Fort Pulaski

After the War of 1812, the US decided to construct a large number of defensive forts to protect harbors along the east coast. One of these was Fort Pulaski, just outside Savannah GA. Begun in 1829, it was planned as a three-story masonry structure, but the swampy soil proved to be too soft to support that much weight, so it was reduced to two stories. It 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).

In January 1861, Fort Pulaski had still not been completely finished, and no Army troops had yet been based there. when South Carolina seceded from the Union and began the Civil War. On January 3 Georgia’s Governor ordered the state militia to occupy the Fort, and when Georgia formally seceded on January 19, the militia unit became the 1st Georgia regiment of the Confederate Army, under the command of Colonel Charles Olmstead. Olmstead thought his position was secure—the nearest land area from which the Federals could bombard his fort was Tybee Island, about a mile away, and at that distance, the smoothbore cannon of the day did not have the range or accuracy to do any real damage.

But the Union troops had been equipped with a new weapon—the rifled cannon. Firing a cone-shaped projectile instead of a spherical cannonball, the rifled cannon had much better accuracy and range. By April 10, 1862, Union forces under Captain Quincy Gillmore had placed 36 cannons and siege mortars, including 10 rifled cannon, along Tybee Island. The smoothbores and mortars were essentially useless, but the rifled cannon were all aimed at one corner of the Fort. Over the next two days they destroyed the Fort’s brick outer wall and punched a number of holes through to the inside. The next morning, a Federal shell went all the way inside the Fort and exploded near the powder magazine, which contained 20 tons of gunpowder. Olmstead realized that he was doomed, and surrendered.

Union troops occupied the Fort for the rest of the war, using it as a prison. 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. 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 it is run by the National Park Service.

Here are some photos from a visit.

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Historical artifacts from the Fort, on display at the Visitors Center

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The interior parade ground

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Re-enactor giving a talk about the cannons

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  Musket firing demonstration
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Cannon ports on the ground floor

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Wheeled gun carriages on tracks, used to move the guns for aiming

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View from the upper gun level. The Federal batteries were on Tybee Island, across the river, about a mile away.

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How the Fort looked to the Federal gunners

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Damage to the fort walls by the Union cannons. The large area of different-colored bricks had been completely blown away—the gaping hole was repaired later by the Union troops when they occupied the fort.

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The Powder Magazine, with bricks peppered by shrapnel

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Inside the Powder Magazine

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Earthen berms added to the Fort after the war

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Battery Hambright. Added just before the Spanish-American War, the gun positions were finished but the guns were never emplaced.
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