The coastal lowlands behind the barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia are often bleak country, not usually thought of in terms of innovation, much less as places where events conspired to make the redoubtable Robert E. Lee appear misinformed on a military matter. The history of Fort Pulaski, which guarded the sea approach to Savannah, provides an example of a change in the practice of warfare that caught General Lee uncharacteristically flat-footed.
To this day much of the low country consists of undrained swamps sporting clear cut patches of sodden land where trees had managed to grow. The area has largely escaped the Southern California-ization that has blighted swaths of the Old South, though nearby Hilton Head Island appears to be considerably down the road to being Disneyfied beyond the Magic Kingdom’s time-share resort mid-island.
Most tourists hold Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor to be the obligatory historical site in the area. The events at Fort Pulaski during the Civil War were arguably at least as interesting. Both forts were built as part of a national program initiated by James Madison after the British demonstrated the insufficiency of the United States’ coastal defenses during the War of 1812.
Fort Sumter famously drew the first fire of the Civil War on April 12, 1861 CE. Unsupported and unsupplied, its Union garrison surrendered 34 hours later. In the spring and summer of 1863 Northern artillery reduced the fort to rubble, but the subsequent Union infantry attack was bungled, and the Confederacy surrendered the fort only after Sherman’s army marched through South Carolina in February of 1865, forcing abandonment of Charleston’s defenses.
When the war broke out, Fort Pulaski looked secure. It boasted masonry walls up to 15 feet [4.6 m] thick, carefully constructed over a 40 year period. Because of marsh surrounding the site, Union batteries could not be located closer than a mile and a half away [2.4 km].
No less a luminary than Robert E. Lee assured the 25-year-old commander of the fort , Charles Olmstead, that the Northern guns could not seriously damage the fort’s walls: “… they will make it very warm for you with shells from that point [a mile and a half away] but they cannot breach at that distance.” Lee’s knowledge of Fort Pulaski was considerable: before the war he had personally directed part of the fort’s construction [1829 – 1831].
General Lee was misinformed regarding the fort’s abilities to withstand a siege in 1862, however.
Union Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gilmore had followed the experimental development of Federal rifled artillery carefully, and arranged to get advanced rifled guns for the attack on Fort Pulaski. The Union gunners demonstrated the ability of their new artillery to punch holes through Pulaski’s masonry walls from batteries sited a mile and a half away despite Robert E. Lee’s assurances. Lee was still operating under assumptions that applied to the limitations of contemporary smooth bore cannons, with their effective range of some 800 yards [approximately 0.7 km].
The Union artillery crews were methodical, using the newfound range and accuracy of their rifled guns to perforate circles in Fort Pulaski’s walls, then shooting out the middle to create sizable breaches. The Union gunners fired through the holes they created, targeting the fort’s powder magazine. Confederate capitulation followed swiftly.
It took more than 40 years to construct Fort Pulaski, and roughly 30 hours to force its surrender.
Savannah was as a result effectively blockaded by the Union. Masonry fortifications became obsolete overnight. Lee was called away to deal with dire threats to the north of the Confederacy.
After the Civil War the old rice producing regions of the area never really recovered from the liberation of the slaves who had managed the draining and flooding of the fields. Their skills were even more necessary than their forced labor.
Absentee plantation owners were not uniformly well served by their plantation overseers, who varied widely in knowledge and competence. The lands were not improved by postbellum strip mining of fertilizer deposits.
The local indigo industry declined because of poor quality and high cost.
Even today, the economic benefits offered by the tourism industry do not penetrate far inland from the beaches of the barrier islands.
- James M. McPherson’s War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 provides a useful overview of the Civil War’s naval actions, demonstrating the usual strengths of the leading living historian of that conflict.
- Roy Blount Jr.’s Robert E. Lee: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies) is a balanced and nuanced brief biography of the renowned general all the more remarkable for its concision. At 210 small pages it cannot deal with Lee’s activities and campaigns in detail. The effort Lee spent on Fort Pulaski’s construction is less discussed than his simultaneous social activities and courtship of the woman he was to marry, and the fall of Fort Pulaski is noted without mention of the reasons for or lessons from its surrender. But as a humane, engaging and manageable introduction to Lee’s character, this slim volume is hard to beat.
- Jack D. Coombe’s Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic: First Naval Actions of the Civil War provides a lively narrative of the fall of Fort Pulaski in its summary of critical early naval conflicts too often slighted in popular Civil War histories.