"Colonel, they will make it very warm for you with shells from that point but they cannot breach at that distance." -- General Robert E. Lee (Nov. 1861)
These words, expressed by General Lee to Fort Pulaski's Commander Colonel Charles H. Olmstead in regards to a potential Federal bombardment from a mile-distant Tybee Island, show what level of confidence the Confederates had in this impregnable fortress set on the banks of the Savannah River. As one of the fort's original designers, Lee had the utmost confidence that the fort's 11-foot thick brick walls could withstand anything the enemy guns could throw against it. In another reference to the fort's seeming invincibility Lee remarked, "...one might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains as Fort Pulaski." This confidence would be put to the ultimate test against a new type of artillery, however, in April of 1862.
A Third System Fortification, work began in 1829 on what would become Fort Pulaski. Located on tiny Cockspur Island near the mouth of the Savannah River, Pulaski was intended to be the primary defensive point against attack on the city of Savannah located a few miles upstream. Then a Lieutenant Colonel, Robert E. Lee was responsible for design and construction of the fort in its first two years of construction. After 18 <i>years</i> and the laying of an estimated 25,000,000 bricks Fort Pulaski was finally completed in 1847. From atop and within its massive walls Pulaski could mount 146 cannon and the whole fortress was surrounded by a 7-foot deep moat up to 48-feet wide. Located as it was on an island, the nearest point from which a land-based artillery barrage could potentially be fired against it was from Tybee Island which was some 2,000 yards distant. As the smoothbore cannon of 1847 only had an effective range of between 800 and 900 yards the impregnable reputation of the Pulaski was seemingly deserved.
In January 1861, with the threat of Civil War looming ever closer, Fort Pulaski stood all but defenseless...not a single gun stood upon its walls and its garrison was comprised of two lonely caretakers. That same month 110 men from Savannah sailed to the fort and occupied it for the State of Georgia, which seceded the following month. The Confederate's quickly improving the defenses and in December of 1861 Colonel Olmstead was given command of the post. Savannah, as a major southern port, quickly came under the gaze of the Union Army as a vital port to either capture or at least blockade but Fort Pulaski would have to be dealt with before either of those objectives could be achieved. Direct assault against Pulaski was obviously suicidal so, in January of 1862, Union troops occupied Tybee Island and began construction of a series of batteries from which a siege of bombardment could be conducted. Union General William T. Sherman placed a Captain by the name of Quincy Gillmore in charge of the siege preparations. On April 9th, Gillmore's preparations were complete. He had assembled 36 guns (22 cannon and 14 mortars) with which to bombard Pulaski. It wasn't the number of guns which would be the deciding factor in the battle however, it was the <i>type</i> of guns. Included in Gillmore's batteries were new, rifled, James and Parrott cannon. With effective ranges of up to <i>5 miles</i> these new guns could easily bridge the 2,000 yard distance to the fort but their effectiveness was yet untested. That was about to change.
In the early morning hours of the 9th Captain Gillmore sent a message to Colonel Olmstead asking for the surrender of the fort. Stating that he and his troops were there to <i>"defend their position, not surrender it"</i> Olmstead refused. At 8:15 A.M. the bombardment began. Despite General Lee's previous assurance, it was quickly apparent that Pulaski wasn't as impregnable as previously thought. The rifling of the new Union cannon, in addition to giving them greater range, greatly improved their accuracy as well as the striking power of their shells. Four-foot-deep chunks of brick and mortar began to be blasted out of Pulaski's walls. The Union fire was concentrated on the southeastern corner of Pulaski's walls which quickly began to crumble. By nightfall on the 9th, Pulaski's walls had already been breached in three places. Overnight, the battered Confederate defenders did their best to shore up their defenses before daylight once again brought a rain of shells against the fort. The next day the Federal guns resumed their methodical destruction. With the southeastern walls crumbling, shot was now falling inside Fort Pulaski's walls and threatening the powder magazine at the opposite end of the fort. Containing some 20-tons of explosives, the penetration of one Union shell into this magazine could have spelled disaster for the Confederate defenders. Therefore, deeming further resistance as hopeless, Colonel Olmstead surrendered Fort Pulaski at 2:30. The fortress that Lee had compared, in strength, to the Rocky Mountains had fallen in only 30-hours.
Fort Pulaski remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war, effectively blockading the port of Savannah to any shipping (though the city itself didn't fall until General Sherman took it in late 1864). It also served as an interim prisoner-of-war camp during the latter part of the war. After the Civil War improvements were made to the demilune (the triangular defensive bastion protecting the entrance to the fort) along with a number of other 'modernization' projects which were never seen through to completion. Essentially abandoned Fort Pulaski gradually deteriorated until, in 1924, it was designated a National Monument. Within the decade following steps were taken to restore portions of the old fort to its Civil War appearance with the exception of the battered southern walls. The scars that remain bear silent testimony to the brief but furious battle which took place here over 150 years ago. The siege of Fort Pulaski showed military professionals (however slowly they accepted it) that the days of fixed fortifications were numbered. The power of modern artillery was quickly overpowering mans' capability to construct effective barriers to their destructive power. Though now long obsolete, Fort Pulaski is still today an imposing structure. It doesn't take much imagination to see how Robert E. Lee could feel so supremely confident in its defenses. Fort Pulaski is bar-none one of the finest Civil War-era forts I have ever visited. It was an experience not to be forgotten...