Visiting Fort Pulaski National Monument
In the first half of the 19th century, the United States built dozens of masonry forts along the East and Gulf coasts to protect ports and prevent invading armies from using rivers to move forces inland. One such fort was Fort Pulaski, located on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River in Georgia. These forts were often long term projects for engineers and construction crews, with the work done on an intermittent basis, and Fort Pulaski was no exception. In 1829, construction began on the fort, named after Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, who had been killed in the Battle of Savannah in 1779. A young Lieutenant named Robert E. Lee, fresh out of West Point did some of the preliminary engineering work on the fort. Construction wasn’t completed until 1847.
The five sided structure had walls 7 1/2 feet thick and 25 feet high, was surrounded by a water filled moat, and could mount as many as 150 cannons. It was designed to withstand any bombardment by the smoothbore cannons of the day. Georgia militia troops seized the fort on January 3rd, 1861, before the state had formally seceded.
Late in 1861, Union troops began operations to retake Fort Pulaski. Infantry and artillery deployed on Tybee Island, across the river from Fort Pulaski. The Union commander, General Quincy Gillmore, believed that while smoothbore cannon fire would not be effective, rifled cannon that were more accurate and could deliver more powerful fire, would be able to penetrate the walls.
On April 11th, 1862, all the Union preparations were complete and Gillmore opened fire with rifled cannon and mortars. It was hoped the mortars would lob shells into the fort, but only an estimated 10% did so. The rifled cannon on the other hand, proved Gillmore correct. At the end of the day, the walls had been heavily damaged with a breach beginning to form in lone location. Gillmore resumed fire the next day, enlarging the breach. After a total of some 30 hours bombardment, the likelihood of artillery fire passing through the breech and blowing up the powder magazine and everyone in the fort with it compelled the Confederate commander, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead to surrender Fort Pulaski to Union forces. For more on the Battle of Fort Pulaski, click here.
The military abandoned Fort Pulaski in the 1880s; the site was declared a National Monument in 1924 by the War Department and turned over to the National Park Service in 1933. The process of restoring the fort then began; with the country in the depths of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was brought in to do the work.
Visiting Fort Pulaski
Fort Pulaski is a familiar site for those who drive between Savannah and Tybee Island, across the South Channel of the Savannah River on Cockspur Island. Cross the bridge onto Cockspur Island; the road veers to the right and takes you to the Fort Pulaski’s parking lot and Visitor’s Center (a U.S. Coast Guard station is also located on the island west of the National Monument). The Visitor Center features a 20 minute film about the construction of the fort and the battle that took place, museum exhibits, and a bookstore.
The fort is still surrounded by a seven foot deep water filled moat that ranges from 42 to 48 feet wide. A triangular piece of land called a demilune extends to the west from the fort itself and is also surrounded by the moat. Cross over the bridge spanning the moat and onto the demilune and then cross a drawbridge into the fort itself, where you see a field howitzer pointed directly at you. Officer’s quarters and various other rooms line the west wall; the powder magazine is in the northwest corner.
The interior casemates of the north wall house some enlisted men’s barracks as well as some equipment for hauling and positioning he heavy artillery gun tubes. The tubes were attached under wheeled devices called sling carts and moved from place to place. The sling carts on display at Fort Pulaski are extremely rare actual Civil War sling carts; so rare that the park service believes they may be the only surviving ones from the war itself.
Another casemate contains a gin, basically a tripod with a rope and pulley for lifting cannon into place. Other casemates were converted into jails for housing Confederate prisoners of war.
While some casemates were used for other purposes, they were primarily there to hold artillery, and various guns are on display pointing menacingly outward. Others are mounted on the upper layer of the fort, known as the barbette. Some of these guns are reproductions, while others are authentic civil war artillery pieces. At least two of them on the barbette, both British made 4.5 inch Blakely guns, were actually present at the fort during the battle.
A walk around the outside of the fort reveals some of the damage to the walls that occurred from the Union guns. Although the breach was repaired by Union troops, many other pockmarks remain and provide a tangible link to the battle.