Fort Pulaski National Monument

Open hours: The park is open everyday, except Christmas Day, 8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Hours may be extended in summer. Call for information. There is an entrance fee.

Weather in the park is hot and humid in summer, mild to chilly and breezy in winter. Rainy periods throughout the year. Wear comfortable sportswear in season, with walking shoes. Insect repellant is strongly recommended.

Getting there: To reach the park by car, take I- 95 to I-16. From I-16, take U.S. Highway 80 East. Follow signs for Fort Pulaski, Tybee Island and beaches. Fort Pulaski National Monument entrance is approximately 15 miles east of Savannah on U.S. 80. Within the park, paved roads are accessible by private car during normal operating hours.

Most airlines and Greyhound Bus Lines serve the city of Savannah. Taxi service is available from the bus station to the park, which is approximately 15 miles. Car rental is available at the airport, which is about 30 miles west of Fort Pulaski.

Visitor Center, Exhibits: A 17-minute film, "The Battle for Fort Pulaski," is shown by request in the visitor center. Museum exhibits provide information on the history and significance of the fort. There is a bookstore located in the visitor center lobby managed by Eastern National Park and Monument Association.

Fort Programs, Activities: Ranger led talks and demonstrations are presented in the fort daily during the summer and on weekends the rest of the year. Special talks may be available to school and other large groups by reservation throughout the year. Encampments of troops, special programs and demonstrations are presented on various major holiday weekends. Call for details and reservations.

Reservation, Permits: Required daily permits for recreational, non-commercial shellfish harvesting in park waters are available free of charge at the visitor center during normal operating hours.

Lodging and Camping Facilities: Hotels and campgrounds are available on Tybee Island (4 miles east) and in Savannah (15 miles west).

Food, Supplies: Located on Tybee Island (4 miles east) and Wilmington Island (4 miles west).

Accessibility: Visitor Center exhibits, programs and parking are accessible. A tape tour is available, as well as printed transcripts of some audio programs. The fort (most of the lower level) is wheelchair accessible, as are the restrooms located there. There is one wheelchair accessible nature trail. The picnic area has accessible parking, tables and restrooms.

Recommended Activities: Self-guided tour of fort. Observing plants, wildflowers, wildlife and Savannah River shipping traffic.

Facilities: Quarter-mile, self-guiding nature trail. Bicycles allowed on trails, except those leading to fort. Boat launching ramp. Fishing areas. Picnic area. Cockspur Island Lighthouse, built in 1857, accessible only by private boat. Hiking, biking, and picnicking in designated areas. Boating and fishing in the Savannah River, Lazaretto Creek and Oyster Creek.

Hazards: There are many snakes in and around the fort in spring and summer. Most of these are harmless and serve as natural mice and rat exterminators. Only the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is poisonous. Please do not tease or molest these animals or any other wildlife.

Audio Stations: You can hear brief taped messages about Fort Pulaski at many locations on the tour described above. Look for small gray boxes mounted on the walls. Push the button on the box to hear the recorded message.

Trails: Along the park trails you can see the variety of plant and animal life on the island. A short distance from the fort is a monument to John Wesley, founder of Methodism, who landed in America in 1736 at Cockspur.

Most people come for the fort. But Fort Pulaski National Monument's 5,365 acres includes some of the most pristine and scenic marshland on the Georgia coast. Cockspur Island, the fort's pad, was originally a series of small hummocks surrounded by salt marsh. It is now mostly dry land because dredged materials have been deposited outside the dikes around the fort. McQueens Island, however, is mostly virgin salt marsh.

Here you can see luxuriant, semi-tropical plants intermixed with those of the temperate and desert zones Here too are large populations of resident and migrant birds. Mammals include marsh rabbit, raccoons, opossums, and mink. Occasionally an alligator will enter the moat when the water level drops on the rest of the island but generally they shun people and live elsewhere.

Most people, though, come to explore the fort. . .

On April 11, 1862, defense strategy changed worldwide when a Union rifled cannon overcame this masonry fortification after only 30 hours of bombardment. Named for Revolutionary War hero Count Casimir Pulaski, Fort Pulaski took some 18 years to build and was the first military assignment for a young second lieutenant fresh from West Point, Robert E. Lee. This remarkably intact example of 19th century military architecture, with its estimated 25 million bricks and eight-foot-thick walls, is preserved for future generations by the National Park Service as a reminder of the elusiveness of invincibility.

In the second quarter of the 19th century, U.S. military engineers built Fort Pulaski on marshy Cockspur Island to guard the river approaches to Savannah, Georgia. Named for Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish hero of the American Revolution who lost his life in the unsuccessful siege of Savannah in 1779, it was designed by General Simon Bernard, a distinguished French military engineer, as part of a coastal fortification system adopted by President James Madison after the War of 1812. Construction began in 1829 and required $1 million, 25 million bricks, and 18 years of toil to finish. Its admirers (and there were many) considered it invincible and"as strong as the Rocky Mountains." By the end of 1860, however, its armament was still not completed and it was not yet garrisoned. As it turned out, before United States troops could occupy the fort, they had to conquer it.

On January 3, 1861, two weeks after South Carolina seceded from the Union and one week after Federal troops occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown ordered State militia to seize Fort Pulaski. At this time Savannah was a city of about 20,000 inhabitants and a rich seaport trading in cotton, naval stores, and timber. Though many disagreed on the wisdom of seizing the Federal fort, people of all classes joined in preparations for its defense following the occupation. After Georgia seceded on January 19, 1861, Fort Pulaski was transferred to the Confederate States of America.

By the end of April 1861, 11 Southern States had left the Union and were at war with the United States. Before the end of the summer, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade Southern ports. As the blockade tightened it strangled the Confederate economy. On November 7,1861, a combined Army and Navy expedition struck at Port Royal Sound, S.C., about 15 miles north of Fort Pulaski. Confederate troops fled as Federal warships bombarded Forts Walker and Beauregard, allowing Union forces to land unopposed on Hilton Head Island. From this beachhead, the Federals established a base for operations against Fort Pulaski and the whole South Atlantic coast. On November 10, intimidated by the Federal presence at Hilton Head, the Confederates abandoned Tybee Island at the mouth of the Savannah, unknowingly giving the enemy the only site from which Fort Pulaski could be taken. The Federals acted quickly to take advantage of the break. Early in December, they cut the fort's communications with the mainland, then moved troops to Tybee Island to prepare for siege operations.

Engineer Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore, who assumed command of all troops on Tybee Island in February 1862, believed that an overwhelming bombardment would force the Confederates to give up the fort. Accordingly, he erected 11 artillery batteries containing 36 guns and mortars along the northwest shore of Tybee Island. On April 10, after the Confederates refused Gillmore's formal demand to surrender, the Federals opened fire. The Confederates were not particularly alarmed; the Union guns were a mile away, more than twice the effective range for heavy ordnance of that day. But what the fort's garrison did not know was that the Federal armament included 10 new experimental rifled cannons, whose projectiles began to bore through Pulaski's walls with shattering effect. By noon of the second day the bombardment had opened wide gaps in the southeast angle, and explosive shells, passing through the holes and over the walls, threatened the main powder magazine. Impressed by the hopelessness of the situation and concerned about the lives of his men, the Confederate commander, Col. Charles H. Olmstead, surrendered only 30 hours after the bombardment began.

Gillmore was the hero of the day. For his boldness in using a new weapon and for the victory won, he was breveted a brigadier general. Olmstead, along with the other 384 officers and men in Pulaski's garrison, was sent north and imprisoned at Governor's Island in New York. When he was exchanged in the autumn of 1862, he resumed command of his regiment and served with distinction for the remainder of the Civil War. Federal troops garrisoned Fort Pulaski until war's end, when it was used to house several political prisoners. After 1880, a caretaker and lighthouse keeper were the fort's only occupants. They, too, were soon removed, leaving the place to the ever-encroaching vegetation and animal life. The island was made a national monument in 1924; restoration of the fort began in earnest about 1930. Today the fort serves not only as a memorial to the valor and dedication of those connected with its construction, bombardment and defense, but in a larger sense as a history lesson on the elusiveness of invincibility.

The quick fall of Fort Pulaski surprised and shocked the world. When the Civil War began, Pulaski ranked as one of the"most spectacular harbor defense structures" in the United States. Many considered the fort's eight foot solid brick walls backed with massive masonry piers unbreachable, including U.S. Chief of Engineers Joseph G. Totten, who proclaimed that "you might as well, bombard the Rocky Mountains." All previous military experience had taught that beyond a distance of 700 yards smoothbore cannons and mortars would have little chance to break through heavy masonry walls; beyond 1,000 yards no chance at all. And since there was no firm ground on which siege batteries could be erected nearer than Tybee Island, a mile or more away, Pulaski's defenders felt understandably secure. Even Gen. Robert E. Lee, who as a second lieutenant had worked on the island's drainage system, told Colonel Olmstead that Federal gunners on Tybee Island could "make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance." Gillmore's rifled guns proved the fallacy of that judgment. "The result of this bombardment," wrote one Union officer, "must cause 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 calibre." The strategy that heretofore had guided military leaders had to be revised to meet the threat of this new weapon of war. Fort Pulaski, because of the consequent changes became an interesting relic of an era now gone.

Fort Pulaski belonged to what is known as the Third System of coastal fortifications, developed during the first halt of the 19th century and characterized by greater structural durability than earlier works. Nearly all of the more than 30 Third System forts built after 1816 remain in existence.

The Moat: This wet ditch that completely surrounds the fort is 7 feet deep and varies in width from 32 to 48 feet. The water is brought through a canal from the Savannah River and controlled by tide gates. A variety of small marine life inhabits the moat.

The Demilune: This huge triangular piece of land, bordered on all sides by the moat, protected the rear or gorge wall of the fort. During the Civil War, this area was flat with a surrounding parapet and contained outbuildings and various storage sheds. The large earthen mounds built after the war overlay four powder magazines and passageways to several gun emplacements.

The Drawbridge: A part of the fort's overall defense, the drawbridge is constructed in such a way as to make forced entry difficult. As it is raised, a strong wooden grille, called the portcullis, drops through the granite lintel overhead; bolt-studded doors are closed behind that. An inclined granite walk leads between two rows of rifle slits, past another set of doors and into the fort.

Gorge Wall: This the rear section of the fort contains the sally port or fort entrance. Officers lived in most of the rooms here. Today, several are furnished to represent various aspects of life at the fort.

The Northwest Magazine: On the morning of April 11 1862, Federal artillery projectiles breached the southeast angle and crashed into the walls and roof of this magazine containing 40,000 pounds of gunpowder. Rather than be blown up by their own gunpowder, the garrison surrendered. The walls of the magazine are from 12 to 15 feet thick, or roughly four feet thicker than the rest of the walls in the fort.

Confederate Defense System: The Confederate defenders of the fort built earthen traverses between the guns and over the magazine and dug ditches and pits in the parade ground to catch rolling cannon shot. They also erected a heavy timber blindage to cover the interior perimeter of the fort as a protection against shell fragments.

The Prison: During the winter of 1864 the northeast southeast and pant of the south casemates were used as a military prison holding Confederate officers under miserable conditions. After the war, several political prisoners were held here.

The Breach: The 7.5-foot-thick walls at this angle were demolished by Union rifled artillery on April 10-11, 1862 forcing the Confederates to surrender the fort. The walls were repaired within 6 weeks after the surrender by troops of the 48th New York Volunteers.

Southwest Bastion: This bastion which burned in an 1895 fire has been left unrestored to show various construction details of the fort. Brick arches under the terreplein carry weight to counter-arches in the floor which in turn are supported by a timber.

Surrender Room: These were the quarters of the Confederate commanding officer, Col. Charles Olmstead. In this room on April 11, 1862, Fort Pulaski was surrendered to the victorious Union forces after some 30 hours of bombardment.

Cistern Room and Restrooms: The cistern exposed here is one of ten that were used to store fresh water. Rain filtered through the sod on the terreplein ran down leadpipes in brick piers and thence to the tanks The whole system could hold more than 200,000 gallons.

Damaged Wall: The craters made by Union artillery pock the south and southeast walls. Rifled cannon shot fired from Tybee Island penetrated the walls 20 to 25 inches. Some of the 5,275 shots fired can still be seen in the wall.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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