The Capture of Fort Pulaski
On April 10, 1862, an artillery barrage began on the last of the great coastal
forts built by the United States of America, Fort Pulaski. The stone
walls of the edifice were no match for the rifled barrels of a new cannon
developed shortly before the War Between the States. It was one of the
many technological advancements that would help the North win the Civil
Fort Pulaski sits on Cockspur Island, a low, marshy, coastal islet,
barely more than a reef, that divides the Savannah River into a North
and South Channel. It was called "The Peeper" by Georgia's original
colonists because it would be covered by water twice a day during high
tides. Peeper quickly grew, and within a short time no longer disappeared
at high tide. The name Cockspur came into use around 1750. According
to the National Park Service the name is applied to a jetty of rock
on the leeward side of the island, however, some attribute it to the
settler's name for a small, thorny plant that abundantly grows on the
Almost all of Georgia's early colonists either passed the island or
stopped on it, including John Wesley, the missionary preacher who may
have conceive the Methodist religion while on Cockspur. There is a commemorative
marker to Wesley on the island.
Twice forts were built on Cockspur Island before the construction of
Fort Pulaski. First, Fort George (named for King George II), then Fort
Greene (named for Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene). Fort George
was a blockhouse surrounded by a palisade, designed by Surveyor-General
John Gerar to provide an early warning in case Spanish ships attempted
to sail up the Savannah River. It was destroyed by patriots over a period
of two years from 1774-6.
Fort Greene's construction took place over two years starting in 1794.
The fort was comprised of an outer picket works, an earthen embankment
reinforced with timbers where the artillery pieces were set, and a small
guardhouse where the garrison was housed. In 1804 Fort Greene was destroyed
by a devastating storm, today labeled a hurricane. The waters of the
Savannah River washed over the island, sweeping the structures into
During the Revolution, royal governor of Georgia James Wright left
Savannah and took up residence on Cockspur Island on February 11, 1776,
after barely escaping Savannah with his Loyalist advisors. An English
fleet arrived, sailing up the river to Hutchenson Island to purchase
supplies. On March 2, 1776 the fleet was routed during the battle of
Yamacraw Bluff or The Battle of the Rice Boats.
Fort Pulaski and the Third System
The Third System was the name applied to a string of coastal forts from the
Florida Keys to Maine intended to defend the shores of the United States
against hostile invaders. This defensive parameter was built in response
to the English attack on Washington D. C. and Baltimore, Maryland during
the War of 1812. More than 200 forts were called for in the original
plan; of these 30 were actually built. Fort Pulaski was the last of
the Third System forts to be constructed.
In March, 1821 Brigadier General Simon Bernard, a noted French technical
designer whom President Madison breveted into the Corps of Engineers
to assist in fort construction, chose Cockspur Island as a location
for one of the Third System forts. It would take nearly 10 years before
Fort Pulaski began to rise from Cockspur mostly because of problems
with who owned the land. Finally, on March 15, 1830, a clear title was
secured by the federal government and construction began on the fort.
Building Fort Pulaski
First and most famous of the engineers who struggled to build Fort
Pulaski was Robert E. Lee. Freshly graduated from West Point, second
in a class of 46, Lee spent 17 months (beginning in 1829) building the
dike system, a drainage system and planning many of the technical details
of the support structure. He did not, however, build Fort Pulaski. Credit
for building the fort goes to Lt. Joseph Mansfield, the engineer who
oversaw construction from 1831 until 1845.
Count Cashmir Pulaski
Under Mansfield a two-tiered structure was built covering the entire
island as it stood in the first half of the 18th century. Brick for
the structure were transported to Cockspur Island a million at a time
from a furnace at the Hermitage, a plantation just outside of Savannah.
Specially hardened bricks were shipped from Baltimore to build supports,
arches and gateways.
In 1833 a name was finally chosen for the fort: Pulaski, after the
Revolutionary War hero Count Cashmir Pulaski. During the battle of Savannah
Pulaski led his men in a charge against the entrenched positions of
British regulars. He suffered a serious wound in the attack and died
two days later. According to tradition, his body was buried at sea near
the present-day fort.
While building the fort Mansfield overcame many obstacle, not just
engineering issues. At one point the U. S. government ran
out of money so Mansfield bought supplies under his own name on credit.
When the structure was finally completed in 1846 America was embroiled
in the Mexican-American War so outfitting the coastal fort had a low
In 1861 the condition of the fort was deplorable. The federal government
had overextended itself building the Third System forts, leaving little
money for maintenance. At Fort Pulaski the moat was filled with mud
and had been for so long that it was topped with substantial tufts of
sea grass. Almost 90% of the artillery positions were unfilled and the
casemates were so bad in the positions that had been filled that the
guns could not fire safely. Only a caretaker and ordinance sergeant
were stationed at the massive fort.
Confederates take the fort
As the United States moved towards war Washington was becoming increasingly
hostile to Southerners. Senator Robert Toombs warned Alexander Stephens
about changes occurring in the U. S. capital that could mean problems
for Georgia. Among the problems mentioned by Toombs was the disturbing
information that Joseph Holt, a strong supporter of the Union, had been
appointed Secretary of War. Then came word from South Carolina that
Major Robert Anderson had moved from Fort Moultrie to a defensive position
at Fort Sumter, spiking the cannon at Moultrie before he left. Clearly
the United States was preparing for war.
On January 1, 1861, while Georgians were going to the polls to elect representatives to the Secessionist Convention to be held later that month, Governor Joseph Brown was headed for Savannah at the request of Colonel Alexander Lawton, commander of the 1st Volunteer Regiment of Georgia. There was growing concern about the developing situation. Capturing Fort Pulaski would prevent the federal government from securing it as they had done to Fort Sumter. Col. Lawton laid out a plan to take the fort to Gov. Brown, who had arrived in Savannah about 9:00pm.
Brown and Lawton knew that only two men occupied Fort Pulaski at the
time and the Georgia governor felt it likely that federal troops were
preparing to man the fort. Savannah was not only a key port, but a key
rail hub as well. The loss of this important port city to the Union
would be an early blow to the Confederacy. Much of the South's manufacturing
was done in the North and commerce with England and France would be
important in offsetting this dependency. After discussing the situation
with his advisors and local residents, Brown approved the plans to capture
Rain greeted the 134 soldiers selected for the "attack" on January
3, 1861. 50 men from the Savannah Volunteer Guards, 50 men from the
Oglethorpe Light Infantry and 34 men from the Chatham Artillery packed
trunks for a 17-mile excursion on the steamship Ida to Cockspur
Island, arriving on the island at noon. Marching directly to the fort
the troops entered the gate, raised the Georgia state flag and commenced
to soldier, something they weren't particularly good at. It was, however,
something they became very good at under Fort Pulaski's new commander,
Captain Francis S. Bartow. By the time they left the fort in May, 1861,
the garrison had learned how to live and drill as a team. Bartow and
his men were ordered north to Virginia, where they engaged Union artillery
during First Manasas (Bull Run). Bartow (now a Brigadier General) died
from wounds received while leading the charge.
With the talk of war General-in-Chief Winfield
Scott was thrust into the limelight by the American press who viewed
him as a remnant of a former war. He was a heroic line officer in the
War of 1812 and a highly respected commander during the Mexican-American
War. In May 1861, Scott devised a plan to win the Civil War and presented
it to Abraham Lincoln. Featuring a naval blockade along the Atlantic
and Gulf coasts while infantry pierced the heart of the inland South,
the press named it Anaconda after the South American snake that slowly
strangles its victims.
Unfortunately, the northern press knew it would be a short war with
the Union quickly overpowering the Confederacy. Anaconda was heavily
criticized and was one of the major causes of Lincoln relieving Scott
of his command. Ironically, by the time Scott was officially relieved
from duty, preparation for Anaconda's naval blockade was well under
way. With the capture of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River in July,
1863 every aspect of Scott's plan had been enacted.
Winfield Scott enhanced the concept of amphibious fighting during
the War of 1812, then perfected the art with his assault on Vera
Cruz in 1847. By the middle of October, 1861, there was open discussion
of the upcoming coastal invasion of the South. It was no longer an "if,"
it was "where" and "when." General Scott worked hard to launch a portion
of Anaconda. He knew there was open discussion about relieving him of
his "General-in-Chief" post.
The Rebel coast was an easy backdoor to heart of the Confederacy.
Lightly defended except in the frequently used shipping channels and
riddled with inlets and islands that created a vast amount of coastline,
it was not hard to find a good position to land the boats. Additionally,
the Rebels, just as the United States before them, believed the coastal
forts to be impregnable.
On October 29, 1861 a force of some fifty-one vessels and 12,000 troops
left Hampton Roads, Virginia under the command of Flag Officer Samuel
F. duPont and Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. They were heading
to establish a base at Port Royal, a remote, easily defended position
some thirty miles northeast of Savannah. On November 1st the flotilla
ran into heavy storms while sailing around Cape Hatteras; on the same
day General Winfield Scott was relieved of duty.
The flotilla steamed into Port Royal under the command of Dupont, easily
defeating the Rebels in Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard, defending the
port. Marines landed, establishing a beachhead and a perimeter. General
Sherman moved inland, capturing a number of small towns, most notably
Beaufort, South Carolina. Speculation was that Union forces were on
the way to capture both the fort and the city of Savannah. On November
24, 1861 at 3:00pm federal forces leapfrogged to Tybee Island, taking
it without a fight. It was now clear Fort Pulaski was the objective.
When news of the landing on Tybee reached Savannah, there was widespread panic in the city. General Robert E. Lee arrived to take personal command of the situation. He had ordered the withdrawal of forces from Tybee because he realized that without a sufficient garrison of troops the artillery could easily be overrun, as it had been at Port Royal. One thing the Confederacy could not spare was troops, so Lee withdrew the men guarding the coast, moved the armament in the area to Fort Pulaski and Savannah and formed a stronger line a few miles inland.
Tybee Island was significant to General Thomas Sherman. A forward post,
it contained a lighthouse, the ability to see ships navigating the waters
around Fort Pulaski, and a refueling port for the Navy's coal-burning
Before the Battle
Inside Fort Pulaski Confederates under the command of Colonel Charles
Olmstead remained confident that they could hold the fort in spite of
the federals immediately to their south. The channel to Savannah was
protected by the fleet of Josiah Tattnall and weekly service to the
fort brought needed supplies. Then, while sailing down to the fort on
February 13, the steamship Ida was surprised by a volley of artillery
shells from the north bank of the Savannah River. Federal troops had
occupied and fortified a position without the knowledge of the Confederates
and they nearly destroyed the ship with artillery fire. Then the federals
cut the telegraph wire. The only contact the men had with the outside
world was via a twice weekly courier who would swim the channel at night
to avoid federal pickets.
Fort Pulaski's 385 men with 48 cannon and 6 months worth of rations
could probably hold out until September, even if the Federal troops
on Tybee stormed the walls. The clear approach, difficult entry and
courtyard perimeter meant that taking the structure by force would require
a huge amount of men and an unacceptable loss of life. Sherman realized
this and turned to Captain Quincy Adams Gillmore to take command of
the troops on the island and construct batteries to be used in a bombardment.
Gillmore began this task on February 21, 1862.
Building the batteries was not an easy task. Across the South Channel
of the Savannah River from Cockspur Island, the north end of Big Tybee
Island offered little protection, especially for the closest batteries,
Totten, McClellan, Sigel and Scott, all less than 2,000 yards from the
fort. Ordinance, weapons, shelter material and food had to be moved
across the swamps. Some loads, especially the weapons, required 250
men to haul from the port. On the morning of April 10, 1862 Confederates noted the changes to the landscape overnight. Chimneys had been toppled, guns lined the shore and a boat sailing under a flag of truce was on its way towards Pulaski. Captain Gillmore had sent a surrender demand, which Colonel Olmstead refused.
Batteries lined the northern end of Big Tybee island, the closest slightly
more than 1600 yards from the nearest wall of Fort Pulaski, the furthest
almost two miles away. The order to commence firing was given and at 8:10am
a 13-inch mortar shell from Battery Halleck exploded harmlessly in the
air beyond the fort. The second shell, a 13-inch mortar from Battery Stanton,
fell in the south channel. At first, while ranging the artillery, the
cannon fire was ineffective. Finally, the trajectory was set so that most shells landed in
the fort or hit the walls. Hitting the same spot over and over took time
and patience but the artillerymen slowly gained accuracy. By the end of
the first day Fort Pulaski was in serious danger; the Confederates' ability to return fire had been negated and 2-4 feet of the southeast corner from the parapet to the base now lay in the rocks below. The artillery fire was taking its toll.
||2 10-inch Siege Mortars
||2 84-pounder James (Rifled)
2 64-pounder James (Rifled)
5 30-pounder Parrott
1 48-pounder James (Rifled)
3 10-inch Columbiads
1 8-inch Columbiad
||2 heavy 13-inch Mortar
||3 heavy 13-inch Mortar
||1 heavy 13-inch Mortar
||3 heavy 8-inch Columbiads
||3 heavy 10-inch Columbiads
||3 heavy 13-inch Mortars
||3 heavy 13-inch Mortars
Inside the fort Colonel Olmstead held out little hope of help from
Savannah. Both Fort Pulaski and his command were falling to recent
technological advances in artillery. During the night Captain Gillmore
kept up occasional fire, if only for the psychological value.
Cool morning air greeted the men on either side of the sound on the
morning of April 11, 1862. The Norwich, a U.S. gunboat and artillery
mounted on a barge in Tybee Creek joined the battle. By noon the walls
of Fort Pulaski had been breached in two places and Union forces were
preparing to launch an assault. Gillmore, breveted to a brigadier
general, ordered the artillery fire to concentrate on the remaining
parapets to reduce the Rebel's ability to withstand a direct assault.
Now shells were passing through the breach and striking the north
magazine where 40,000 pounds of powder were stored. Colonel Olmstead
ordered the Confederate flag lowered at 2:30pm, then raised the white
flag of surrender. Gillmore demanded an unconditional surrender. Olmstead
had no other options.
Effect of the battle
There is no doubt that the loss of Fort Pulaski had a long-term negative
affect on the ability of the Rebels to sustain the war effort and
led to the defeat of the Confederacy. But the battle actually had
a significant long-term effect on how people fought wars. No longer
were the goliath forts of stone an effective defense against an invader.
In less than two days the United States Army had changed the face of
warfare that had lasted for 1,000 years.