Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island, ended the era of brick fort construction. The fort predates what was known in the South as “The War of Northern Aggression,” and when the North aggressed against it, the fort held out for a mere two days before capitulating. This happened in April of 1862, when the Yanks outgunned the Rebs by using a brand-new James Rifled Cannon. Such was the reach of this weapon that the fort’s commander surrendered after the attack breached the fort’s walls and shells penetrated too close to the fort’s powder magazine.
I am a fort geek, something that you will notice below when you see that I am wearing a Fort Morgan t-shirt for my visit to Fort Pulaski. In the past six weeks, I have visited three forts (Pulaski, Pickens, and Morgan) and I am now planning visits to more (Sumter on the horizon, as well as a very special trip to see the mass grave in which my great-great-grandfather, a Union soldier, is buried).
As forts go, Pulaski was pretty darn rewarding. Although close to tourist mecca Tybee Island, most of Cockspur Island and all of adjacent McQueens Island is a national monument. This designation adds greatly to the overall pleasure of visiting, because you can stand atop the fort and not spy a Starbucks. Also absent in the vista is a sprawling eating compound called the Crab Shack, whose lines are so long and arduous to endure that they seem like cruel and unusual punishment.
In its day, this area was a remote one, thought to be not sufficiently readied for conflict. This thinking led to the Confederates abandoning Tybee Island, a mistake that allowed the Union to move right in with the construction of batteries along the Savannah River.
This turned out to be a costly strategic error, as was the notion that the fort’s eleven-foot-thick walls and its distance from Tybee would make it difficult to attack. The standard smoothbore cannon of the day had only a half-mile reach.
The Union used Fort Pulaski as a testing ground for the new cannon, which could send a cannonball soaring five miles. It was a rewarding experience in weaponry advancement that crippled the fort and punched gaping holes in its walls.
The fort is a smart exercise in geometry; like most other forts I’ve visited the design looks faintly alien, as if imprinted by a spaceship. You can certainly see where the Confederates felt snug and secure there. Land attack would have been difficult. Solid land gives way to marshes, when in turn blend softly into the mouth of the Savannah River. Those smoothbore cannons that protected the fort would have been the equivalent of a spitball compared with what the Union was packing.
The Parks Service has done a bang-up job of presenting the fort as it was. You walk enter the fort by way of a drawbridge and then you cross another, taking note of the medieval design. The fort is surrounded by a moat that contains alligators (a nice touch!) and once inside its walls, you walk around the edges, peering through glass into living quarters, infirmary, commander’s rather Spartan bedroom. At one end of the fort, the floor has been removed so that you can see the construction. Naturally, cannons abound, and marks of the attack are easily visible. Chunks of brick are blasted away inches from the inadequate cannons. Looking at photographs taken after the Union had at the fort’s walls, you arrive at the only possible conclusion: The Union blasted the shit out of Fort Pulaski. Granted, they had first offered the choice of surrender (refused), but there must have been some satisfaction when the enemy rolled over like a dog.
A problem that plagued the fort’s residents also plagued me: It was hot as Hades in there and I stuck it out in true soldierly fashion, bitching only occasionally about the strong sun. I have to add here that I bitched to myself, because no sooner had Mr. B. and I entered the fort than I scampered off on a mission to photograph some weaponry, denying Mr. B. the experience of holding hands while strolling romantically around a military fortification. I will have to make up for this somehow, at some other time, at some other fort.
I may have something in mind.