Union Forces Commanded by Maj. General David Hunter and
Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore
Confederate Forces Commanded by Col. Charles H. Olmstead
Conclusion: Union Victory
On October 29, 1861 a force of some fifty-one vessels and 12,000 troops left Hampton Roads, Virginia under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. duPont and Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. They were heading to establish a base at Port Royal, a remote, easily defended position some thirty miles northeast of Savannah. On November 1st the flotilla ran into heavy storms while sailing around Cape Hatteras; on the same day General Winfield Scott was relieved of duty.
The flotilla steamed into Port Royal under the command of Dupont, easily defeating the Rebels in Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard, defending the port. Marines landed, establishing a beachhead and a perimeter. General Sherman moved inland, capturing a number of small towns, most notably Beaufort, South Carolina. Speculation was that Union forces were on the way to capture both the fort and the city of Savannah. On November 24, 1861 at 3:00pm federal forces leapfrogged to Tybee Island, taking it without a fight. It was now clear Fort Pulaski was the objective.
When news of the landing on Tybee reached Savannah, there was widespread panic in the city. General Robert E. Lee arrived to take personal command of the situation. He had ordered the withdrawal of forces from Tybee because he realized that without a sufficient garrison of troops the artillery could easily be overrun, as it had been at Port Royal. One thing the Confederacy could not spare was troops, so Lee withdrew the men guarding the coast, moved the armament in the area to Fort Pulaski and Savannah and formed a stronger line a few miles inland.
Tybee Island was significant to General Thomas Sherman. A forward post, it contained a lighthouse, the ability to see ships navigating the waters around Fort Pulaski, and a refueling port for the Navy's coal-burning steamships.
Inside Fort Pulaski Confederates under the command of Colonel Charles Olmstead remained confident that they could hold the fort in spite of the federals immediately to their south. The channel to Savannah was protected by the fleet of Josiah Tattnall and weekly service to the fort brought needed supplies. Then, while sailing down to the fort on February 13, the steamship Ida was surprised by a volley of artillery shells from the north bank of the Savannah River. Federal troops had occupied and fortified a position without the knowledge of the Confederates and they nearly destroyed the ship with artillery fire. Then the federals cut the telegraph wire. The only contact the men had with the outside world was via a twice weekly courier who would swim the channel at night to avoid federal pickets.
Fort Pulaski's 385 men with 48 cannon and 6 months worth of rations could probably hold out until September, even if the Federal troops on Tybee stormed the walls. The clear approach, difficult entry and courtyard perimeter meant that taking the structure by force would require a huge amount of men and an unacceptable loss of life. Sherman realized this and turned to Captain Quincy Adams Gillmore to take command of the troops on the island and construct batteries to be used in a bombardment. Gillmore began this task on February 21, 1862.
Building the batteries was not an easy task. Across the South Channel of the Savannah River from Cockspur Island, the north end of Big Tybee Island offered little protection, especially for the closest batteries, Totten, McClellan, Sigel and Scott, all less than 2,000 yards from the fort. Ordinance, weapons, shelter material and food had to be moved across the swamps. Some loads, especially the weapons, required 250 men to haul from the port. On the morning of April 10, 1862 Confederates noted the changes to the landscape overnight. Chimneys had been toppled, guns lined the shore and a boat sailing under a flag of truce was on its way towards Pulaski. Captain Gillmore had sent a surrender demand, which Colonel Olmstead refused.
Batteries lined the northern end of Big Tybee island, the closest slightly more than 1600 yards from the nearest wall of Fort Pulaski, the furthest almost two miles away. The order to commence firing was given and at 8:10am a 13-inch mortar shell from Battery Halleck exploded harmlessly in the air beyond the fort. The second shell, a 13-inch mortar from Battery Stanton, fell in the south channel. At first, while ranging the artillery, the cannon fire was ineffective. Finally, the trajectory was set so that most shells landed in the fort or hit the walls. Hitting the same spot over and over took time and patience but the artillerymen slowly gained accuracy. By the end of the first day Fort Pulaski was in serious danger; the Confederates' ability to return fire had been negated and 2-4 feet of the southeast corner from the parapet to the base now lay in the rocks below. The artillery fire was taking its toll.
Inside the fort Colonel Olmstead held out little hope of help from Savannah. Both Fort Pulaski and his command were falling to recent technological advances in artillery. During the night Captain Gillmore kept up occasional fire, if only for the psychological value.
Cool morning air greeted the men on either side of the sound on the morning of April 11, 1862. The Norwich, a U.S. gunboat and artillery mounted on a barge in Tybee Creek joined the battle. By noon the walls of Fort Pulaski had been breached in two places and Union forces were preparing to launch an assault. Gillmore, breveted to a brigadier general, ordered the artillery fire to concentrate on the remaining parapets to reduce the Rebel's ability to withstand a direct assault. Now shells were passing through the breach and striking the north magazine where 40,000 pounds of powder were stored. Colonel Olmstead ordered the Confederate flag lowered at 2:30pm, then raised the white flag of surrender. Gillmore demanded an unconditional surrender. Olmstead had no other options.
There is no doubt that the loss of Fort Pulaski had a long-term negative affect on the ability of the Rebels to sustain the war effort and led to the defeat of the Confederacy. But the battle actually had a significant long-term effect on how people fought wars. No longer were the goliath forts of stone an effective defense against an invader. In less than two days the United States Army had changed the face of warfare that had lasted for 1,000 years.