Following the War of 1812, President James Madison ordered a new system of coastal fortifications to protect the United States against foreign invasion. Construction of a fort to protect the port of Savannah began in 1829 under the direction of Major General Babcock, and later Second Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, a recent graduate of West Point. The new fort would be located on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River. In 1833, the new fort was named Fort Pulaski in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish soldier and military commander who fought in the American Revolution under the command of George Washington. Pulaski was a noted cavalryman and played a large role in training Revolutionary troops. He took part in the sieges of Charleston and of Savannah.
Wooden pilings were sunk up to 70 feet (21 m) into the mud to support an estimated 25,000,000 bricks. Fort Pulaski was finally completed in 1847 following 18 years of construction and nearly $1,000,001 in construction costs.
Walls were eleven feet thick, thought to be impenetrable except by only the largest land artillery- which at the time were smooth bore cannon. These cannons had a range of only around a half mile, and the nearest land (Tybee island) was much further away than that. It was assumed that the Fort would be invincible to enemy attack.
Though completed in 1847, Fort Pulaski was under the control of only two caretakers until 1860 when South Carolina seceded from the United States and set in motion the Civil War. It was at this time that Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown ordered Fort Pulaski to be taken by the state of Georgia. A steamship carrying 110 men from Savannah traveled downriver and the fort was signed over and now belonged to the state of Georgia. Following the secession of Georgia in February 1861, the state joined the Confederate States of America. Confederate troops then moved into the fort.
By December 1861 Tybee Island was thought to be too isolated and unprepared for conflict and was abandoned by Confederate forces. This allowed Union troops to gain a foothold across the Savannah River from Fort Pulaski. Union forces under Quincy A. Gillmore began construction of batteries along the beaches of Tybee.
On the morning of April 10, 1862 Union forces asked for the surrender of the Fort to prevent needless loss of life. Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, commander of the Confederate garrison, rejected the offer.
Fort Pulaski was prepared for a possible infantry attack. However, Fort Pulaski never endured a direct land assault. With 36 guns, including the new James Rifled Cannon and Parrott rifles, Union troops began a long sustained bombardment of Fort Pulaski. The rifled projectiles could be accurately fired farther (4–5 miles) than the larger and heavier smoothbore cannonballs. Within 30 hours, the new rifled cannon had breached one of the fort’s corner walls. Shells now passed through the fort dangerously close to the Fort’s main powder magazine. Reluctantly, Colonel Olmstead surrendered the fort. Only one Confederate soldier and one Union soldier were injured in the attack.
Within six weeks of the surrender, Union forces repaired the Fort and all shipping in and out of Savannah ceased. The loss of Savannah as a viable Confederate port crippled the Southern war effort. With the Fort securely in Union control, General David Hunter, commander of the Union garrison issued General Order Number Eleven, which stated that all slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were now free. President Abraham Lincoln quickly rescinded the order, but later issued his own Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. At this time, Fort Pulaski was made a final destination on the Underground Railroad as slaves throughout the area were freed upon arrival on Cockspur Island.
The garrison of Union soldiers reached 600 during the initial occupation, but as the War dragged on it became obvious the Southern forces would not be able to retake the Fort. The garrison was later reduced to around 250. Late in the War the Fort would be made into a prison for a group of captured Confederate officers known as "The Immortal Six Hundred." Thirteen of these men would die at the Fort. After the War ended Fort Pulaski continued as a military and political prison for a short while. It would house a Confederate Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Assistant Secretary of War as well as three state governors, a senator and the man who had commanded the Fort after it had been taken by the South.
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