Battle of Fort Pulaski - Conflict & Dates:
The Battle of Fort Pulaski was fought April 10-11, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Battle of Fort Pulaski - Background:
Built on Cockspur Island and completed in 1847, Fort Pulaski guarded the approaches to Savannah, GA. Unmanned and neglected in 1860, it was seized by Georgia state troops on January 3, 1861, shortly before the state left the Union. For much of 1861, Georgia and then Confederate forces worked to strengthen the defenses along the coast. In October, Major Charles H. Olmstead took command of Fort Pulaski and immediately began efforts to improve its condition and enhance its armament. This work resulted in the fort ultimately mounting 48 guns which included a mix of mortars, rifles, and smoothbores.
As Olmstead labored at Fort Pulaski, Union forces under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman and Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont succeeded in capturing Port Royal Sound and Hilton Head Island in November 1861. In response to the Union successes, the newly-appointed commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida, General Robert E. Lee ordered his forces to abandon the outlying coastal defenses in favor of concentrating at key locations further inland. As part of this shift, Confederate forces departed Tybee Island southeast of Fort Pulaski.
Battle of Fort Pulaski - Coming Ashore:
On November 25, shortly after the Confederate withdraw, Sherman landed on Tybee accompanied by his chief engineer Captain Quincy A. Gillmore, ordnance officer Lieutenant Horace Porter, and topographical engineer Lieutenant James H. Wilson. Assessing Fort Pulaski's defenses, they requested that a variety of siege guns be sent south including several new heavy rifles. With Union strength on Tybee growing, Lee visited the fort in January 1862 and directed Olmstead, now a colonel, to make several improvements to its defenses including the construction of traverses, pits, and blindage.
Battle of Fort Pulaski - Isolating the Fort:
That same month, Sherman and DuPont explored options for bypassing the fort using the adjacent waterways but found that they were too shallow. In an effort to isolate the fort, Gillmore was directed to build a battery on swampy Jones Island to the north. Completed in February, Battery Vulcan commanded the river to the north and west. By the end of the month, it was supported by a smaller position, Battery Hamilton, which was constructed mid-channel on Bird Island. These batteries effectively cut off Fort Pulaski from Savannah.
Battle of Fort Pulaski - Preparing for the Bombardment:
As Union reinforcements arrived, Gillmore's junior rank became an issue as he was to oversee engineering activities in the area. This resulted in him successfully convincing Sherman to advance him to the temporary rank of brigadier general. As the heavy guns began to arrive at Tybee, Gillmore directed the construction of a series of eleven batteries along the island's northwest coast. In an effort to hide the work from the Confederates, all construction was done at night and covered with brush before dawn. Laboring through March, a complex series of fortifications slowly emerged.
Despite work moving forward, Sherman, never popular with his men, found himself replaced in March by Major General David Hunter. Though Gillmore's operations were not altered, his new immediate superior became Brigadier General Henry W. Benham. Also an engineer, Benham encouraged Gillmore to quickly finish the batteries. As sufficient artillerymen were not present on Tybee, training also commenced to teach infantrymen how to work the siege guns. With work completed, Hunter desired to commence the bombardment on April 9, however torrential rains prevented the battle from commencing.
The Battle of Fort Pulaski:
At 5:30 AM on April 10, the Confederates awoke to the sight of the completed Union batteries on Tybee which had been stripped of their camouflage. Assessing the situation, Olmstead was disheartened to see that only a few of his guns could bear on the Union positions. At dawn, Hunter dispatched Wilson to Fort Pulaski with a note demanding its surrender. He returned a short time later with Olmstead's refusal. The formalities concluded, Porter fired the first gun of the bombardment at 8:15 AM.
While the Union mortars dropped shells on the fort, the rifled guns fired on the barbette guns before switching to reduce the masonry walls at the fort's southeast corner. The heavy smoothbores followed a similar pattern and also attacked the fort's weaker eastern wall. As the bombardment continued through the day, Confederate guns were put out of action one by one. This was followed by the systematic reduction of Fort Pulaski's southeast corner. The new rifled guns proved particularly effective against its masonry walls.
As night fell, Olmstead inspected his command and found the fort in shambles. Unwilling to submit, he elected to hold out. After sporadic firing during the night, the Union batteries resumed their assault the next morning. Hammering Fort Pulaski's walls, the Union guns began opening a series of breaches in the southeast corner of the fort. With Gillmore's guns pummeling the fort, preparations for an assault to be launched the next day moved forward. With the reduction of the southeast corner, Union guns were able to fire directly into Fort Pulaski. After a Union shell nearly detonated the fort's magazine, Olmstead realized that further resistance was futile.
At 2:00 PM, he ordered the Confederate flag lowered. Crossing to the fort, Benham and Gillmore opened surrender talks. These were quickly concluded and the 7th Connecticut Infantry arrived to take possession of the fort. As it was a year since the fall of Fort Sumter, Porter wrote home that "Sumter is avenged!"
Aftermath of the Battle of Fort Pulaski
An early victory for the Union, Benham and Gillmore lost one killed, Private Thomas Campbell of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Infantry, in the battle. Confederate losses totaled three severely wounded and 361 captured. A key result of the fight was the stunning performance of the rifled guns. Tremendously effectively, they made masonry fortifications obsolete. The loss of Fort Pulaski effectively closed the port of Savannah to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war. Fort Pulaski was held by a reduced garrison for the rest of the war, though Savannah would remain in Confederate hands until taken by Major General William T. Sherman in late 1864 at the culmination of his March to the Sea.