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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 War.

Cockspur Island

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 island.

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 the sea.

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 priority.

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 Fort Pulaski.

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.

Anaconda

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.

Preparations

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.

Initial landings

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 steamships.

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.

The battle

Battery Armament

Yards to
Target

Totten 2 10-inch Siege Mortars 1,650
McClellan 2 84-pounder James (Rifled)
2 64-pounder James (Rifled)
1,650
Sigel 5 30-pounder Parrott
1 48-pounder James (Rifled)
1,670
Scott 3 10-inch Columbiads
1 8-inch Columbiad
1,740
Halleck 2 heavy 13-inch Mortar 2,400
Sherman 3 heavy 13-inch Mortar 2,650
Burnside 1 heavy 13-inch Mortar 2,750
Lincoln 3 heavy 8-inch Columbiads 3,045
Lyon 3 heavy 10-inch Columbiads 3,100
Grant 3 heavy 13-inch Mortars 3,200
Stanton 3 heavy 13-inch Mortars 3,400
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.

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.



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