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Under the Georgia Flag

Fort Pulaski was in no condition for defense on January 3 nor for many weeks thereafter. Had the Federal Government taken immediate and effective action, the incident on Cockspur Island might have ended quickly in complete fiasco. When Capt. Francis S. Bartow of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry took command of the post there was not a single serviceable gun in the fort. The moat was filled with mud and overgrown with marsh grass. Furthermore, the military experience of the members of his garrison had been limited to armory drill and dress parade.

During the first weeks after the seizure there was feverish activity to put the fort in condition required to withstand attack. Twenty 32-pounder naval guns, which had been mounted in 1840, were re-mounted in the casemates and on the ramparts. More than 100 rice-field slaves were engaged to dig the mud from the moat, and daily boat service was established between Savannah and Cockspur Island.

For a few days the garrison was in a state of great confusion. Baggage, which had preceded the troops, was hopelessly mixed up. Some squads with food had no pots to cook it in, while other squads with an abundance of pots and pans had no knives or forks with which to eat. Strict discipline, however, soon brought order out of chaos. All day the men were kept busy. They drilled in the manual of arms and learned to handle artillery. They sorted and redistributed equipment, filled mattress covers with hay, made cartridge bags, and stowed their ammunition in the magazines. Spirits were high and the men worked with a will.

As additional guns were secured they were mounted and others were ordered from the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. A telegraph line was erected between Savannah and Cockspur Island.

The Republican Blues of Savannah
The Republican Blues of Savannah.
Harper's Weekly. 1860.

Earthworks were constructed and manned on Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina, Tybee Island, and other islands southward along the Georgia coast. Fort Jackson, 5 miles below Savannah, was placed in order and work was begun on an interior line of defenses from Red Bluff on the north bank of the Savannah River delta to Genesis Point on the south bank of the Great Ogeechee.

The land defenses were supplemented by a small fleet of river boats on which guns had been mounted. This motley collection of side-wheelers, known as the Georgia Navy, was under the command of Commodore Josiah Tattnall, famous old naval officer, who years before had brought United States ships to the rescue of the British in China waters with the battle cry "Blood is thicker than water."

In the late spring of 1861, the defenses of Savannah were not yet perfect but they were rapidly gaining in strength. In company with Commodore Tattnall and General Lawton, William Howard Russell, correspondent of the London Times, inspected these defenses on May 1.

At Cockspur Island, Russell found a guard on duty at the landing, "tall, stout young fellows in various uniforms or in rude mufti, in which the Garibaldian red shirt and felt slouched hats predominated. They were armed with smoothbore muskets (date 1851), quite new; and their bayonets, barrels and locks were quite bright and clean. The officer on duty was dressed in blue frock coat with brass buttons emblazoned with the arms of the State, a red silk sash, and glazed kepi, and straw colored gauntlets."

Russell was impressed by the strength and solidity of the fort and by the preparations being made for its defense. He found its garrison of 650 men hard at work. Tents were pitched in the demilune and on the terreplein, and the parade ground presented a scene of life and animation. Men were building sandbag traverses to guard the magazine doors. Other were rolling away stores and casks of ammunition and provisions, while still others were mounting 10-inch columbiads on the ramparts.

Notwithstanding the praise he gave to Fort Pulaski at the conclusion of his tour, Correspondent Russell was not convinced that Savannah was safe from invasion. He pointed out to General Lawton the weaknesses of the fort. The lowland, he said, made it accessible to boats, and it was open to approach from the rear.

"True enough," Lawton agreed, but added boastfully, "the Commodore will take care of the Yankees at sea and we shall manage them on land!"

Tattnall smiled. "I have no fleet," he said, "and long before the Southern Confederacy has a fleet that can cope with the Stars and Stripes, my bones will be white in the grave."

That night Russell recorded in his diary: "These people all make a mistake in referring to the events of the old war. 'We beat off the British fleet at Charleston by the militia—ergo, we'll sink the Yankees now.' They do not understand the nature of the new shells and heavy vertical fire, or the effect of projectiles from great distances falling into works . . . We got back by eight o'clock p. m. after a pleasant day. What I saw did not satisfy me that Pulaski was strong, or Savannah very safe."

On April 9, a private in Company D, 1st Regiment of Georgia, wrote to his mother, "We look for a fight every day. We are well prepared, and the boys are in good spirits 'Spilin' for a fight."

Blockade of the Savannah River
Blockade of the Savannah River.
From Harper's Pictorial History of the War of 1861.

People in the South who were spoiling for a fight did not have long to wait. In Charleston Harbor, at 4:30 on the morning of April 12, 1861, a Confederate mortar at Fort Johnson fired a shell which arched across the sky and burst almost directly over Fort Sumter. With this shot, the tragedy of civil war began.

On May 21, Francis S. Bartow, who had opposed the seizure of Fort Pulaski and yet had served as its first commanding officer under the Georgia flag, led the Oglethorpe Light Infantry to the railroad station to entrain for Virginia. The streets were lined with cheering citizens; the band played "Bold Soldier Boy." Two months later, in a gallant charge on the Federal batteries at Manassas, Bartow, now a brigadier, was shot through the heart.

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