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Fortress in the Marsh: The Fort Pulaski Story

As they struggled to unload the massive timbers from the makeshift barge, which was now firmly stuck in the marsh, the muddy and exhausted detachment of soldiers cursed their superiors under their breath. The shallow, grassy wetlands surrounding the tiny island made it impossible to land the craft onto firm ground. The weary soldiers would have to trudge a half-mile through the swamp with these massive timbers before reaching solid ground. Sand gnats viciously attacked as the men sloshed through the knee-deep black mud, careful not to attract the attention of several gators who lurked nearby. Schools of mullet splashed frantically in nearby tidal pools, and tiny shrimp kicked themselves up onto the muddy, marsh-grass-lined bank where shorebirds eagerly devoured them.

Major General Mansfield, chief engineer of the project, insisted that the military men remain in full military dress while working. The mud insisted otherwise. Repeatedly, the brigade’s progress was interrupted when the vacuum formed by knee-deep mud robbed one of the men of a boot or both boots. It is very likely that U.S. Army-issued boots remain buried and preserved in that black mud till this day.

Dragged by the weary men through the thick, viscous mud, the massive wooden timbers were to be driven into the ground to serve as pilings. They would support the weight of the enormous brick structure that was still years away from completion. Some of these pilings would be sunk as deep as seventy feet into the unstable and muddy ground. Atop them was to be placed a foundation on which the 11’ thick, brick walls of the fort would rest. Without these timbers, the entire project would sink into the abyss. Even before the pilings were in place, the site was given the name Fort Pulaski. Kazimierz Pulaski was a Polish hero of the American Revolution who had once saved the life of General George Washington. Pulaski later perished in the Battle of Savannah after being mortally wounded.

Much of the preliminary work on Fort Pulaski had been overseen by a recent West Point graduate, Second Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, under the command of Major General Babcock. Major General Babcock was later replaced by Major General Mansfield, and much to the chagrin of the troops, Lieutenant Lee was eventually transferred to Hampton Roads, Virginia. While Major General Mansfield was chief engineer in charge of the project, the brilliant and amiable Lieutenant Lee, as assistant engineer, had been in charge of the men and the work itself. He was a natural-born leader of men and was highly regarded by his subordinates. The young officer was noted for his total lack of fear. His willingness to work right along with the troops in the mud and pestilence was also noted. The men sorely missed the young, capable Lee after he was transferred, but too sensed that he was destined for far greater things than trudging around in the marshes of Savannah.

With a final tap of a trowel handle and a swipe to remove excess mortar, the last of the 25 million bricks was set in place. Eighteen years after the first work had begun, the $1 million facility, considered impenetrable, was completed. Although this was 1847, the fort would not see action until February 1861 when a militia consisting of 110 able-bodied men from Savannah arrived by steamship. These rebels captured the fort and took her in the name of the newly formed Confederacy.

Thirty years after leaving her, Robert E. Lee was back in the courtyard of his beloved Fort Pulaski. Now a general of the Confederate Army, Lee had assumed command of the defense of the southeastern coast. His final visit to Fort Pulaski was to advise on strengthening her defenses against attack from the Union Army. The clouds of discontent had begun to gather over our nation. A great storm was on the horizon.

It was assumed that Tybee Island was too isolated and distant to be of any strategic value to either side of the conflict. The Confederate troops stationed there were pulled back to defend Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island to the west. This error in judgment may have been one of the most grievous of the entire war. It led to the eventual capture of Savannah, which was of significant strategic value. Savannah was already a major port city.

Observing that Tybee was unprotected, Union troops quickly set up 11 batteries on the northern beach of Tybee Island. Working only at night, covering their work with driftwood and palm fronds during daylight hours, the Union effort went undetected for some time. When Confederate scouts eventually informed command within Fort Pulaski there was a Yankee presence on Tybee, no action was taken. After a brief strategy meeting, it was concluded that the cannons placed on Tybee would lack the range to inflict damage on the fort. This conclusion was based on sound and accurate military knowledge of conventional weaponry. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, innovation is always the victor over convention.

Before this period, smoothbore cannons had always been employed for offensive attacks against fortifications. These type cannons barely had the range to even reach the fort on Cockspur from Tybee Island. Estimates indicated that if a projectile were fired from such a distance, it would only bounce off the fort’s thickened walls and fall harmlessly into her moat. These estimates were accurate for conventional warfare of the times.

Although the rifled cannon can be traced to the late 1600s, they were not very accurate. The accuracy and effectiveness were improved around 1859. The rifled cannon had never really been tested under actual battlefield conditions until Union Capt. Quincy Gilmore, commander of the U.S. forces on Tybee, made the decision to implement them. General Sherman, headquartered on Hilton Head Island, was hesitant to rely on the new weaponry but allowed Gilmore full and unencumbered command of his attack methods, insisting only that they result in the capture of the asset.

The massive guns had to be dragged across one mile of marsh on sling carts. So heavy were these weapons that 250 men had to be harnessed to each to pull them into place. By this time, the Confederate troops inside the fort were aware of a pending bombardment and began reinforcing the east-facing walls. They were highly confident that the Yankee effort would be futile against the 11’ thick walls of the fortress. The entire parade ground was cut and trenched to prevent the round shot from rolling, and “rat holes” were dug to protect gunners who would be stationed outside of the fort to defend against a direct attack. All open passages were shielded by walls of thick timbers known as Traverses.

On April 10, 1862, Commander Gilmore on Tybee issued a request for surrender of Fort Pulaski in order that lives might be saved. Confident that the fort could not be breached, Colonel Olmstead, commander of the garrison, refused. None of the Confederate troops within Pulaski had any inclination that the walls of Fort Pulaski could be breached. Very few of the Union troops stationed on Tybee and on barges on the far side of the fort thought so either. Many had made plans of fishing from Tybee that evening after their attack failed.

The onslaught of mortars and cannon shot was relentless and, at first, seemingly ineffective. As the bombardment progressed, the damage to the fort became apparent. By noon, 47 huge scars were visible on the south flanking wall as thousands of bricks were displaced by the projectiles launched from the rifled cannons. The fort was so obviously vulnerable that a direct assault was ordered for the next day, and Olmstead was forced to surrender. The north magazine containing 20 tons of black powder had been nearly breached. If a hot shot had entered the magazine, every man inside the fort would have been maimed or killed. The only choice was to surrender or die. As the Confederate flag was lowered and replaced by the white flag, the battle ended. The era of masonry coastal fortifications was over. The rifled cannon had rendered every existing fort useless as a means of defense.

Today, Fort Pulaski stands as a national monument and receives tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world, a stark reminder of our nation’s struggles to remain united in the face of adversity. The fort has been restored and preserved. The ugly scars on the Tybee facing wall were left as evidence of how intense the bombardment had become before surrender was necessary. The damaged walls are also visible reminders of the scars that still exist today in the fabric of our American experience. We must preserve our history, lest we relive the agonies of a fledgling nation. Mistakes forgotten are repeated. We must remember where we have been to know where it is we wish to go.

Complete with a visitor center, walking trails, and an excellent guided tour of the fortification, Fort Pulaski is a national treasure. Take your children there. There is no better way to spark their interest in the history of our nation—a country that struggled so hard to survive in those first 100 years. A country that still works to better itself. Make it a family tradition to stop in and meet those from the past who shaped our nation.

Michael “Mike” Braswell is a graduate of Swainsboro High School and Swainsboro Technical College. He returned to Swainsboro after many years of living on the coast with his family. He loves fishing and hunting as well as traveling. Braswell is now retired and, when not partaking in one of the three before-mentioned activities, he spends much of his time with his three children and four grandchildren.

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