Fort Pulaski National Monument, about 15 miles southeast of Savannah, is a destination and not a place just off an interstate. Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman, is not a household name but may be one of the most commemorated in the U.S. From Pulaski, Wisconsin to the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey, his name seems to be used by towns, landmarks, and monuments everywhere. I remember the Pulaski Skyway as a dangerous, narrow road that was scary to drive, even when I had on my New Jersey armor.
Pulaski came to America to help the Patriots in the Revolutionary War. He fought in a battle to retake Savannah from the British in 1779 and died of his wounds.
If you look at pictures of the forts built after the War of 1812, they all look the same with their moats, sally ports, and 8-foot thick walls. Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island, looks formidable. It took 18 years and 25 million bricks to build the massive structure, which protected Savannah, presumably from a mighty European sea power. However, no foreigner ever attacked Fort Pulaski. The fort was supposed to be impregnable from the smooth bore naval cannons, the technology available at the time. After the fort was completed in 1847, Col. Joseph Totten said, “You might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains as Fort Pulaski.”
By the time that Georgia seceded from the Union, two caretakers were watching over the fort and the state easily took it over from the Federal Government. Soon Confederate troops moved in and prepared for a likely attack from the Union. The Confederates abandoned Tybee Island, from which the Union could now bombard Fort Pulaski. For two months, the Union moved cannons in silence at night to a spot on Tybee to prepare for a siege. The impregnable fort’s undoing was a new rifled cannon with longer range and accuracy. After 30 hours of shelling, the South surrendered on April 11, 1862. The Union took over the fort, ending the era of masonry forts.
After surrender, the fort was so badly damaged that it couldn’t hold the new Confederate prisoners of war and they were sent to Governor’s Island in New York. Over 1,000 Federal troops worked to repair the devastation so they could live there for the rest of the war. But you can still see the damage left by the new-fangled cannons.
The cannons that reduced much of the fort to rubble are displayed prominently on the parade grounds. The small exhibits in the rooms present the most questions. Rows and rows of thin-soled leather shoes sit on shelves. Where did the Park Service get all those shoes? Is there a story behind the shoes? What size did the shoes come in? It’s doubtful that they provided wide and narrow fit, like today. Blue trousers with buttons instead of modern zippers lay on the next shelves. A row of lanterns were displayed close by. These artifacts make us realize that human beings had to deal with these awful experiences. You can’t humanize war but you can show the human details.
In October 1864, Union troops stationed at Fort Pulaski accepted transfer of a group of imprisoned Confederate officers who later became known as The Immortal Six Hundred. These prisoners had been moved from Charleston because of a yellow fever epidemic. Thirteen, who died during their confinement mostly from dysentery, are buried on Cockspur Island. The Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans erected the monument in 2012.
I didn’t feel that I really understood Fort Pulaski. Maybe it was because this was the first of these “third system” of forts. So I took the opportunity to visit again a couple of days ago. I shared the fort it with a group of eight-graders and their teachers. They’re outside in the cold drizzle, watching a musket firing demonstration. The theme for their trip is simple tools.
In one of the rooms inside the fort, two women from the Oat Island Wildlife Center are using simple tools to cook corn bread in a Dutch oven over an open fire. After they pull it out of the oven, they cut the round loaf into tiny pieces and drizzle liquid sugar on top. Their sharp looks tell me that this treat is meant for students and teachers, not general visitors.
Lenny and I drive to Tybee Island and turn into a small parking area outside Battery Row, a gated development. Several NPS plaques assure me that I’m supposed to be here. I stand on the spot where the Union shelled the Confederate fort. The sign says that there are guns and sighting tubes but I can’t find either. I don’t need a sighting tube. Past the lighthouse, I can see where the fort is. Now trees are blocking a clear view but during the Civil War, there weren’t any trees. The Union had a straight shot.
Fort Pulaski was an end of an era for masonry forts. And it was also the end of our trip.