Union Bombardment of Fort Pulaski: “They Cannot Breach Your Walls at that Distance”

April 10, 1862 (Thursday)

Fort Pulaski

In the five months since the fall of Port Royal, the Confederates had more or less abandoned the coast south of Charleston, South Carolina. The notable exception to this was Savannah, Georgia, which was guarded by Fort Pulaski.

Finished in 1847, Pulaski was a five-sided, brick fortification on an island fourteen miles down the river from Savannah. It controlled both channels of the river and, because of its eleven foot thick walls, was believed to be impenetrable to cannon fire. Robert E. Lee, then a young engineer fresh out of West Point, took part in its construction during the 1830s. After leaving Western Virginia, during the winter of 1861-62, Lee returned to the fort, ensuring that it could withstand a Union attack.

“Colonel, they will make it pretty warm for you here with shells,” Lee ensured the fort’s commander, Col. Charles H. Olmstead, “but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”1

Map of the area around Savannah and Fort Pulaski

What Lee was referring to as “that distance,” was Tybee Island, located across the southern channel of the Savannah River. According to Lee, the batteries that the Federals erected upon Tybee Island, would have to lob shells one to two miles to merely hit the fort, let alone do any damage. Most siege artillery lost its ability for destruction after 700 yards.

Traditionally, forts were assailed by gunboats, which would be able to get no closer to the Pulaski due to its forty-eight guns. Also, landing troops on Pulaski’s island to assault the fort was out of the question, as the island was most mostly marshland. The Rebels appeared to have a nearly impenetrable position.

General Quincy Adams Gillmore

However, not everyone agreed. Captain Quincy Gillmore, Union engineer, believed Pulaski to be vulnerable. When the fort was built, through the 1830s and 1840s, rifled artillery was not yet in use. The technology was so new, in fact, that it wasn’t until 1859 that it was used in the United States Army. Gillmore was convinced that the fort could be reduced, not by siege guns, but but rifled artillery.

Over the winter, Gillmore oversaw the construction of eleven batteries along the northern shore of Tybee Island. Many of the batteries used mortars, while others used Columbiads. Two of the embrasures closer to the fort contained Parrot and James rifles. Parrots were also used on two nearby islands to aid in the coming attack.2

Finally, on April 9, everything was ready. Gillmore, now a Brigadier-General, gave orders to each battery when to attack, how long to cut their fuses and which type of ammunition to use.3

Map of Union positions around Fort Pulaski.

Union General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, composed a letter to Confederate Col. Olmstead, demanding “the immediate surrender and restoration of Port Pulaski to the authority and possession of the United States.” The attack, warned Hunter, was ready. “The number, caliber, and completeness of the batteries surrounding you leave no doubt as to what must result in case of your refusal,” continued Hunter, “and as the defense, however obstinate, must eventually succumb to the assailing force at my disposal, it is hoped you may see fit to avert the useless waste of life.”

Sending the demand to the fort under flag of truce at dawn of this date, Hunter gave Olmstead thirty minutes to reply.4

And quickly it came: “In reply I can only say that I am here to defend the Fort, not to surrender it.”5

With Olmstead’s refusal to surrender, the bombardment began at 8:15am. All eleven batteries opened upon the Confederate fort, one after the other in slow succession, so that by 9am, every gun was pounding away at the fort. The Rebel gunners replied, but with little success at first, being only able to target two of the Union batteries.

Union mortar battery.

As they were fired, three of the Union Columbiads had blown themselves off their carriages by their own recoils. Two were fixed, but one was taken permanently out of the action. More bad news came in when it was discovered that the larger mortars were not able to land their shells inside the fort.

The Federals continued their fire, hoping and assuming the best. Through the use of a telescope, General Gillmore could see that the rifled guns would probably be able to breach Pulaski’s walls. With each shot, the shells blew away more and more of the brick, giving the works the appearance of a honeycomb.

Breach in Fort Pulaski.

Throughout the day, the fort was slowly being reduced, but the mortars remained fairly ineffectual. By evening, they had been at it for over ten hours, finally breaching the southeastern corner of Fort Pulaski.

With night upon them, there was little the Federals could do. Four pieces (three mortars and a Parrot) kept up a steady fire throughout the night, hoping to dissuade the Rebels from making any repairs to their works. Throughout the day, over 3,000 shells had been lobbed at the Confederate fortification. Union casualties were light and no guns had been hit by enemy fire.6

Both sides would resume fire at dawn.

  1. Tybee Island: The Long Branch of the South by Robert A. Ciucevich, Arcadia Publishing, 2005. No, not really a great source, but I’m lacking in coastal sources and I needed something with a decent overview. []
  2. Journal of the United States Artillery, Vol. 40, p210-212. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p157. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p134-135. []
  5. Rebellion Record, Vol. 4, edited by Frank Moore, p452. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p157-159. []
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Union Bombardment of Fort Pulaski: “They Cannot Breach Your Walls at that Distance” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. If anyone is afire with curiosity, “James” rifles were made by cutting rifling into existing smoothbore cannon, while “Parrott” rifles were made of cast iron with a reinforcing band of wrought iron around the breach. The James rifles were abandoned soon after Fort Pulaski, since the machining weakened the barrels and it was feared they were more vulnerable to bursting.

    • Thank you! I’ve always had an intense interest in CW artillery, but mostly that was with field artillery. I really appreciate it.