By Peggy Robbins
As a young U.S. Army lieutenant, Robert E. Lee helped to construct Fort Pulaski. As a Confederate general 30 years later, he confidently assured fort defenders it could not be breached. Union gunners were not so sure.
In late 1860, as North and South stood face to face on the brink of war, Georgia, thanks to the provident leadership of Governor Joseph E. Brown, became one of the first Southern states to begin taking steps to defend itself. First came the reorganization and strengthening of state volunteer forces and the formation of new volunteer companies. The legislature, on Brown’s recommendation, appropriated a million dollars for self-defense and authorized the raising of 10,000 troops. The legislature provided for a convention on January 16, 1861, to decide the future action of Georgia, and the fore’ sighted governor got busy acquiring all the military information and material he could before that time.
Brown figured, correctly, that after then it would be too late. He got U.S. War Department samples of army equipment, with the idea of manufacturing it in Georgia; he got detailed descriptions of the type of rifled cannons and projectiles considered by experts to be superior; and he even placed orders for arms in Northern states. Brown also arranged for a $10,000 bonus to be offered by the state to any person establishing in Georgia a cannon factory capable of making three guns a week and of casting a 10-inch columbiad.
There was great excitement in Georgia when word came that South Carolina had seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. People in Savannah gathered in the streets and cheered; some carried signs favoring secession. After dark on December 26, citizens and companies of militia marched through the streets carrying torchlights and transparencies, and homes and businesses were brilliantly lighted “in honor of South Carolina.”
Immediately after news of the Federal occupation of Fort Sumter reached Savannah by telegraph on the morning of December 27, angry citizens and military leaders recognized that the same danger threatened the Georgia seaport. The people of Savannah, in a public meeting, determined to seize Fort Pulaski before the Federal government could garrison and defend it. “There is but one sentiment on the question,’ reported the Savannah Republican, “and that is of indignation and resistance….We might have been quieted by a milder course, but there are none of us so degraded as to submit to being whipped into submission.”
Fort Pulaski had been built in the late 1820s and early 1830s on Cockspur Island, which had held a fort of one sort or another since colonial days. Robert E. Lee’s first military assignment after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy was as acting assistant commissary of subsistence at the general site. After many surveys he selected the fort’s permanent site and, because of his superior officer’s illness, actually ran the construction operation for more than a year until being replaced by Lieutenant Joseph K.F. Mansfield, who labored long and hard overcoming such problems as illness–malaria, typhoid, dysentery–a destructive hurricane, and periodic failure of the US. Congress to appropriate necessary funds.
In 1833 the new fort, still not completed, was named Pulaski in honor of Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish hero mortally wounded at the Battle of Savannah in the American Revolu tion. In 1845 the state of Georgia ceded Cockspur Island to the Federal government. Completed in 1847, huge, handsome Fort Pulaski had in it some 25 million bricks; the majority of those, the rose-brown bricks used to build most of the walls, were manufactured at Hermitage Plantation, two miles from Savannah. The rose-red, much harder bricks used for the openings through which cannon were fired, the arches, and the walls facing the parade grounds were hauled in from Alexandria, Va., and Baltimore, Md.
By December 1860, the Federal government had spent nearly a million dollars on the fort, but only 20 guns out of the planned 146-gun armament had been mounted, and the fort had not been garrisoned–its entire complement was one ordnance sergeant and a caretaker. Until that time, it had served only as a Corps of Engineers training ground. (Singularly, every engineer officer employed during the construction of the fort, except for one who died, became during the course of the war either a Confederate or Union general.)
On the last day of the year, the Savannah Republican received word confirming the general opinion in Savannah that Fort Pulaski was in danger. Joseph Holt, a harsh, outspoken foe of the South, had been appointed secretary of war; he would certainly garrison the fort before long. Colonel Alexander R. Lawton, commander of the 1st Georgia Volunteer Regiment, telegraphed Governor Brown to come to Savannah at once, and the governor arrived the next day. After a short meeting with military men and leading citizens, he ordered state militia to seize the fort.
As there were no Federal troops at the fort, there would be no problem in seizing it. The big difficulty was in rapidly preparing an expedition to occupy it. Arms, ammunition, equipment, commissary supplies and a steamboat for transportation had to be provided. For the seizure and occupation, 50 men each from the Savannah Volunteer Guards and the Oglethorpe Light Infantry and 35 from the Chatham Artillery were chosen. Each man was told to bring a knapsack holding a change of clothing, spoon, knife, fork, cup, clothesbrush, shoebrush, shoe-blacking, comb and brush.
Early on the morning of January 6, 1861, the assembled troops, with Lawton in command, marched in pouring rain through streets banked with cheering people to the West Broad Street wharf, where they boarded the government steamer Ida for the downriver trip to Fort Pulaski.
According to one of the steamboat crew, the small force had more luggage than later was carried by a division. Each soldier had a cot, a trunk and a bedding roll, and every three men had a large mess chest made to hold cooking equipment for a full regiment. The Chatham Artillery brought along two bronze 12-pounder howitzers and four 6-pounder field guns.
About midday the expedition reached Cockspur Island and the troops, with drums beating and colors flying, marched into Fort Pulaski. As soon as Lawton formally took possession of the fort, the flag of Georgia was hoisted over it and saluted. The garrison had orders from Brown to hold the fort against all outsiders and to abandon it only if overpowered by a hostile force. When Georgia seceded on January 19, Fort Pulaski immediately became an important Confederate fortress. The entrance to the Savannah River was safe, Southerners told each other.
But that was hardly true. It took many weeks for the occupying force to get the fort in proper condition for defense. Not a gun in the fort was serviceable until 20 32-pounder naval guns, originally mounted in 1840, were remounted on the ramparts and in the casemates. Some 125 ricefield workers had to be hired to clean out the 7-foot-deep moat, which was filled with mud and overgrown with marsh grass, and daily steamboat service between Savannah and Cockspur had to be established to transport the workers and the food and equipment they required.
The Confederates brought more guns to the fort; erected a telegraph line from Cockspur Island to Savannah; constructed and manned earthworks on Hilton Head Island, S.C., 10 miles from Cockspur, Tybee Island and other islands to the south along the Georgia coast; and supplemented island defenses by a small fleet of old river boats on which they had mounted guns–the so-called Georgia Navy.
By midsummer 1861, the North had completed plans for a naval blockade of the South that included capture of Fort Pulaski. In November, a Union naval expedition forced the Confederates to abandon coastal fortifications, including Hilton Head and Tybee Island, some within sight of Cockspur. Before leaving Tybee, the Confederates were able to ferry the heavy guns from there to Fort Pulaski, and two companies of infantry from the Tybee garrison were added to the force at Pulaski.
Federal troops occupied the abandoned locations and made ready to blockade or attack Fort Pulaski. In early December, Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sherman, who commanded more than 12,500 men in the islands, requisitioned siege guns for the proposed attack and landed a permanent garrison on Tybee.
During this time, it was correctly assumed in Savannah that the real objective of all this Federal action on the coast was the capture and closure of the Georgia seaport–an assumption that brought such panic to Savannah residents that many fled to inland towns and cities. But Southern militarymen–particularly those at Fort Pulaski, including Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, the fort’s commander–were sure the fort could successfully defend itself against both naval attack and land bombardment.
Robert E. Lee, who was then a brigadier general in charge of Confederate forces in South Carolina, Georgia and east Florida, wholeheartedly agreed; the fort’s thick walls could not be breached by cannon, he said. In early November, Lee arrived in Savannah and personally took charge of defense procedures. On two different occasions that month he made detailed inspections of the fort, gave specific instructions about its defense and, forseeing the danger of attack from the rear, ordered big guns to be mounted at certain points on the ramparts.
The Federal expedition to capture the coastal islands was a joint Army-Navy operation, with the naval squadron and convoy under the command of Captain Samuel F. Du Pont. In late December 1861, Du Pont, in an effort to strangle the commerce of Savannah, sank stone-loaded vessels across channels of the Savannah River and stationed gunboats in Warsaw and Ossabaw sounds, cutting off all possible avenues of “back-door entrance” to the port.
About this same time, Sherman decided it would be a good idea to make a direct attack on the city of Savannah by traveling through the winding waterways that led into the Savannah River above Fort Pulaski, thus bypassing the fort. Since this plan required naval transportation, protection and assistance, Sherman, in his usual abrasive manner, insisted that Du Pont agree to it.
Du Pont, after a reconnaissance of those winding waterways, felt Sherman’s scheme to be impractical and dangerous. The difference of opinion between the two commanders became so inflamed that it finally resulted in Sherman’s removal from the campaign. But long before he departed in March 1862, he gave the orders that established a tight loop of batteries and gunboats around Fort Pulaski.
The steamboat Ida, employed as the supply ship for Fort Pulaski, made her last run down from Savannah on February 13, 1862. On that run, she was fired on nine times by heavy guns the Federals had secretly set up on the north bank of the river. Hit but not sunk, she raced on full steam as shots splashed around her, and reached the fort, but did not attempt a return trip up the Savannah River.
On February 15, the Federals completed another battery on the south bank of the river, and also sealed off the main creek waterway connecting the river with the coast. They also destroyed the telegraph line connecting Cockspur Island with Savannah. Fort Pulaski was thus cut off from all assistance; supplies and reinforcements could not reach the fort, nor could its garrison escape to the mainland.
When Fort Pulaski was cut off, the garrison was formed of five companies with a total of 385 officers and men–one company of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, three companies of Georgia Volunteers and one company of Georgia Regulars, all under Olmstead’s command. The fort had 48 guns, placed to command all approaches. On January 28 it had been provisioned with six months’ food supply.
Federal military leaders could not agree whether to take Fort Pulaski by force or simply wait and starve the garrison into surrender. Finally they were influenced by the Northern press’s clamor for action and by the insistence of military strategists that a quick capture of Savannah was vital. Before the end of February the commanding general of the army ordered that all efforts of the entire coastal expeditionary force be devoted to the reduction of Fort Pulaski.
Captain Quincy A. Gillmore, Sherman’s chief engineer, was sent to take command of all troops on Tybee Island and begin preparation for the bombardment of Fort Pulaski. Gillmore, a bluff, handsome man considered one of the most brilliant members of the US. Corps of Engineers, was described by Whitelaw Reid, a prominent Northern newspaper correspondent, as “a quick-speaking, solid six-footer with big head, broad, good-humored face, and curly brown hair and beard.” He was an innovative soldier who dared to disregard tradition.
The Confederates inside Fort Pulaski were far more concerned about losing their supply sources than about any danger that the fort’s 7 I/2-foot-thick, solid brick walls, backed with massive masonry piers, could be pierced by the nearest Federal big guns, which were located miles away on the only firm ground on Tybee Island. Wasn’t it a fact, established by extensive military experience, that smoothbore guns and mortars could not penetrate heavy masonry walls from farther than 700 yards away? The U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, General Joseph G. Totten, had told officers: “You might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains as Fort Pulaski….The fort could not be reduced in a month’s firing with any number of guns of manageable caliber.” And they reminded each other again that General Lee, while standing on the fort’s parapet, had pointed to Tybee Island and said confidently, “They will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”
Gillmore believed he could reduce Fort Pulaski with gunfire from Tybee, convinced his superiors it was worth trying, and got his command busy constructing gun emplacements, unloading guns through the surf and dragging them across marsh and sand to the emplacements. Roads had to be constructed, as did storehouses and bombproof shelters. Materials, supplies and ammunition had to be unloaded from ships and carted to the storehouses, and gun crews had to be trained. It was an enormous, difficult job. Some of the guns, loaded on sling carts, made such heavy loads that it required 250 men harnessed to a cart to pull them.
Gillmore’s men erected 11 batteries for guns and armament on the shore of Tybee facing Fort Pulaski; the total armament on the island included 36 pieces. Seven of the major batteries were established on open marshland in plain view of the fort and in range of its guns. All work on them was done at night by men who were not allowed to speak above a whisper and whose movements were directed by the sound of a whistle. Each morning before dawn, the night’s work was hidden by camouflage.
While this was going on, the Confederates on Cockspur were completing changes instructed by Lee. They tore down the veranda at the front of the officers’ quarters and replaced it with a covered passage made of timber and earth. They stacked sandbags between the guns on the ramparts and, for the protection of the gunners, dug holes–“rat holes”–in the terreplein. They cut the entire parade ground into wide traps to prevent shot and shell from rolling.
Preparations on Tybee for the bombardment of Fort Pulaski were completed by the end of March. Command of the Department of the South previously held by Thomas Sherman had been given to Maj. Gen. David Hunter, which promoted far greater harmony between Army and Navy as plans for the action against Pulaski were finalized. Gillmore, still in charge of the bombardment, on April 9 notified his superiors that everything was in readiness. General orders were issued; the battle was to begin the next morning.
Shortly after sunrise on April 10, an officer on duty on the ramparts of Fort Pulaski reported that suspicious changes had occurred during the night on Tybee. While Olmstead and other officers watched, a small boat bearing a flag of truce set out from Tybee. It landed at Cockspur Island’s south wharf, bearing Union Lieutenant James H. Wilson with a summons for Fort Pulaski to surrender.
Olmstead sent back his reply: “Sir, I acknowledge receipt of your communication demanding the unconditional surrender of Fort Pulaski. In reply, I can only say that I am here to defend this Fort, not to surrender it.” The Confederates carried ammunition to their guns and prepared for action.
The first shell was fired from Tybee about 8:15 a.m., and by 9:30 all of the Union batteries were in full operation, each mortar firing at 15-minute intervals and the guns much more rapidly. Soon after the shelling from Tybee began, Pulaski’s guns opened up, first four casemate guns and then those on the barbette.
The first shots from both sides went wide of their targets but, as firing continued, both sides became more accurate. Most of the Federal mortar shells exploded in the air or fell into the mud outside the fort, but when a solid shot from a columbiad landed directly on the wall, the entire fort shook. A little after 10 o’clock, just such a solid shot entered an embrasure, dismantling the casemate gun and wounding several of the gun crew.
The firing from Tybee did more damage as the day progressed. Gillmore recalled later: “By 1 o’clock in the afternoon it became evident that, unless our guns should suffer seriously from the enemy’s fire, a breach would be effected: with a glass it could be seen that the rifled projectiles were surely eating their way into the scarp of the pan-coupe and adjacent southeast face.
“When the constant firing ceased for the night, after nine and a half hours’ duration, the commencement of a breach was plainly visible. It was equally manifest, to the surprise and disappointment of all experienced officers present, that the 13-inch mortars …were inefficient …. It was clear that for the reduction of Fort Pulaski we should have to depend on breaching alone.” Gillmore was proving that rifled guns could destroy masonry fortifications designed to withstand artillery–for which he won extensive recognition.
From sunset until daylight, seven or eight shells an hour were thrown from Tybee onto Fort Pulaski to prevent repairs during the night, but the Confederates did succeed in repairing some of their guns. “That, however, did short good,” wrote one of them. “Our fort was in shambles.” Both sides resumed firing at daylight. Fort Pulaski’s fire was far less damaging than the Federals’–most of the guns on Tybee were masked behind sand ridges or otherwise hidden from sight.
About mid-morning, the Federals suffered their only casualty when a solid shot from Pulaski entered a gun embrasure and fatally wounded a soldier. By noon; at Fort Pulaski, there were over 20 casualties, including some men who were mortally wounded. Projectiles from the Federal rifle batteries were sweeping completely through the breach and striking the walls of the north magazine, in which was stored 40,000 pounds of black powder.
Twenty-five-year old Colonel Olmstead sadly faced the fact that the time had come for him to decide whether to fight on against overwhelming odds, endangering the lives of the entire garrison, or else admit defeat. He gave the order to surrender. The Confederate flag was lowered halfway and one final gun was fired from a casemate; then the flag was hauled on down and replaced by a white sheet. It was later determined that during the two-day battle, 5,275 shot and shell were fired against Fort Pulaski, but the walls were breached almost entirely by three guns–two 84-pounder and one 64-pounder rifles. That, said Northern military men, would “revolutionize such warfare.”
Olmstead met Gillmore and a party representing General Hunter at Cockspur Landing and led them to his quarters. The fort’s officers laid their weapons on a table, while the men of the garrison stacked their arms outside. After signing the articles of unconditional surrender, Olmstead said, “I yield my sword, but I trust I have not disgraced it.” The United States flag was then raised on the ramparts.
All the Confederate troops at Fort Pulaski were sent as prisoners to forts in New York Harbor, and Pulaski was garrisoned by Union soldiers. The Savannah River was now entirely closed to blockade-runners, and the large Federal naval force employed in the vicinity was freed for service elsewhere. Gillmore was appointed brigadier general 17 days after Fort Pulaski’s surrender.
A year later the Federal garrison on Cockspur Island was reduced to a small holding force. The great battles were being fought elsewhere and the South was gradually losing the war. But in late October 1864 Fort Pulaski again became actively involved in the war when about 550 prisoners of war– all Confederate officers, in rank from lieutenants to lieutenant colonels–were brought to Cockspur Island from a stockade on Morris Island, S.C.
In mid-December, Colonel Philip P. Brown, Pulaski’s commender, was ordered to limit each prisoner’s daily rations to one-quarter pound of bread, 10 ounces of cornmeal, and one half pint of pickles; for 43 unusually cold winter days, prisoners subsisted on that meager diet–or died. There were no blankets and no warming fires, neither coal nor wood to heat the casemates. The men grew weaker daily, and by midJanuary 1865 scurvy was taking its toll. But late in January, Pulaski’s prisoners were put back on full rations, which saved many lives. About 460 lived to be exchanged. The Confederate prisoners at Fort Pulaski were memorialized in Southern history as “The Immortal Six Hundred.”
On April 29, 1865, 20 days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, 200 guns were fired from Fort Pulaski’s ramparts to mark that surrender, which also ended Lee’s great military career, begun 35 years earlier on Cockspur Island. For Lee, and for the fort he helped design, the guns had grown silent. The war was over.
Indefatigable author Peggy Robbins of Gulfport, Miss., ranges far and wide in her varied historical interests. As further reading, see volume 2 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War or Ralston B. Lattimore’s Fort Pulaski: National Monument.
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