Federal army-navy forces had gained a toehold on the Confederate coast last November with the capture of Port Royal. This gave them control of a vital strip of land between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Since then, the Federals had expanded their occupation zone southward, but it stopped at Fort Pulaski, which guarded Savannah. Pulaski was a five-sided brick fortress on Cockspur Island, named for Count Casimir Pulaski, hero of the War for Independence. The walls were seven and a half feet thick and 35 feet high, and were believed to be impervious to bombardment. The fort garrison consisted of 48 guns and 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 River, 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, too far to be effective. Also, Federal gunboats could not take the fort because they could not withstand the fort’s 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 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 8:10 on the morning of April 10.
Each gun opened on the fort in succession, with all of them firing within a half-hour. Most of the fire was trained on the southeast angle of the fort. The initial targets were the guns on the fort’s parapets, and then the Federals started chipping away at the fort’s brick walls. The Confederates initially launched a furious counterfire, but this eventually died down as the Federal bombardment began taking its toll.
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 as he observed 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. In the fort’s southeastern corner, the rifled guns had blasted open two casemates and blown away nearly half the wall’s thickness. 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 were better and they ultimately silenced the Confederate guns. Federal cannon continued pounding the southeastern breach, expanding it and opening new holes elsewhere. The entire southeastern wall eventually collapsed, and an adjoining wall fell with it. This enabled the Federal gunners to fire directly into the fort. By 12 p.m., fire was hitting the wall of the fort’s magazine, which contained 400 kegs of gunpowder. The Confederates could not hold out much longer.
With the fort crumbling much sooner than expected, the Federals prepared boats and scaling ladders for an infantry charge into the southeastern hole. This became a moot point when a white sheet replaced the Confederate flag over Fort Pulaski’s parapet around 2:30 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 the 400 100-pound kegs 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 had taken 50 years to build and was thought to be invulnerable, was taken in just 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, and it began 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.
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