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The trip from beautiful Savannah to the battered ruins of the once famous brick fortress, Pulaski, takes one through that gold and green country which one comes to associate with the name of this charming southern city. Fort Pulaski is that great hexagon of brick which one sees from incoming steamers on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the muddy Savannah River, and all the country round about is marshy, reedy land, cut up by big and little streams with no hills to be seen and only scraggy pine trees breaking the flat monotony of the horizon.
If one would go to Fort Pulaski from Savannah, he seeks out the little railroad which runs to Tybee, and whose passenger traffic is confined almost exclusively to summer. There he will be received by the hospitable southern trainmen and put off the train near the lighthouse which graces the northern end of Cockspur Island. Here, if he has been wise and has made his arrangements properly, he will be met by a boat from the lighthouse and will be carried across to the island.
Arrived at the landing, which gives access to the fort, one is struck by the graceful desolation of the scene. The boards and timbers of the wharf have rotted, and ends of planks hang down toward the water like withered arms. Yet the brilliant Georgia sunshine gives a charm to it all. One does not feel in the presence of decay; one feels only in the presence of something that is passing painlessly away.
This same feeling one carries up the long, straight, muddy path leading to the ruined monument of valor through the marsh, which surrounds that work. One comes to a broad ditch now full of mud and weeds and faces the remains of a once sturdy drawbridge. Passing over this and between the mounds of former outworks one at last faces the entrance to Fort Pulaski.
The walls of this great brick fortress, which cost a million dollars and was one of the greatest brick fortresses of its time, tower over one with great impressiveness. The brick face is pierced by long narrow slits for rifle fire, and these peer at one vacantly. A large ditch, or moat, surrounds the fort, and this still contains water owing to the low elevation of the island above tide, but it is choked with rank vegetation and though horrid of aspect would not be a serious bar to the approach of any storming force.
Crossing the ditch, one passes through a long passage and past massive wooden gates studded with iron bolts and, at length, comes out upon the parade ground. Where brilliant columns once formed and marched in martial evolutions now wave tall saplings except where the solitary caretaker of the fort has cut these growths down to make room for a vegetable garden.
The walls go around in a great circle above this parade, the angles of the circumference not being easily perceptible from our vantage point. To the right hand and the left hand stretch casemates in which officers and men dwelt. On the far side of the parade are open casemates fitted for cannon, for this is the quarter from which attack might be expected. Close at hand is a spring whose clear water flows ceaselessly from the rusty iron mouth, which the hand of man has provided and neglected.
Passing across the parade to the gun casemates, which occupy the flanks of the fort on three quarters of the compass, one finds the flooring still in good condition, this fact being due to the protected nature of this part of the fort and to the sturdy quality of the planks which are three inches thick and of some close grained wood probably cypress. The circular gun tracks are still visible. Where one can peer through holes in the floor one gazes down into dank, dark depths from which the light is reflected evilly by scummy water.
At the northeast angle of the fort are the remains of one of the magazines. If one cares to prowl in here and is willing to make entrance through a mysterious black hole into an uncanny void, he will be rewarded for his adventure by being able to pick up some rusty grapeshot and smaller odds and ends of murderous looking iron.
Ascending to the parapet of the fort by means of one of the twisting iron stairs which are to be found at each angle, or by the broad stone stairs adjacent to the habitable casemates, one has a wide view of land and sea. To the east lies the mouth of the Savannah River where this stream joins the Atlantic Ocean. In this direction, too, can be seen long, low, sandy Tybee Point, where Fort Screven, the modern defensive work, lies. To the south are marshes and in the distance the gleam of the river up which the Union forces brought their cannon to attack Fort Pulaski in 1862. To the north and west more marshes.
The island on which Fort Pulaski is situated was acquired by the government in 1830 by purchase from Alexander Telfair and sisters (an old and wealthy Savannah family) and the title of the government thereto for the purposes of a fortification was confirmed by the State of Georgia by act December 27, 1845. The entire reservation occupies about 150 acres.
The site for the fort was selected by Major General Babcock, United States Corps of Engineers, and work was begun in 1831 under the direction of Major General Mansfield. Sixteen years passed before its mighty walls, containing thirteen millions of bricks, were completed. The name Pulaski was given to the fort in honor of Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish patriot who lost his life in the siege of Savannah by the Americans during the Revolution, the scene of this sad event being the Spring Hill redoubt near the site of the present Central of Georgia railway station.
The military history of Fort Pulaski does not cover a long period of time. When, in December, 1860, the news reached Savannah of the removal of Major Anderson, in command of the United States forces in Charleston Harbor, from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, there was an open expression of opinion that Georgia should forestall such occupation of the forts on her coast by the forces of the Federal government; and when, on January 2, 1861, it became known that Governor Brown had ordered the seizure and occupation of Fort Pulaski by the military under the command of Colonel A. R. Lawton on the following day, the city was wild with enthusiasm.
Says Adelaide Wilson in her delightful history of Savannah:
Looking back upon the arrangements that were made for the setting out of that first military expedition, there is temptation to smile at the amount of impedimenta that was prepared for the small forces of less than two hundred men. There was scant time between the promulgation of the order and the hour named for its execution, yet when, on the morning of the third, the companies marched down to the wharf to embark on the little steamer Ida, it is safe to say that they were encumbered with much more baggage than served later in the war for an entire division in the field. Every man had his cot, every three or four men his mess chest, with kettles, pots, pans and other cooking utensils in liberal allowance, not to speak of trunks, valises, mattresses, camp chairs, etc., in all a pile large enough to make the heart of a quartermaster sink within him. It was evident that the troops long had anticipated the call upon their services, and also that the mothers, wives and sisters of Savannah had, with anxious forethought, determined that their loved ones should carry into service as many of the comforts of home as possible.
The siege of Pulaski by the Federal troops, April 1862, was not long at the climax, though it was long in preparation. The Federal forces gathered slowly south of Savannah and then moved to the attack. By means of a channel in the flats to the south of the fort, which I the Confederates had left unguarded, they were able to post their guns in advantageous positions. As the result of a heavy bombardment the walls of the fort were battered in at the east salient and the garrison was obliged to surrender.
The visitor to Fort Pulaski today may see some of the wounds in the walls, which the fort sustained on that occasion. The worst injuries were repaired by the United States troops during their occupancy of the fort, and the course of these repairs may be traced by the discerning eye through the different color of the bricks.
Shortly after the Civil War, Fort Pulaski was abandoned. It is still controlled by the government and is in the care of a retired soldier of the United States who lives a life of seclusion, disturbed only by the very infrequent sightseer or by parties of young men of the neighborhood who find the marshes of the reservation an excellent gunning preserve.