls.  Lee recommended additional defenses, such as digging the parade ground inside the fort with continuous ditches, designed to catch cannonballs and using the dirt to cover large timbers leaned against the interior walls.  This should be sufficient to protect the interior of the fort from any shells that managed to reach it.

General Lee, Civil War

General Robert E. Lee

Meanwhile, on Tybee Island, General Thomas Sherman (not to be confused with General William Tecumseh Sherman, at this time serving in the Western Theater) knowing that a ground assault on Pulaski was not possible, turned over command of the troops to Captain Quincy Adams Gillmore with orders to construct batteries for an artillery assault.  Gillmore, knowing this job required the authority of more than a mere captain, asked to be brevetted Brigadier General.  The request was granted.  On February 21, 1862, Gilmore began work.

Fort Pulaski, history

Quincy Adams Gilmore

Somewhat of a shrewd politician, General Gillmore knew that if he wanted his brevet rank to become permanent, he would need not only the success of his mission, but the good wishes of all his superiors.  Thusly, he named the artillery batteries he was building Totten, McClellan, Sigel, Scott, Halleck, Sherman, Burnside, Lincoln (let’s not forget the President), Lyon, Grant, and Sherman.  And he had an ace up his sleeve.  He was a staunch advocate of the relatively new naval rifled guns, and managed to acquire five; two 84-pounders, two 64-pounders, and a 48-pounder.  With the closest battery only 1650 yards from the Confederate held fort, he managed to construct the eleven batteries without their knowledge.  By the morning of April 10, with twenty-nine more guns, conventional cannon and mortars, some requiring 250 men to move across the swamps, he was ready.

General Gillmore sent a boat under a flag of truce toward Fort Pulaski with a demand to surrender.  Colonel Olmstead refused.  The bombardment began.

It took a while for the Union artillerists to get their range.  The first shot overreached the fort.  The second fell short.  Finally, most of the shots were landing inside the fort, but due to distance and the “shot catcher” ditches Lee had ordered dug, there wasn’t much in the way of damage.  But slowly, the Union men began to gain accuracy with the “new-fangled rifled artillery”, hitting the same spot on the walls of the fort over and over. 

Return fire from the fort was mostly ineffective.  For the same reason Fort Pulaski was determined to be impregnable, the distance to Tybee, their smoothbore cannon was useless against the Federals.  Incidentally, according to our Park Service Tour Guide, the Rebels did have one rifled cannon of their own.  They fired it once, and overshot the Union batteries completely.  Not being familiar with it, it was abandoned and they returned to guns they knew how to operate.

That night, unable to see in the dark to sight his guns properly, Gillmore only kept up occasional fire, more for the psychological value than anything else.  By morning, a naval gunboat and artillery mounted on a barge joined the assault on the fort.  The 11-foot walls were breached in two places by noon, and now shells were able to pass through the breach and able to strike the north wall. The Union, having built the fort, knew the plans and where the powder magazine was located.  A shot passed through, ricocheted off a corner wall and hit the magazine.  Forty thousand pounds of powder exploded.  At 2:30PM, Colonel Olmstead had no option but to lower the Confederate Flag and raise the white flag of surrender.

Massive masonry forts, from the times of the Crusaders until April 11, 1862 the state of the art for coastal defense, were forever obsolete.  Rifled artillery reigned.  More than 5000 shots hit Fort Pulaski.  Two men, one on each side, were killed.

architecture, fort

Gun Emplacement: Note floor vent in lower left corner and chimney vent over gun at outside wall.

architecture, Fort Pulaski

Chimney Vent

architecture, fort

Floor Vent At Outside Wall

architecture, history

Floor Vent Inside The Wall

The ranger giving our tour explained a very ingenious method that was designed into the construction of Fort Pulaski for clearing the smoke when firing the cannon.  Black powder caused a huge cloud of smoke when ignited, and when smokeless powder was developed in the 1890s, it changed things considerably.  But during the Civil War, the clouds of smoke on a battlefield were a problem, especially when the guns were in a small enclosed space such as the emplacements inside the fort.

The muzzle blast and gun recoil when the cannon was fired would create an inrush of air into the gun emplacement.  With the doors to the interior of the fort closed, this air would be drawn in through a vent located in the floor just outside the door, toward the parade ground.  This vent was ducted to another vent in the floor, right at the exterior wall, near the muzzle of the gun.  Another vent, at the ceiling then acted as a chimney.  As the gun was fired, air would be drawn from the parade ground area and the positive pressure inside the emplacement would create a draft through the ceiling, drawing out the smoke.  Very smart!

Fort Pulaski, Civil War

Some “Kilroy Was Here” Type Graffiti Scratched Into The Brick By A Confederate Soldier In 1861.

Fort Pulaski, National Monument

Original Wood Door To Fort Pulaski Still Showing Battle Scars

Fort Pulaski, movie

Prison Area Used On Movie Set: This Should Be Familiar To Those Who Saw The Movie “The Conspirator”.

2 thoughts on “Fort Pulaski – Where War Changed Forever

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