Location: Tybee Island, Georgia
Webpage: National Park Service
General Description: Construction of Fort Pulaski started in 1829 as one of a system of coastal fortifications by President Madison following the War of 1812. It’s primary purpose was to protect the port at Savannah, Georgia. Located on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River, it was named for Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish hero of the Revolutionary War. Construction of the fort posed multiple problems, not the least of which was its location on essentially a salt marsh. Wooden pilings were sunk up to 70 feet into the mud to support the 25 million bricks used in the construction. Fort Pulaski took 18 years to complete (1847) and was considered to be impregnable to current smooth bore cannon. However, by the start of the Civil War in 1861 warfare technology proved the error of this belief. By December, 1861 Tybee Island had been abandoned by the Confederate forces believing it was too isolated and put their trust in the power of Fort Pulaski. This allowed the Union forces to position 36 cannon only 3 miles from the Fort. These cannon included the new James Rifled Cannon which had not yet been used in combat. The rifling of the barrel caused the cannon shell to rotate in the same manner as a rifle instead of the smooth ball used in muskets. Thus, the new rifled cannons could shoot further (4-5 miles) with much greater accuracy and power. On April 10, 1862, the Union cannons opened fire on Fort Pulaski and within only 30 hours had breached one of the corners of the fort. This breach allowed for cannon fire into the courtyard of the fort seriously endangering the main powder magazines. Realizing the fort provided only limited protection from the Union cannon which were out of range of the Confederate cannon at the fort, Colonel Olmstead surrendered the fort. Surprisingly only two soldiers were injured in the battle. For the rest of the Civil War, the Union occupied the fort after repairing the breach and used it, along with the naval blockade, to end all shipping into and out of the port of Savannah. Fort Pulaski also became one of the final terminals for the Underground Railroad to free slaves during the war. Late in the war Fort Pulaski became a prison for Confederate officers and after the war it held the Confederate Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Assistant Secretary of War as well as three state governors and a senator.
1) The first impression as you approach Fort Pulaski is it’s amazing condition. It is by far the best preserved fort I have seen of the Civil War era. Being built of bricks it shows little sign of aging. Of course the on-going restoration efforts have also contributed to this. We talked with a brick mason who was working on replacing the mortar around the bricks on one of the gun emplacement at the top of the fort. It was interesting to hear him complain about the use of Portland cement in past restorations. Portland cement would seep into the outer layers of the old bricks and in a few years of shrinking and expanding would cause this outer layer to crumble away. He was using a lime based cement more similar to the mortar used at the time to reset the bricks.
2) Being there on a Monday morning in November meant that we were the first visitors to the Fort and had a private tour with the NPS volunteer of the fort. Although we were eventually joined by another couple later on, we enjoyed being able to talk with our guide in some detail. Unfortunately, he was a seasonal volunteer and did not know much beyond his prepared guide. Even then, his knowledge about the history of the fort and how it was constructed was useful.
3) There was one interesting addition that I have never seen used in a fort. To give added protection to the men manning the cannons inside the walls and/or the men in the courtyard of the fort, wooden braces were placed around the three sides of the interior of the fort. Dirt would have been loaded onto the wooden braces. This would provide a buffer for any cannon fire that breached the walls and thereby protect the men in the courtyard or men manning cannons on other parts of the fort.
4) Being a beautiful day, we took a short hike out to the original dock that was used to transport all the building supplies to the fort. There were no bridges at that time, so everything had to be brought in by boat. The stone docks are the oldest structure on the island and show a great deal of weathering. It was surprising to see that a good bit of the stone pier extends over dry land even during high tide, until we recalled that the size of the island was greatly expanded each time the Savannah River was dredged to increase the size of ships handled by the port. We also took a look at the John Wesley Memorial which commemorates his first landing in America in 1736. He had been sent as a missionary to the new Georgia colony in Savannah and his first landing and prayers were conducted on “Peeper Island”, which was the current name for Cockspur Island.
5) We continued the hike along the dikes that were built to protect the fort from high tides. The dike extends all the way around the fort and due to past dredging of the river, would appear not to have much purpose. They were designed by then Second Lieutenant Robert E. Lee and I would assume provided protection from the seawater.
6) The most impressive sight came when we rounded the corner of the fort to take a look at the back side that faces the river and Tybee Island. The many holes along the wall are truly impressive. You can easily tell where the breach in the corner occurred due to the repairs that were done and therefore no visible holes. There are even cannon shells visible in some of the holes! This view, if nothing else, makes this National Monument a much see, in my opinion.