The History of Fort Pulaski

Fort Pulaski was constructed after the war of 1812 when our coast line was vulnerable to attack by a foreign power. Between 1816 and 1860, Congress appropriated $40 million for coastal defense. Today that would be an investment in the billions.

Completed in 1846, the brick masonry structure was a five sided structure built on Cockspur Island in the middle of the Savannah River at the entrance to the river.  The fort is estimated to have been constructed of 25 million bricks and had two levels.  When built, the fort was considered impenetrable by the artillery of the time.  The fort’s 7.5 foot thick walls provided ample protection against smoothbore cannon fire in theory.

Fort Pulaski
Fort Pulaski National Monument, Georgia Department of Economic Development

 

The Third System of Defense

Originally the United States wanted to build 200 of these masonry forts along the eastern shore line but a lack of money brought that number down to 30.  Fort Jefferson in the Florida Keys, Fort Pulaski and For Sumter in Charleston harbor were forts built about the same time.  These forts were called the Third System of Defense.

Cannons have been used since medieval times to breakdown a castle’s or fort’s walls.  The defensive technology had been ahead of siege weaponry until 1862 when Union forces landed on Tybee Island and commence siege operations in April 1862.  Although the siege was not an important event in American history from the stand point like a Gettysburg or Vicksburg had, it was nevertheless a very important point in military history.

 

Thanks to New Technology Masonry Forts Can Be Penetrated

A new technology, rifled artillery, would prove that masonry forts were no longer impenetrable.  The Parrot rifle was a new twist on artillery siege weaponry.  The Parrot rifle had spiral groves inside the weapon that spun the projectile out the barrel, sending the projectile further, more accurately and with a greater impact.  I will use the analogy of throwing two balls.  The first is throwing a basketball.  When thrown, the basketball has no spiraling action and does not travel that far.  On the other hand, try throwing a football and you see it travel farther and more accurately.  With a spinning projectile, the embedded shell will penetrate farther into a masonry structure thereby exposing the structure to danger.  This is what happened as a powder magazine was threatening the walls at Fort Pulaski.  The fall of Fort Pulaski proved masonry forts were no match for rifled artillery and marked the end of coastal fortifications as a means of defense.  From April 1862 forward no coastal masonry forts were ever constructed in the United States.

 

Siege at Fort Pulaski

Siege operations on Fort Pulaski began in February 1862.  Command to take the fort was given to General Quincy Gilmore.  Union forces had begun and had controlled access to the fort by way of the river.  On April 10th, Union forces on Tybee Island began a 36 hour bombardment of Pulaski until the 11th when Gilmore sent surrender terms under a flag of truce.  Colonel Charles Olmstead, Confederate commander of the fort had to surrender.  The use of large artillery had taken an effect on Pulaski.  Shelling of the fort would start on the 10th and the rifled artillery began to effect the next day  The north powder magazine was exposed and Olmstead and 384 of his men surrendered to the Federals on April 11th.  The loss of the fort would result in the closing of the Savannah River to the Confederacy. Supply  ships could sail into Savannah indirectly by the Ogeechee Rivert on Savannah’s southside.Savannah would not fall into Federal hands until December 1864 with the capture of the city by William T. Sherman.  Fort Pulaski would later be used to house Confederate officers in late 1864. By wars end over 600 Confederate officers would be housed here.

Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia
Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia

 

 

History Lives

Today, the scars are still visible on the northeast side of the fort.  Start you visit to Fort Pulaski’s visitor center.  Inside you will find exhibits and displays relating to Pulaski’s history.  There is also a nice exhibit on artillery as well.   The park encompasses over 5,000 acres and includes the Cockspur lighthouse on the eastern side of the island.  Tour the inside as well as the outside of fort.  There are summer interpretative programs which may include musket firings, ranger led tours or cannon firings.  Within the park there are several hiking and biking trails.   There are also fishing opportunities within the park as you can fish the Savannah River.  Just make sure you have a Georgia fishing license.  The best time to visit is the non-summer months.  This site can get very hot and humid during the summer.  There are plenty of recreational opportunities for the visit to use at Fort Pulaski.  While visiting the fort, take advantage of Fort McAllister in Richmond Hill and nearby Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.  It is about a hundred miles between Fort Pulaski and Charleston.

 

Fort Pulaski Information

Fort Pulaski National Monument is located fifeteen miles east of Savannah and is a site to see in coastal Georgia during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War   Fort Pulaski is one of the over 370 National Park Service sites under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior.  The national monument is supported by federal tax dollars. One hundred percent of the admission fee goes towards interpretive and preservation program in the park.  The park is open year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Admission fee is three dollars per person sixteen and older.  The receipt is valid for seven days of visitation.  Golden Age and Golden Access passes are available for issuance to seniors and the handicapped for free. These passes allow the user free access to National Park Service sites.

The fort and visitor center are opened from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with extended hours in the summer.  For more information log onto NPS.gov or call the visitor center at (912) 786-5787 and a park ranger will gladly assist you.  There is no camping allowed on the park’s premises but ample hotel space is nearby in Savannah and on Tybee Island.  The visitor center, restroom and first level of the fort are handicap accessible.  There is a 20 minute film in the visitor center about the battle for Fort Pulaski.  Finally, for large groups it is highly recommended to call in advance.

Written By Joe Cates

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