The Capture of Fort Pulaski
After the War of 1812, the United States government began constructing a series of fortifications along the East and Gulf coasts to protect port cities from attack and to prevent strategic rivers from becoming avenues for enemy ships and invasion forces. One of these coastal forts was built on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River to defend the important port of Savannah, Georgia. This fort was named Fort Pulaski, after Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish nobleman and military officer who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Savannah in the Revolutionary War.
These coastal forts were formidable structures, and Fort Pulaski was no exception. The walls were made of bricks and were seven and a half feet thick. The walls were 25 feet high, and the entire five sided fort was surrounded by a moat. The construction of the fort began in 1829, and a young Lieutenant from West Point named Robert E. Lee directed some of the early work on the project. Construction continued off and on until the fort was finally completed in 1847.
In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union as the country headed towards Civil War. Although Georgia would not officially secede until January 19th, 1861, Georgia state militia troops seized Fort Pulaski on January 3rd. At that time, only two men occupied the fort, and Georgia authorities who favored secession decided to take it before it could be reinforced with Federal troops. Throughout the rest of 1861 and into 1862, as the Federal Navy expanded its blockade on the southern coast, the Confederate army strengthened its defenses at Fort Pulaski and the surrounding area, placing heavy guns within the fort and preparing for whatever army or navy attack the Union forces might launch. In early 1862, a few months before he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the now General Robert E. Lee returned to Savannah and Fort Pulaski to assess the readiness of the South Atlantic coastal defenses.
By that time, Union forces were already planning the reduction of the fort. In late November 1861, Union troops captured lightly held Tybee Island, across one channel of the Savannah River from Fort Pulaski. Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore commanded the Union garrison on Tybee Island. A skilled engineer, he believed that a “reduction of the work practicable with batteries of mortars and rifled guns established on Tybee Island”. Fort Pulaski had been designed to repel attacks from smoothbore cannons, but not the newer rifled guns, which were capable of longer range and could deliver a shell with more accuracy and force.
Gilmore and the Federals on Tybee Island went to work establishing 11 mortar and artillery batteries, with distances to Fort Pulaski varying from 1650 yards to 3400 yards. The work was anything but easy. The cannons, ammunition, and other equipment was unloaded from ships on the northeast point of Tybee Island. Union troops built a causeway over the more marshy areas between the landing zone and the north shore of the island where the batteries were to be placed. Much of the work was done under cover of darkness. The officer in charge of moving the heavy guns was Lieutenant Horace Porter, who would have a distinguished military career during the Civil War, including winning the Medal of Honor for bravery at the Battle of Chickamauga. He is perhaps best known as an aide de camp under Ulysses S. Grant during the campaigns in Virginia in 1864-5. At Fort Pulaski, Porter was a freshly minted young officer out of West Point. He described the process for moving the guns from the transport ships to the battery locations:
“The heavy guns were landed by lowering them from the vessels into lighters having a strong decking built across their gunwales. They were towed ashore by row-boats at high tide, often in a heavy surf, and careened by means of a rope from shore, manned by soldiers, until the piece rolled off. At low tide this was dragged above a high-water mark.”
“For the purpose of transporting the 13 inch mortars, weighing 17,000 pounds, a pair of skids was constructed of timber ten inches square and twenty feet long, held together by three cross pieces , notched on. One end of the skids was lashed close under the axle of a large sling cart, with the other end resting on the ground. The mortar was rolled up by means of ropes until it reached the middle of the skids and chocked. Another large sling cart was run over the other end of the skids, which was raised by a screw, forming a temporary four-wheeled wagon, Two hundred and fifty men were required to move it over the difficult roads by which the batteries were reached.”
On April 9th, all batteries were constructed and stocked with ammunition. The next morning, Lieutenant James H. Wilson, under a flag of truce, was sent by boat to Fort Pulaski with a an order to surrender. (Like Porter, Wilson was a recent West Point graduate who would perform distinguished service in the war; in Wilson’s case, as a cavalry commander). Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, Confederate commander of the fort, to the surprise of no one, declined. At 8:15 a.m., the Union gunners commenced firing. Confederate artillery responded, but the return fire was largely inaccurate as the Federals had concealed their batteries well.
The firing continued for 9 1/2 hours, before easing up with only occasional firing overnight. The mortar fire had been largely ineffective, with Gillmore estimating that fewer than 1 in 10 shells
landed inside the fort. However, the rifled guns were proving to be very effective, inflicting damage on the walls, including the beginnings of a breach in the southeast angle of the fort.
Firing resumed the next morning, April 11th. The shells from the rifled guns pounded away at the small breach, making it larger and larger. Plans were made for a possible infantry assault through the breach if an adequate number of boats could be assembled, but it turned out not to be necessary. Eventually, the size and location of the breach was such that the fort’s powder magazine was in danger of direct hits from the artillery fire. Olmstead called a meeting of his officers, and the consensus was that surrender was necessary; the magazine contained 40,000 pounds of black powder and if hit by a shell, the resulting explosion would level the fort and kill everyone in it. At 2:00 p.m. , after approximately 30 hours of fighting, the Fort Pulaski garrison ran up the white flag.
The conventional thinking about masonry fortresses being impregnable to artillery had been swept away by the power of rifled cannon. Major General David Hunter, the Union Department of the South commanding officer, wrote “the result of this bombardment must cause, I am convinced, a change in the construction of fortifications as radical as that foreshadowed in naval architecture by the conflict between the Monitor and Merrimac. No works of stone or brick can resist the impact of rifled artillery of heavy caliber”.
At the time of the attack, the Confederates had 48 guns at Fort Pulaski, with 20 aimed at Tybee Island. Sixteen had been damaged by Union fire, while the Federals lost no guns to return fire. Gillmore wrote that 3543 cannon shots were fired from 20 guns, while 1732 rounds were fired from 16 mortars. Despite all the iron flying back and forth, Union losses were just one killed and a few with minor wounds. The Confederates had none killed and three or four wounded, but the garrison’s 385 defenders were taken prisoner and sent to camps in New York.
Gillmore submitted this after action report on the fighting at Fort Pulaski:
HEADQUARTERS, Fort Pulaski, Ga., April 12, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report that the several batteries established on Tybee Island, to operate against Fort Pulaski, opened fire on the morning of the 10th instant, at 8.15 o’clock, commencing with the 13inch mortars. When the range of these pieces had been approximately obtained by the use of signals, the other batteries opened in the order previously prescribed in General Orders, No. 17, from these headquarters, hereunto appended as part of this report, so that by 9.30 o’clock all our batteries, eleven in number, had commenced their work. The breaching batteries opened at 9.30. With the exception of four 10-inch columbiads, dismounted at the outset by their own recoil in consequence of their having been supplied with unsuitable pintles, and from very serious defects in the wrought-iron chassis, which will be noticed more fully in my detailed report, all the pieces were served through the day. With few exceptions, strict regard was paid to the instructions laid down in orders for regulating the rapidity and direction of the fire. At. dark all the pieces ceased firing except two 13-inch mortars, one 10-inch mortar, and one 30-pounder Parrott, which were served through the night at intervals of twenty minutes for each piece. The only plainly perceptible result of this cannonade of ten and a half hours’ duration (the breaching batteries having been served but nine and a half hours) was the commencement of a breach in the easterly half of the pan-coupé connecting the south and southeast faces, and in that portion of the southeast face spanned by the two casemates adjacent to the pan-coupé. The breach had been ordered in this portion of the scarp so as to take in reverse through the opening the magazine located in the angle formed by the gorge and north face. Two of the barbette guns of the fort had been disabled and three casemate guns silenced. the enemy served both tiers of guns briskly throughout the day, but without injury to the matériel or personnel of our batteries. The result from the mortar batteries was not at all satisfactory, notwithstanding the care and skill with which the pieces were served.
On the morning of the 11th our batteries again opened a little after sunrise with decided effect, the fort returning a heavy and well-directed fire from its barbette and casemate guns. The breach was rapidly enlarged. At the expiration of three hours the entire casemate next the pancoupé had been opened and by 11 o clock the one adjacent to it was in a similar condition. Directions were then given to train the guns upon the third embrasure, upon which the breaching batteries were operating with effect, when the fort hoisted the white flag. This occurred at 2 o’clock. The formalities of visiting the fort, receiving its surrender, and occupying it with our troops consumed the balance of the afternoon and evening. I cannot indulge in details, however interesting and instructive, in this hasty and preliminary report, but the pleasing duty of acknowledging the valuable services of the officers and men under my command during the laborious and fatiguing preliminaries for opening fire, as well as during the action, I do not feel at liberty to defer. The labor of landing the heaviest ordnance, with large supplies of ordnance stores, without a wharf, upon an open and exposed beach remarkable for its heavy surf, taking advantage of the tide night and day; the transportation of those articles to the advance batteries under cover of night; the erection of seven of the eleven batteries in plain view of Fort Pulaski and under its fire; the construction over marshy ground in the night-time exclusively of nearly 1 mile of causeway resting on fascines and brush-wood; the difficult task of hauling the guns, carriages, and chassis to their positions in the dark over a narrow road bordered by marsh by the labor of the men alone (the advance batteries being 2½ miles from the landing); the indomitable perseverance and cheerful deportment of the officers and men under the frequent and discouraging incidents of breaking down, miring in the swamp, &c., are services to the cause and country which I do not feel at liberty to leave unrecorded. An idea of the immense labor expended in transporting the ordnance can be gained from the fact that 250 men could hardly move a 13-inch mortar loaded on a sling-cart.
Another circumstance deserving especial mention is that twenty-two of the thirty-six pieces comprised in the batteries were served during the. action by the troops who had performed the fatiguing labors to which I have referred above. They received all their instruction in gunnery at such odd times as they could be spared from other duty during the week preceding the action. The troops who participated in all the heavy labor were the Forty-sixth New York Volunteers, Col. Rudolph Rosa; the Seventh Connecticut Volunteers, Col. Alfred H. Terry; two companies of the New York Volunteer Engineers (Captain Graef and Lieutenant Brooks), under command of Lieut. Col. James F. Hall; two companies of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, Captains Mason and Rogers, and a small detachment from Company A, Corps of Engineers, under Sergt. James E. Wilson. Colonel Terry and Lieutenant-Colonel Hall entered most zealously upon the discharge of their varied duties.
A detachment from Colonel Rosa’s regiment, under Captain Hinckel, have occupied since the 22d of February an advanced and very exposed position on Lazaretto Creek, by which boat communication between Fort Pulaski and the interior was cut off. Several interesting reconnaissances of Wilmington Island were made by Captain Hinckel, one of which, commanded by Colonel Rosa, developed some useful information. Lieut. Horace Porter, of the Ordnance Department, has rendered signal, important, and indispensable services. Besides discharging most faithfully the special duties of ordnance officer, he directed in person the transportation of the heaviest ordnance, and drilled and instructed the men in their use, laboring indefatigably night and day. He was actively engaged among the batteries during the action. Lieut. James H. Wilson, Corps of Topographical Engineers, joined my command eleven days before the action, and did good service in instructing the artillerists. He rendered efficient service with the breaching batteries on the 10th and 11th. Capt. L. H. Pelouze, Fifteenth Infantry, U.S. Army, and Capt. J. W. Turner, of the Commissary Department, U.S. Army, members of General Hunter’s staff, volunteered for the action, and did good service in the batteries.
I am under obligations to Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, U.S. Navy, and a detachment of sailors under Lieut. John Irwin, U.S. Navy, for skillfully serving four seige guns in Battery Sigel on the 11th.
Lieut. P. H. O’Rorke, Corps of Engineers, and Adam Badeau, esq., volunteered, and served on my staff as aides during the 10th and 11th. Sergt. J. E. Wilson, of Company A, Corps of Engineers, Regular Army, did excellent service in mounting the heavy guns and getting them ready for action. He commanded Battery Burnside during the action. No mortar battery was served more skillfully than his.
I will close this preliminary report with some general deductions from absolute results, without going into details or reasons.
1. Mortars (even the 13-inch sea-coast) are unreliable for the reduction of works of small area, like Fort Pulaski. They cannot be fired with sufficient accuracy to crush the casemate arches. They might after a long time tire out any ordinary garrison.
2. Good rifled guns, properly served, can breach rapidly at 1,650 yards’ distance. A few heavy round shot, to bring down the masses loosened by the rifled projectiles, are of good service. I would not hesitate to attempt a practicable breach in a brick scarp at 2,000 yards’ distance with ten guns of my own selection.
3. No better piece for breaching can be desired than the 42-pounder James. The grooves, however, must be kept clean. Parrott guns throwing as much metal as the James would be equally good, supposing them to fire as accurately as the 30-pounder Parrott.
I append to this report a map, giving the positions of our several batteries and the orders issued, assigning the detachments to the batteries, and regulating the direction and rapidity of the firing.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Q. A. GILLMORE,
Comdg. U. S. Forces, Tybee and Cockspur Islands, Ga.
Lieut. A. B. ELY,
A. A. A. G, N. D., Dept. of the South, Hilton Head, S. C.
Fort Pulaski remained in Union hands for the rest of the war. More heavy guns were installed, and the garrison there helped defend against blockade runners. The fort also housed prisoners of war for a time.
Today, the fort is preserved as Fort Pulaski National Monument, and although the large breech in the wall was repaired during the war, much of the other damage to the walls can still be seen.
Civil War Savannah by Derek Smith
Fort Pulaski and the Defense of Savannah by Herbert M. Schiller
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume VI, Chapter XV
“The Siege and Capture of Fort Pulaski” by Q.A. Gillmore. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 2, edited by Robert U. Underwood and Clarence C. Buel