The Atlantic Campaign: Fort Pulaski, Georgia

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Closing the Southern Ports
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The Atlantic Campaign:

Fort Pulaski, Georgia

The Union Navy had the defensive fortification, Fort Pulaski, in their sights as their next target. The fort, situated on Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River. It guarded the seaward approaches to the city of Savannah.

Savannah was one of the South’s largest and most important cities. It was a vibrant commercial center with a population of about 14,000 people. It was one of main export points for cotton. Interestingly, the city had a large free black population. The city was about 18 miles inland from Fort Pulaski.

Attack on Fort PulaskiThe fort itself had been built over the 15 year period starting in 1830 and completing in 1845. The fort has a unique foundation that was necessitated by the marshy land of the island. Pilings were driven 70 feet into the soil and brick arches were constructed on top of them. The fort was originally designed as a two-story affair but the ground that it was built on forced the Army to change it to a one-story fort.

Fort Pulaski was constructed as a masonry fort with five walls that were between 7 to 11 feet thick and 32 feet high. It was built to include 67 arched casemates, used for housing soldiers and storing supplies, that supported a 30 foot wide terreplein on which the cannon platforms were placed. Approximately 25,000,000 bricks were used in its construction.

By the end of 1860 only 20 of the planned 146 guns were in place. On January 3, 1861 the fort was seized by the Georgia State Militia. Two weeks later Georgia seceded from the Union. Fort Pulaski was the easternmost fortification in a line that stretched to Savannah and included Fort Jackson and Causton’s Bluff.

At the time of the attack on the fort, it was garrisoned with 385 officers and men under the command of Colonel Charles H. Olmstead. Fort Pulaski Chart of the Savannah Riverhad a total of 48 guns including 10 Columbiads, 5 mortars and a 4.5 in. Blakely rifle. The Confederates had conducted a campaign of “scorched earth” in the vicinity burning crops, destroying the Tybee Island Lighthouse and generally, attempting to deny the Union forces of anything of value.

Neither opposing commander, Robert E. Lee or Thomas Sherman, believed that the fort could be reduced by bombardment alone. Lee, in fact, has worked on the construction of Fort Pulaski from 1829 to 1831 and knew how strong its walls were. However, Sherman’s chief engineering officer, Brig. Gen. Quincy Adams Gilmore devised a rather unconventional plan of siege. He proposed using rifled guns and siege mortars to reduce the fort. Sherman had assembled a 10,000 man force that would be proven unnecessary by the power of Gilmore’s guns.

The Union Army gradually encircled the fort cutting it off from resupply on February 13th when the river steamer Ida make its last run under Union artillery fire. Over the next six weeks the two sides skirmished on the river from Savannah to Fort Pulaski. The Confederates led by Commodore Josiah Tattnall repeatedly attempted to recapture the Union shore batteries. They were unsuccessful each and every time.

Fort Pulaski MapMeanwhile, the rifled guns had arrived and the various batteries were located on the islands surrounding the fort. On April 10th Maj. Gen. David Hunter, the newly appointed commander of the Department of the South sent the fort a demand for surrender which Colonel Olmstead declined. At 8:00 AM the bombardment began.

The duel on the first day proved to be in favor of the Union gunners who were able to silence several of the Confederate guns. However, the Union mortars were not very accurate with less than 10% of their shells being on target. During the night the Confederate garrison was able to put several guns back in service. By nightfall the wall at the southeast corner had been breached.

The next day the opening on the southeast corner was enlarged and shells began to impact the far wall that protected the powder magazine which contained 20 tons of powder. Olmstead realizing that his situation was hopeless surrendered the fort at about 2:30 PM.

Despite the terrific bombardment both sides suffered few casualties. The entire Confederate garrison surrendered. With the surrender of Fort Pulaski, the usefulness of Savannah as a port was done. The city would not be captured until Sherman’s March to the Sea in December 1864 but it had no further impact to the Confederate war effort as a sea port.

 

Damage to Fort Pulaski's walls

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