As I mentioned a few days ago, in my “9 Lessons Learned in Savannah” post, I spent some time earlier this month exploring the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia… chasing dolphins, swatting mosquitos, and soaking up gin and history. In that post, as I recall, I noted that I visited Fort Pulaski – the historic setting of the celebrated 2012 documentary Abe Lincoln vs. Zombies. Well, for some reason that I can’t quite explain, I feel compelled today to go into greater depth on the actual, real history of the Fort, knowing full well that none of you will likely give a damn.
The Construction of Fort Pulaski
The Fort, from what my daughter and I were told on the tour, was one of 30 built along the east coast of the United States in the wake of the War of 1812, during which the British had managed to make their way into D.C., and burn down the White House, and a number of other buildings. In response, President James Madison ordered that we strengthen our coastal defenses, in order to ensure that no one again be able to make their way inland from the sea. A newly graduated West Point officer by the name of Robert E. Lee was given the task of selecting the location for the Fort at the mouth of the Savannah River, and a Frenchman, whose name I can’t remember… a hero of the American Revolution, I believe… was tasked with designing and building the Fort. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to see the task all the way through to completion, though, as the construction of Fort Pulaski, after several years of planning, took another 18 years to build. (Construction started in 1830, and was completed in 1845.)
Built on Georgia’s Cockspur Island with approximately 25 million bricks, the Fort, with its 11-foot thick walls, was an incredible accomplishment of modern engineering. It was thought to be invincible. The U.S. Chief of Engineers, General Joseph Gilbert Totten, is quoted as saying of the Fort, “You might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains.” Alligator-infested waters surrounded the Fort, no ship could safely approach it, and Tybee Island, the closest land on which one could mount a cannon, was well over a mile away. General Robert E. Lee famously said of the Fort, upon its completion, “They will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.” Short of cutting the Fort’s supply lines, and starving the garrison into submission, it would seem that the Fort could withstand anything.
A Renewed Mission
As luck would have it, the shells from British warships never came, and the Fort sat for the next 15 years, untested in battle. Perhaps because of our significant investment in building these coastal forts, no one had tried to assault us from the Atlantic. And, by the time we began fighting the Mexican-American War in 1846, our attention had drifted almost completely away from the Savannah Fort named after Polish nobleman Kazimierz Pulaski. (Pulaski died in 1779 from wounds sustained in an attempt to retake Savannah from the British during the Revolutionary War.) By the time that South Carolina seceded from the union, in 1861, there were only two people manning the fort… one to maintain the artillery, and a custodian charged with keeping up the structure. The unconquerable Fort was essentially in mothballs.
But things took yet another turn as Georgia prepared to follow the lead South Carolina and secede. The Governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown, having witnessed the Union blockade of South Carolina’s ports, decided that, prior to seceding, he needed to secure Fort Pulaski, and control access to the port of Savannah, which, if memory serves, is about 16 miles upriver. So, the Georgia militia was given the word to take the Fort, which they did. After a rousing rally in downtown Savannah, 150 men made their way to the Fort, and took possession.
The next several weeks were spent readying the Fort for the battle which they knew lay ahead, practicing with the cannons, and digging a web of deep trenches through the parade grounds sitting at the center of the Fort, in hopes that they might catch and contain the cannon balls which, they knew, would soon be raining down from Union ships. (As I understand it, the primary damage caused by cannon balls happens after they hit the ground, and start rolling and bouncing through both walls and men, ripping off arms, legs and heads.) So, they sat and waited, secure in the knowledge that their fort was impenetrable.
Weapons and Tactics were Changing
The Fort may well have been impenetrable a few years earlier, but weaponry and tactics were changing. Most significantly, research in cannon technology was underway that would yield incredible improvements with regard to effectiveness. Whereas older cannons forced round led balls out of smooth barrels, lobbing them about a mile or so, new cannons were being tested which shot bullet-like projectiles, out of barrels lined with corkscrew-like grooves, sending their missiles spiraling, like footballs, toward their targets. The projectiles issued from these “rifled” guns traveled up to three times further, and with much greater accuracy than their predecessors. And, unfortunately for Colonel Charles H. Olmstead and the Confederate soldiers stationed Fort Pulaski, one of the few people who knew that such weapons existed was the young officer just out of West Point by the name of Quincy A. Gillmore, who had been given the task of taking Fort Pulaski. (Gillmore had been involved with a testing of these new rifled guns while at West Point.) He requested that he be given these new cannons for the job, and, according to what we were told, as we walked the grounds of the fort, his request was granted. Ten of the new cannons were sent to him, along with a warning that he’d be held responsible, should this gambit not work. (Gillmore, as it turns out, was right about the new cannons, and his victory against Olmstead at Fort Pulaski earned him a promotion from Engineer Captain to Brigadier General.)
So, by cover of night, union soldiers moved their cannons into position on Tybee Island. And, on April 10, 1862, after Olmstead failed to surrender, the shells started flying. And, as they were being shot from fixed locations, and not from the decks of swaying ships, they landed with unbelievable accuracy. Gillmore’s cannons, once calibrated, just kept hammering away at the exact same exact spot. As they didn’t have to worry about rising tides, and shifting winds, they could just relentlessly fire away at at a specific point on the fort’s wall. And, in this case, that was the outer wall directly across from the Fort’s powder magazine, where some 40,000 pounds of explosives were housed. The assault lasted for 30 hours, by which time a hole had been torn in the side of the fort, leaving the garrison’s powder magazine completely exposed to incoming rounds. Faced with the prospect of seeing the entire Fort blow up, killing all of his men, Olmstead ordered that the white flag of surrender be raised. (Surprisingly, only three men died during the battle.)
In the Hands of the Union
Union forces took possession of the Fort, and subsequently stopped all shipping in and out of Savannah, crippling the Confederate war effort. The Fort would come to serve as the last stop on the underground railroad (slaves were immediately freed upon reaching Cockspur Island), and, in time, the city of Savannah would broker a deal to surrender, in order to avoid the fate of Atlanta, which had been burned by Union troops.
And, here’s something that I wasn’t aware of. It would appear that, before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing Southern slaves, someone else… an ambitious Union general by the name of David Hunter… had done the same thing. And he did it from his command at Fort Pulaski. On May 9, 1862, Hunter, a devout abolitionist, issued General Order No. 11, proclaiming “Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States — Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina— heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.” Lincoln immediately rescinded the order, but, as we know from grade school history, eventually issued his own order – the Emancipation Proclamation – in September 1962. (Hunter also began enlisting black soldiers from the occupied districts to fight against the Confederates. The first such unit was the 1st South Carolina (African Descent). Although he was initially ordered to disband the unit, Hunter eventually got Congressional approval for this initiative.)
What it Means
Here’s the message that I walked away from Fort Pulaski with… Every time America is attacked, our first instinct is to erect barriers against the same thing happening again. In the case of the British attack on Washington in 1814, that meant building million-dollar forts along the eastern seaboard. And, in our case, that meant outlawing pocket knives on planes, fortifying cockpits, and intercepting every possible communication made by living persons on the planet earth. Here’s the thing, though. It doesn’t work. Technology changes, tactics evolve, and our enemies never stop adapting. There is no such thing as an invincible defense. There never has been, and there never will be. With that said, I don’t think that we should just lay down and give up. I think it’s necessary to take reasonable precautions. I just think it’s stupid to fool ourselves into thinking that, if we just build another wall, or create another multi-billion dollar NSA datacenter, that we’ll be safe. And, in fact, that illusion of security may actually be our undoing.