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Fort Pulaski
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
April 10, 1862
April 11, 1862
Battle of Fort Pulaski

Quincy Gillmore uses rifled cannon to effectively end the use of palisaded forts world-wide
Georgia
  Quincy A. Gillmore


Modern shot of a cannon and casemates at Fort Pulaski
Fort Pulaski Cannon
One of the "third-system" forts constructed after the War of 1812, the destruction of Fort Pulaski was a pivotal moment not only in American history, but in World history as well. It proved even the fortified works on a island could be breached by technological advancement - the rifled cannon and put to end, in less than two days, centuries-old defenses around the world.

The first federal property captured by the Rebels in Georgia, Fort Pulaski protected the mouth of the Savannah River. The fort sat on Cockspur Island, which divided the river into two channels. Work began on the fort in 1829 and continued, at least when the United States had money, until 1846, when the fort was completed just before the Mexican-American War. It was never fully manned or armed.

Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan was well on its way of being put into effect when an amphibious force left Hampton Roads on October 29, 1861. The Naval portion of the operation fell to Flag Officer Samuel F. duPont while the land portion of the operation was under the command of Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. After battling the sea off the coast of North Carolina, the Confederates at Port Royal, and each other, Sherman and duPont took Tybee Island just off the coast of Georgia, south of Cockspur Island.

Fort Pulaski as it looked after the battle from Tybee Island
Breach in Fort Pulaski
Inside the fort Colonel Charles Olmstead remained confident that the troops could withstand any federal onslaught. In 1862 the fort was considered invincible, built with brick walls thicker than a man is tall. Supporting the walls were solid masonry casemates, and the fort had a commanding view of channels on either side, precluding an amphibious assault. Naval ships could not safely come within an effective range of the fort and there was no land within the 700 yard range needed for a smoothbore cannon.

Each week the steamship Ida would journey to the fort and resupply the men. Then, on February 13, 1862, Sherman decided to sever communications to the fort. From Venus Point on the north side of the Savannah River a federal gun fired 9 rounds at the Ida. The ship escaped injury when the cannon's recoil pushed it off the firing platform. Safely at Fort Pulaski, Ida returned to Savannah via the South Channel and Tybee Creek, avoiding the federal cannon. The creek was quickly blocked and a firing platform opposite Venus Point cut the fort off from Savannah. Now the only way to communicate with the fort was with a messanger who walked the shore and swam the channels to the fort at night.

Captain Quincy Gillmore was put in charge of the forces on Tybee Island on February 19, 1862. Gillmore's first job was to construct a series of artillery batteries along the northern end of Tybee. He began carefully planning the placement of the guns for battle. On March 31, Thomas Sherman was replaced by David Hunter, which really did not affect the battle, other than improving relations between the Army and Navy forces in the area. Gillmore was brevetted from captain to brigadier general, a highly unusual move.

On the morning of April 10, 1862 a strong wind whipped the river into whitecaps when the Confederate officer on duty reported changes to the shoreline on Tybee Island. Trees had been felled and behind them were artillery waiting to fire upon the fort. Then a small boat sailing under a white flag of truce headed across the channel to the fort's jetty. Gillmore's aide, J. H. Wilson, brought a demand for unconditional surrender. Olmstead replied, "...I am here to defend the Fort, not surrender it." The boat returned to Tybee with the response.

Shortly after 8:00 am Gillmore ordered his men to open fire. The first shell was a mortar round from Battery Halleck, which harmlessly bypassed the fort. Then Battery Stanton opened with a mortar that fell short into the marshes between Cockspur and Tybee Island. Slowly the gunners gained the range on the fort as shells launched from each of the 8 batteries.

In this close-up a cannon sits atop rubble at Fort Pulaski
Close-up of breach in Fort Pulaski
By the end of the first day the Union effect on the fort appeared minimal from 1600 yeards. Had they been able to closely inspect the fort, they could have seen some impressive destruction, including walls up to four feet of brick blown away, especially on the south side of the fort.

During the night shelling continued at the rate of seven or eight an hour. In the morning the cannonade resumed and it quickly became apparent that the rifled James cannon were having an effect. Significant damage was being done to the wall to the point that the wall was considered breached. Shells were passing through the breach and striking the magazine on the north side of the fort. At 2:30 on April 11 the battle of Fort Pulaski came to an end with little loss of life as Colonel Olmstead lowered the fort's flag and replaced it with a white sheet signaling its surrender.

The surrender of Fort Pulaski was regarded as suspicious until the details surrounding the bombardment were finally released by the North. The effectiveness of the rifled cannon had been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt and the structure of defensive operation had changed forever.

The Capture of Fort Pulaski

Links appearing on this page:

Hampton Roads
Winfield Scott

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles

Fort Pulaski was added in 2005





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