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Significance of the Siege

In its relation to the total strategy of the Civil War, the reduction of Fort Pulaski was important. The blockade directed against the South was materially strengthened by the acquisition of this fortress in the mouth of the Savannah River. After the surrender, Northern troops occupied the fort and commanded the entrance to the principal port of Georgia. It thus served as one of the many pincers that throttled the economic life of the South.

When viewed in larger perspective, however, an even greater significance may be attached to the battle for the once-great fort. "The result of this bombardment," General Hunter declared in his report to the Secretary of War, "must cause a change in the construction of fortifications as radical as that foreshadowed in naval architecture by the conflict between the Monitor and Merrimac. No works of stone or brick can resist the impact of rifled artillery of heavy calibre." Subsequent events verified this prophetic statement, and the Fort Pulaski incident may be considered one of the many mileposts in history. The strategy that had guided military experts had to be revised to meet the threat of a new weapon of war, and Fort Pulaski, because of the consequent changes, has become an interesting relic of another age.

Fort Pulaski
"No works of stone or brick can resist the impact of rifled artillery of heavy calibre."
From The Photographic History of the Civil War.

In the 2 days of battle, 5,275 shot and shell were fired against the fort, but the breach through the walls was largely the result of three guns—two 84-pounder and one 64-pounder James rifles. Solid projectiles from these guns at a distance of 1,640 yards penetrated the brickwork from 20 to 25 inches with shattering lateral effect. Shots from the other rifles were erratic in flight—some wabbling, some turning end-over-end—and did little damage when they slammed into the wall of the fort. Explosive shells from the rifles also played an important part in reducing the work.

The guns and mortars in the Federal batteries were served by detachments from the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, the 3rd Rhode Island Volunteer Artillery, the 46th New York State Volunteers, and the 8th Maine Volunteers. On the second day of the bombardment 100 sailors from the frigate Wabash manned four of the 30-pounder Parrott rifles in Battery Sigel. The accuracy of fire achieved by the gunners in the 2-day battle is remarkable in view of the fact that none of them, except the sailors, had had previous experience in firing.

The quick reduction of Fort Pulaski took the world by surprise, and, until the details of the battle were available, many people regarded the surrender with suspicion. In the circumstances, however, Olmstead's decision was wise. Nothing but glory could have been obtained by prolonging the battle, and many additional lives might have been lost. When the Confederates gave up Tybee Island, they abandoned Pulaski to its fate, for they presented the Union forces with the only possible battery sites from which the fort could have been reduced. When Olmstead raised the white flag, the Federals were already preparing an assault, and within 24 hours they could have thrown more than 10,000 troops against the fort. Opposed by such odds, the handful of men on Cockspur, no matter how brave they might have been, could have staged but a brief and pointless resistance.

Pulaski's captured garrison was sent North to Governor's Island in New York Harbor, where the officers were confined in Fort Columbus; the men, in Castle Williams. Three months later the officers were transferred to Johnson's Island near Sandusky, Ohio, and the men, to Fort Delaware. Many of the prisoners died of pneumonia or typhoid fever and a considerable number of the privates, because of family connections in the Northern States or lack of sympathy with the Confederate cause, took the oath of allegiance to the United States. In August, most of the men were exchanged at Aiken's Landing on the James River, 12 miles from Richmond, Va., and were soon back in Savannah. The officers were exchanged in September at Vicksburg, Miss.

The honor of being the first Federal troops to garrison Fort Pulaski after the surrender was given to the 7th Connecticut Regiment, one company of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, and a detachment of the Volunteer Engineers. On June 1 the 7th Connecticut was relieved by the 48th New York, which remained on Cockspur until May 31, 1863. The so-called honor of garrison duty was tempered with hard work, for, during the months following the battle, the troops were detailed to repair the damage caused by the bombardment. The batteries on Tybee Island were dismantled and some of the guns were added to the armament of the fort. To ease the tedium of life on a small island, the 48th New York organized a baseball team, a band, and a dramatic association, and the wives of some of the officers came to live on Cockspur.

The war continued actively on other fronts, slowly turning against the South. Weeks, months, and years passed. In June 1863 Pulaski's garrison was reduced to a holding force. Great battles were fought elsewhere—Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Kennesaw Mountain. In September 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta after a long and bloody siege and prepared to march to Savannah through the breadbasket of the Confederate States.

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