Fought on April 10–11, 1862, the Battle of Fort Pulaski revolutionized siege warfare and effectively strangled shipping to and from the port city of Savannah, Georgia, for the rest of the Civil War.
Three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared a naval blockade of all Southern ports. Lincoln’s goal, inspired by General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, was to strangle the Confederacy economically by restricting commerce with foreign nations.
In November 1861, a Union naval squadron commanded by Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont overpowered two Confederate forts at the mouth of Port Royal Sound. Du Pont’s victory at the Battle of Port Royal enabled Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman to land his 12,000-man Federal invasion force and take control of Hilton Head Island between the Confederacy’s two preeminent Atlantic seaports of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.
Soon after establishing a permanent presence on Hilton Head Island, the Federals began preparations for capturing Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of the Savannah River, and blockading Savannah.
Named for Polish Count Casimir Pulaski (who was gravely wounded while leading a charge against British troops at the Battle of Savannah during the American Revolution), Fort Pulaski is on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River.
Construction of the facility began in 1829 and was not completed until 1847. Having five sides, the fort boasted seven-and-one-half-foot-thick brick walls that were thought to be impregnable. At the time of the Civil War, the citadel was not garrisoned and was armed with only twenty of the originally planned 146 cannon.
On January 3, 1861, sixteen days before Georgia seceded from the Union, and over three months before the Civil War began, Georgia militiamen seized Fort Pulaski. In October, the Provisional Confederate Government garrisoned the citadel with a small contingent of Georgia troops commanded by Major Charles H. Olmstead. The Savannah native quickly set about enhancing the fort’s armaments.
On November 5, 1861, General Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. Lee was highly familiar with Fort Pulaski because he had served as one of the facility’s lead engineers during its construction. On November 11, Lee traveled to Fort Pulaski and conferred with Olmstead regarding the citadel’s defense. During their meeting, Lee pointed to Tybee Island, one and one-half miles to the southeast, and warned Olmstead that when the Union moved against Fort Pulaski, “…they will make it very warm for you with shells from that point but they cannot breach at that distance.” Lee’s observation about Union plans proved much more accurate than his prediction regarding Fort Pulaski’s invincibility.
Shortly after the Union success at Port Royal, Robert E. Lee ordered Confederate forces to abandon the many outlying coastal defenses, including Tybee Island. When General Sherman received intelligence that the Rebels had abandoned Tybee Island he quickly moved to fill the void. On November 24, 1861, Union operations began to occupy the vacated region. Following a prolonged naval bombardment, Sherman’s chief engineer, Captain Quincy A. Gillmore, led three companies of federal soldiers ashore and occupied Tybee Island on November 29.
Although experts on both sides considered Fort Pulaski to be impregnable, Gillmore believed otherwise. After reconnoitering the island, he convinced Sherman that he could shell the Confederate installation into submission. Conventional military wisdom of the time reckoned that smooth-bore cannon fired from long distances could not reduce bastions as strong as Fort Pulaski. Gillmore, however, contended that rifled artillery could complete the task. Although Sherman was skeptical, he reasoned that if Gillmore was correct, his stratagem would save Union lives by making a bloody assault-in-force on the citadel unnecessary. Under considerable pressure to capture Savannah sooner rather than later, Sherman approved Gillmore’s plan.
Throughout the spring of 1862, Gillmore’s men toiled at night under the cover of darkness to construct eleven batteries on Tybee Island. Each morning before daylight they camouflaged their accomplishments to prevent detection. As the buildup progressed, the soldiers completed the task by bringing ashore heavy rifled guns, hauling them across the island, and placing them in the batteries.
Change in Command
Throughout the operations against Port Royal and Fort Pulaski, General Sherman showed an inability or unwillingness to cooperate with his navy counterparts. The War Department resolved the discord on March 15, 1862, by issuing General Orders, No. 26 (U. S. War Department) announcing the creation of the Department of the South commanded by Major General David Hunter. Hunter proceeded to Hilton Head Island and replaced Sherman who returned to Washington for reassignment.
Upon his arrival at Hilton Head, Hunter placed Brigadier General Henry Washington Benham in charge of the Northern District of his new department. As Gillmore’s direct superior, Benham toured the construction on Tybee Island and he encouraged Gillmore to proceed with his plan.
By early April, the Union preparations were complete. On April 10, 1862, Hunter sent a demand to Colonel Olmstead for “immediate surrender and restoration of Fort Pulaski to the authority and possession of the United States.” The Confederate commander, still believing that the fortress was unassailable, felt secure knowing that he had enough provisions stored to feed his 361-man garrison for four to six months. In addition, he had increased the number of cannons at his disposal to forty-eight. Unsurprisingly, Olmstead replied, “I am here to defend the fort, not to surrender it.”
Olmstead’s declaration prompted Gillmore to begin bombing Fort Pulaski at 8:10 a.m. Under Gillmore’s direction, gunners from the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, the 3rd Rhode Island Volunteer Artillery, the 46th New York State Volunteers, and the 8th Maine Volunteers concentrated their fire on the fort’s southeast corner. As the day wore on, the Union blitz put many of the Rebel guns out of commission. Just before nightfall, notwithstanding over forty direct hits on the south face, the fort looked as impregnable as it did that morning. The appearance, however, was deceiving.
When the Union batteries on Tybee Island opened up again the next morning, gunners on a battery on Long Island, a barge on Tybee Creek, and on the gunboat Norwich joined the barrage. The added firepower did minimal damage, but the effectiveness of the rifled cannon on Tybee Island was devastating.
By noon on April 11, the Union shells had opened two gaping holes in Fort Pulaski’s walls and silenced nearly all the Rebel guns. With his powder magazine now exposed to direct fire, Colonel Olmstead recognized the futility of further resistance. At 2:30 in the afternoon, as General Benham was preparing for a direct assault, Olmstead ran up a white flag and surrendered Fort Pulaski.
Later that afternoon, Gillmore boarded a skiff and traveled the one and one-half miles to Cockspur Island. Upon his arrival, Gilmore met with Colonel Olmstead and hammered out the terms of surrender which were unconditional.
The capture of Fort Pulaski came at a minimal human price on both sides. Only one Union soldier, Private Thomas Campbell of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Infantry, died during the battle. Several suffered minor injuries. Incredibly, only three Confederate soldiers were severely wounded despite withstanding a hailstorm of over 5,000 shells fired at the citadel during the thirty-hour bombardment. Federal army officials sent the 361 Rebels who surrendered to prisons in the North where many of them died from pneumonia and typhoid fever.
Within six weeks of the surrender, Union forces repaired much of the damage inflicted on the fort. Firmly in control of sea access to Savannah, the federal garrison assigned to the bastion effectively strangled shipping to and from one of the South’s major Atlantic ports for the rest of the war.
Gillmore’s use of rifled artillery revolutionized siege warfare. The quick reduction of Fort Pulaski debunked the invincibility of thick-walled masonry forts. After witnessing Gillmore’s success, General Hunter observed:
The result of this bombardment must cause, I am convinced, a change in the construction of fortifications as radical as that foreshadowed in naval architecture by the conflict between the Monitor and Merrimac. No works of stone or brick can resist the impact of rifled artillery of heavy caliber.
Witnessing the events from the inside of the fort’s walls, Colonel Olmstead concurred by noting that “Fort Pulaski is the first work that has ever been exposed to the fire of the newly invented rifle cannon and the results have proved that brick and mortar cannot stand before them.”
The capture of Fort Pulaski catapulted Gillmore’s career and his reputation. Military experts at home and abroad soon exalted him as the first officer to use rifled artillery to reduce masonry fortresses that were formerly thought to be impregnable. Shortly after Gillmore’s success, the army promoted him to brigadier general in the volunteer army on April 28, 1862.
Federal officials incarcerated Olmstead at Fort Columbus, in New York Harbor, and later on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, before exchanging him as a prisoner of war. He later served the Confederacy during the Atlanta, Franklin-Nashville, and Carolinas campaigns.
On April 13, 1862, two days after the surrender of Fort Pulaski, David Hunter created a firestorm in the North and the South by issuing General Orders, No. 7 (Department of the South), which stated in part that:
All persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States in Fort Pulaski and on Cockspur Island, Georgia are hereby confiscated and declared free, in conformity with law, and shall hereafter receive the fruits of their own labor.
Less than one month later, on May 9, 1862, Hunter expanded his edict in General Orders, No. 11 (Department of the South) by declaring:
Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible. The persons in these three States—Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida—heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.
Besides his unauthorized emancipation order, Hunter also began organizing escaped or captured bondsmen into combat units. To assure the enlistment of black troops ample numbers, Hunter went even further and instructed his six district commanders, “to send immediately to these headquarters, under a guard, all the able-bodied negroes capable of bearing arms within the limits of their several commands,” thus instituting the practice of conscription within his department.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis reacted angrily to Hunter’s proclamations by issuing General Orders, No. 60 (CSA), dated August 21, 1862, declaring Hunter an outlaw.
May 19, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, who was lobbying Congress for a bill that would voluntarily end the practice of slavery in the Border States in return for compensating slave owners, quickly issued Presidential Proclamation 90, which rescinded Hunter’s emancipation order.