In 1861, the Confederate fortress at the mouth of the Savannah River was captured by Federal troops in a nearly bloodless battle, made possible by a technological advance that would change the way warfare was done.
After the War of 1812, the US decided to construct a large number of defensive forts to protect its harbors along the east coast. While the ground war had been a disaster for the young country (British troops had ransacked Washington DC and burned the White House) the naval war had been a bright spot. In particular, thock-walled masonry cannon positions such as Fort McHenry had proven their ability to withstand heavy bombardments from naval ships. Since all of the US’s potential enemies at the time (England, Spain and France) were European naval powers, a wall of forts, some 200 in all, were planned to defend the entire coastline, from Florida to Maine, from naval attack. It became known as the “Third System”.
In the end, only about 30 Third System forts were actually built. One of these was Fort Pulaski, just outside Savannah GA on Cockspur Island, overlooking the Savannah River. Begun in 1829, the Fort was planned as a three-story masonry structure, pentagonal in shape, but the swampy soil proved to be too soft to support that much weight, so it was reduced to two stories, and the extra bricks were carried by cart to strengthen the older Fort Jackson, a few miles away. Fort Pulaski was nevertheless one of the largest and strongest brick fortresses in existence at the time, and with its 7.5-foot thick walls it was considered virtually impregnable. (One of the Army officers who worked on designing the fort was a young artillery engineer named Robert E Lee).
But by 1846 American military needs were changing. The European powers had become less of a threat, and instead the US was entangled in conflict with Mexico and was beginning the long series of armed conquests in the West that would be known as “The Indian Wars”. Naval forts were no longer a priority.
By January 1861, Fort Pulaski had still not been completely finished, and no Army troops had yet been based there. Meanwhile, the country was careening towards Civil War. The Federal Government had already sent a contingent of troops to reinforce Fort Sumter in Charleston SC, and the Governor of Georgia, Joseph Brown, assumed that Fort Pulaski would be next. On January 3 Governor Brown decided to pre-empt the Federals by ordering local militia to occupy the Fort. So 134 men from the Savannah Volunteers, the Ogelthorpe Light Infantry, and the Chatham Artillery moved in, arrested the two Union officers in the Fort, and began setting up cannons and clearing the defenses. After Georgia formally seceded on January 19, the militia units became the 1st Georgia Regiment of the Confederate Army, under the command of Colonel Charles Olmstead. Fort Pulaski became a key defensive point; Savannah was a major shipping port and railway station, and everyone knew that the Union forces would try to take it. And indeed in November 1861, after the war began, a Union force of 12,000 troops, under the command of General Thomas Sherman, landed and occupied the lightly-defended Tybee Island, opposite Fort Pulaski on the other side of the Savannah River. An assault on the Fort would now surely follow. If the Fort fell, the way to Savannah was open.
The Confederate General Robert E Lee, who had earlier helped to design the fort, briefly arrived to examine the situation. Both he and Olmstead thought the position was secure—the nearest land area from which the Federals could bombard the fort from Tybee Island was about a mile away, and the smoothbore cannon of the day did not have the range or accuracy to do any real damage. “They will make things hot for you,” Lee told Olmstead, “but at that distance they will not breach your walls.” Olmstead had 385 men and 48 cannon to defend the Fort.
On Tybee Island, the Union General Thomas knew that storming Fort Pulaski would be a costly and bloody fight, and he was not looking forward to it. But then his artillery commander, Captain Quincy Gilmore, offered an alternative. His Union batteries had just been equipped with a new weapon–the rifled cannon known as a “Parrot Gun”. Firing a cone-shaped projectile instead of a spherical cannonball, the rifled cannon had much better accuracy and range than the old smoothbores. If his guns could break down Fort Pulaski’s walls with a sustained artillery barrage, Olmstead noted, the Confederates would be forced to give up without the need for any infantry assault. General Thomas agreed to let him try. By April 10, 1862, Union artillery forces, working under cover of darkness, had placed 36 cannons and siege mortars, including 10 rifled cannon, along the edge of Tybee Island. The smoothbores and mortars were essentially useless, but the rifled cannon were all aimed at one corner of the Fort. Early that morning, Captain Gilmore and some soldiers rowed across the Savannah River under a white flag of truce, and presented a message to Colonel Olmstead demanding his surrender. Olmstead, in response, sent back a message declaring, “I am here to defend the fort, not to surrender it.”
Gilmore’s guns opened fire at 8:10 am that morning, firing some 3,000 shells throughout the day. Olmstead did not know that the Federals had rifled guns: he expected that the barrage would be inaccurate and ineffective. Instead, to his shock, the Union shells quickly zeroed in on the closest corner of his fort, and systematically pounded it to bits. When darkness fell and the barrage temporarily ended, Olmstead went outside the fort to inspect the damage, and was dismayed to see huge craters in his outer wall. The next morning the pounding resumed, and within a short time gaps had been blasted all the way through. At about 2pm a Federal shell went through one of these holes, traveled all the way across the inside of the fort, and exploded at the far corner, in front of the powder magazine. Olmstead now knew he was doomed: if a Union shell managed to hit the magazine with its 20 tons of gunpowder, the resulting explosion would level the entire fort and kill everyone in it. At 2:30pm, Olmstead ordered a white flag to be flown over the walls. Upon surrendering to General Thomas, Olmstead wistfully remarked, “I give up my sword, but not, I trust, my honor.” The entire battle had resulted in only one Union soldier killed and two Confederates wounded.
The capture of Fort Pulaski changed the face of warfare. In just 36 hours, the strongest citadel in the US had fallen: the massive stone and brick fortress had become obsolete literally overnight. After this, gun fortresses would be transformed into low-walled positions with massive earthen banks to absorb artillery impacts–and when the modern recoil-absorbing field gun appeared a few decades later, that too was rendered useless.
Union troops occupied Fort Pulaski for the rest of the war, using it to control all of the shipping in and out of Savannah. When the city itself was captured by General William T Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, the fort was used a prison for captured Confederates.
Afterwards, just before the Spanish-American War, the Fort was strengthened by adding a series of earthen berms in front of the entrance gate, and some 3-inch gun positions nearby. But the position was already pointless. The guns were never emplaced, and the Fort was left empty.
For a time, the Fort was used as housing by the keepers of the nearby Cockspur Island Lighthouse, but was then abandoned. It became a National Historical Monument in 1924 and was restored during the 1930’s. Today the Fort Pulaski National Monument is run by the National Park Service.