Friday, April 27, 2012

Fort Pulaski: Rifled artillery alters the design of the defense

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
April 27, 2012

While April 1862 is most associated with the Battle of Shiloh, Tenn., Georgia played host to a battle which would have implications on the Confederacy’s defensive strategy for the remainder of the war. This month’s article focuses on the Battle of Fort Pulaski and the lessons learned from that engagement.

In 1829, a young engineering officer on his first assignment out of West Point surveyed the construction site for the future Fort Pulaski. The Lieutenant would serve as the superintendent for the first year of construction on Cockspur Island in the middle of the Savannah River.

Returning in 1861 to observe the fort’s commanding presence overlooking the approaches to the Savannah Harbor, the former Lieutenant, Brig. Gen. Robert E. Lee, pronounced the walls of the fort to be secure against artillery bombardment. At first glance, the 11-foot thick solid masonry walls of the fort, 48 cannon, and garrison of nearly 400 men offered a formidable target for land-based or naval-based siege operations.

Joining Lee in his estimation was the officer tasked with taking the fort. Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Sherman did not believe that conventional smooth-bore artillery would be effective against Ft. Pulaski, but on the advice of his chief engineering officer, Sherman approved a plan of bombardment using rifled artillery. Rifled artillery, as observed in last month’s article, offers not only greater accuracy but greater range and impact. The Union plan was simply to move large rifled siege cannons within striking distance of the fort in order to batter the seemingly impregnable walls down. This plan would involve phased efforts including the isolation of barrier islands, securing landing sites, and moving the larger rifled cannon over land within range of Ft. Pulaski.  

By November 1861, the Union had affected a naval blockade in Savannah and begun the investment of the city. Over the coming months, the Union forces would land on the islands surrounding Ft. Pulaski, build roads, and haul massive siege cannons through swamp and thorn-twisted wood. More than 200 men were required to move each cannon. By April 1862, Tybee Island bristled with 36 Union cannon.  

On April 10, Maj Gen. David Hunter, newly appointed Union commander, demanded the surrender of Ft. Pulaski. Col. Charles Olmstead, in command of Pulaski returned that he had come to defend the fort, not to surrender it. At 8:00 in the morning, federal guns initiated fire on Ft. Pulaski. The bombardment went on all day with fire massed on the southeastern wall of the fort. By sunset, the southeast wall had been breached by concentrated, rifled cannon fire. Firing resumed the next day and Union cannons managed to enlarge the breach and send explosive shells rolling into the fort’s interior. With shells landing dangerously close to the fort’s powder magazine, Col. Olmstead realized the situation was hopeless and surrendered the fort. The colors were struck at 2:30 p.m. 

The surrender of Ft. Pulaski sent shock waves North and South and forced the Confederacy to rethink its coastal defense strategy. Rather than contest the barrier islands, the Confederates built networks of inland defensive positions designed to remove Union attackers from their naval heavy fire and transportation assets. The architect of this revised design was the commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida:  Robert E. Lee. Lee’s revised defensive strategy would be tested in June at the Battle of Secessionville, SC.

Next month:  Gun Boats, Guardsmen, Coca Cola, and the Guard mission who linked them all

1 comment:

  1. Walt Brooks (retired GBI SAC)April 28, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Great article! In late 1972 and early 1973 I was assigned to conduct an undercover drug investigation for the GBI in Savannah and surrounding communities. There are times working these types of investigations that one needs to get away from it all and do something that will tell the mind that you are really not the person you are pretending to be. My diversion was Ft. Pulaski. Having always been a history buff with a minor in Civil War, I can honestly say that being in Savannah at that time of my 34+ years law enforcement career, Ft. Pulaski helped me adjust my task at hand and keep my attitude in check. I highly suggest that all Georgians and all Civil War buffs go visit this beautiful place on the Georgia coast. I remember thinking to myself as I walked the grounds of the fort...General Robert E. Lee may have walked in these same steps that I was taking. No better feeling. I have also always been a huge fan of the Georgia National Guard and all of the wonderful work that is done by the men and women in support of freedom here at home and around the globe!

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