“We were absolutely isolated,” Confederate commander, Col. Charles H. Olmsted said of the bombardment on Fort Pulaski in Georgia. I muttered to myself the same as I approached this 19th century fort on Cockspur Island, around 15 miles east of Savannah. A glassy moat surrounding fortified bricks only furthers those feelings of being very much alone. Fort Pulaski doesn’t seem inviting based on its outward appearance, moat, drawbridge and all.
The construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829. It would take $1 million dollars, 25 million bricks and 18 years to build. Many believed it to be invincible, a structure stronger than the Rocky Mountains. It was named for Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish hero of the American Revolution who lost his life in the Siege of Savannah in 1779. The name alone suggests the very identity of the United States, a mix of cultures and people. Heroes weren’t just Americans. They were heroes of the world.
The hope was that Fort Pulaski would protect river approaches to Savannah. Once the Civil War began and Georgia seceded from the nation, Fort Pulaski would fall into the hands of the Confederate States of America. That hold wouldn’t last long when Union forces did the impossible. They bombed a fort thought to be impenetrable, all with the help of new experimental rifled cannons. After just 30 hours of battle, Olmsted surrendered. Olmsted said of his quick white flag waving, “There are times when a soldier must hold his position to the last extremity, which means extermination, but this was not one of them.”
Once the Union controlled Fort Pulaski, it was used mostly to house political prisoners until the end of the Civil War. After 1880, only a caretaker and a lighthouse filled the area, ringing true Olmsted’s words that this fort was absolutely lonely.
Engineers did everything in their power to make the world believe Fort Pulaski was indestructible. Along with the 7-foot deep moat surrounding the fort, its brick walls were 7.5 feet solid. However like most aspects to war and sacrifice, no one is immune or safe, Fort Pulaski included.
I wander through the fort, comprised of soldiers’ quarters, a prison and even a surrender room. As many were jailed here, facing the harshest of conditions, I can’t help but feel a bit uneasy, worried the imposing black iron gates will lock me in accidentally.
On a lighter note to Fort Pulaski, it is not just a testament to the wartime past but to America’s pastime, baseball. Soldiers used to play on the fort to escape boredom in between battles. One of the earliest known photographs of a baseball game in the U.S. was taken inside the fort, proof yet again, that in the wake of civil war, baseball can bring solace.
In the middle of the fort, two large pecan and fig trees stand ominously, planted by caretakers in the late 19th century. The setting is so serene and calm, and yet I know, Fort Pulaski is a reminder, a memorial of war, loss and invincibility crushed. So strong and intimidating to a modern day visitor like myself, Fort Pulaski is proof we aren’t as strong as we may appear. Heroics will always outlast the tangible, even if walls fall down.
Have you been to Fort Pulaski?