April 11, 1862 – Federal forces on the Atlantic coast targeted a key fort guarding the entrance to Savannah Harbor, near the South Carolina-Georgia border.
Following their victory at Port Royal last November, Federal forces had expanded their occupation zone southward down the coast. That zone stopped at Savannah, which remained a Confederate stronghold guarded by Fort Pulaski, a five-sided brick fortress 14 miles down the Savannah River on Cockspur Island. The fort commanded both channels leading to Savannah, and its 11-foot-thick walls were believed to be impervious to artillery bombardment. It also included 48 cannon and a garrison of 385 men under Colonel Charles H. Olmstead.
When General Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida last November, he figured that any Federal attack on the fort would have to come from Tybee Island, across the southern channel of the Savannah, which the Federals had occupied. Lee assured Olmstead, “Colonel, they will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”
Lee was initially correct. The Federal guns on Tybee Island were a mile away, which was too far to be effective. Also, Federal gunboats could not take the fort because they could not withstand the fort’s 48 guns. And Federal troops could not be landed on Cockspur Island because the ground was mainly marsh. However, the Federal commander in the region, Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, believed that the fort could be taken using the new and more powerful rifled artillery.
A former engineer, Gillmore directed the placement of 11 batteries on the northern end of Tybee Island throughout the winter of 1861-62. These batteries included 36 siege guns and mortars, and new James and Parrott rifles. The gun distance from the fort ranged from 1,650 to 3,400 yards.
All the guns were in place by early April, ready to bombard Fort Pulaski. Gillmore issued specific orders to each battery on when to attack and what types of fuses and ammunition to use. At the request of Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, crewmen from the U.S.S. Wabash were permitted to man one of the rifled artillery batteries.
Gillmore’s superior, Major General David Hunter, sent a message to Colonel Olmstead demanding “the immediate surrender and restoration of Fort Pulaski to the authority and possession of the United States. The number, caliber, and completeness of the batteries surrounding you leave no doubt as to what must result in case of your refusal, and as the defense, however obstinate, must eventually succumb to the assailing force at my disposal, it is hoped you may see fit to avert the useless waste of life.”
Olmstead was given 30 minutes to answer. He quickly shot back, “In reply I can only say that I am here to defend the Fort, not to surrender it.” After receiving Olmstead’s refusal, the bombardment began at 8:15 on the morning of April 10.
Each gun opened on the fort in succession, with all of them firing within a half-hour. The recoil on three Federal Columbiads blew the guns off their carriages, permanently disabling one of them. In addition, Gillmore was informed that the mortar shells could not reach the fort’s interior as hoped.
But observing through a telescope, Gillmore could see that the rifled guns were blasting holes two feet deep into Fort Pulaski’s masonry, just as he thought they would. The James rifle proved particularly effective, hurling 84-pound solid shot. Even with the mortars rendered ineffective, the fort was slowly being reduced.
In 10 hours, the Federals hurled 3,000 rounds totaling 110,643 pounds of shot and shell. The fort’s southeastern corner was penetrated by nightfall, with the casemates blasted open. Sporadic return fire did no damage. Three Federal mortars and a Parrott rifle continued firing through the night to prevent the Confederates from repairing the breach, and the Federals hoped to capitalize on their gains the next morning.
Heavy firing resumed from both sides at dawn on the 11th. The Confederates’ aim improved, but the Federals maintained the edge in accuracy. Their guns continued pounding the southeastern breach, expanding it and opening new holes elsewhere. The entire southeastern wall eventually collapsed, along with an adjoining wall. This enabled the Federal gunners to fire directly into the fort. They soon blew open the fort’s magazine, exposing the 400 kegs of gunpowder inside that could destroy the fort if detonated.
The Federals prepared boats and scaling ladders for an infantry charge into the southeastern hole, but Gillmore had planned to bombard the fort another two days before deploying troops. This became a moot point when a white flag appeared over Fort Pulaski’s parapet at 2 p.m. Gillmore was taken by boat to accept the fort’s unconditional surrender.
Under the surrender terms, the Confederate officers would go north as prisoners of war, keeping their personal effects except for side arms. The 360 soldiers were paroled and sent home with orders not to take up arms again until properly exchanged for Federal parolees. The Federals took the fort’s 47 remaining guns, along with 40,000 barrels of gunpowder and large quantities of other supplies.
Four Confederates were wounded in the bombardment, and one was killed. One Federal soldier was also killed. The Federals had fired 5,275 rounds into Fort Pulaski. The structure, which Confederates thought to be invulnerable, was taken in only 30 hours. The rifled battery manned by the naval crew played a key role in reducing the fort.
Many on both sides expressed surprise that the fort had fallen so quickly. This marked the first time that long-range rifled artillery was used to reduce a fortification, thus beginning a new era of warfare. In his report, Gillmore stated that “the eight weeks of laborious preparation for its reduction could have been curtailed to one week, as heavy mortars and columbiads would have been omitted from the armament of the batteries as unsuitable for breaching at long ranges.”
Federals quickly occupied Fort Pulaski and closed Savannah Harbor to Confederate business for the rest of the war. This enabled gunboats to block both the main channel and the back channels of Wassaw and Ossabaw sounds. Controlling the entrance to Savannah helped strengthen the Federals’ coastal blockade. However, no immediate attempts were made to go 14 miles upriver and capture Savannah.
Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46-47-49; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 148, 159; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 131, 136-37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 197-99; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 371; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 43; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 278; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 295