“I am here to defend the fort, not to surrender it." - Col. Charles Olmstead, Cmdr Fort Pulaski
Fort Pulaski was built to protected Savannah, Georgia from foreign invaders after the War of 1812. With its thick brick walls, Pulaski was considered an impregnable modern fort by both the North and South. According to the U.S. Chief of Engineers, Gen. Joseph Gilbert Totten, "you might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains."
In November of 1861, Gen. Robert E. Lee came to Pulaski to make suggestions. Looking towards the Union's position on Tybee Island, Lee reassuringly told Olmstead, "[they] will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance." Lee was very familiar with the Fort's defenses. After all, he had helped build them. Lee's first posting after graduating West Point in 1829 was to raise the Fort on Cockspur Island near the mouth of the Savannah river.
During Lee's visit he spotted Capt. Circopeley, the coxswain of the barge that regularly carried Lt. Lee between Savannah and Pulaski 30 years earlier. "General Lee saw him and came forward with both hands extended, a bright smile on his face and the exclamation, 'Why Francis! Is that you?' 'Just like I was one of his best friends', said the old Captain."
Socially, the best part of Lee's first posting was the opportunity to spend time with his friend Jack Mackay and his family who lived 12 miles downriver from Pulaski in Savannah. As the Mackay family was one of the finest in Savannah, Lee was introduced to all the civilians worth knowing, including their daughters. Among his past times was writing letters and sketching wildlife. A drawing of an alligator and another of a terrapin (turtle) that Lee had gifted a local family, survives to this day.
The downside was Pulaski was built in an alligator infested swamp. At the time of his arrival, only part of the island would poke up above the tide. Work was stopped during the summer months due to mosquitoes, heat and fever. Due to his commanding officer's health issues, Lee was given more responsibility then would ordinarily be expected. He selected the site for the heavy brick fort. He was a hands-on construction boss, joining the work crews comprised of whites and the slaves hired from the local plantation owners. "He spent so many days in mud and water, up to his armpits, that a certain interested young woman, up in Virginia, [Mary Custis] wondered how he ever survived it, and to the end of her days she never ceased to marvel at it."
In the spring of 1831, Lee was reassigned. Pulaski was completed in 1845. Instead of the planned 146 guns, only 20 were mounted. Instead of a garrison, only one ordnance sergeant and a caretaker were assigned. The situation changed on January 3, 1861, when the Georgia militia seized control of Pulaski, 16 days before Georgia seceded.
In August of 1861, the Union became determined to take back Pulaski. Port Royal, S. C. was captured to create a staging area. As the Union's forces moved closer to Savannah, the Confederates worked to make Pulaski stronger. Both sides believed Pulaski would be starved out before taken by force.
Union Capt. Quincy Gillmore thought otherwise. In a plan that would end the use of masonry fortifications around the world, Gillmore convinced his superiors that experimental rifled guns could blast Pulaski's walls down. He just had to get the guns closer. Thomas Jones of the 48th New York wrote, "they set us to work carrying pine logs on our shoulders about the distance from one and one half to two miles. There were 20,000 poles and we carried them in nine days." Gillmore, in the official records would state it was 1,900 poles.
As part of his preparations, Olmstead relates how three of the "boys in blue" were making "defiant and indecent gestures toward the Fort. I wanted to get the elevation of our 32 Pounders for that particular spot ... but without the slightest thought that there would be anything more than a scare for the men. But the shot hit the middle man and probably tore him to pieces. Through my glasses I could see the two others crawling up to the body on hands and knees, and then getting up and running away as fast as their legs could take them. It was a very extraordinary shot; the probability of its being made again with a smooth bore gun at that distance, (a few yards short of a mile), is infinitesimally small."
On April 10, 1862, Gillmore sent a messenger bearing a white flag with a formal document demanding surrender, "to avoid the effusion of blood". As promised, 30 minutes later the first gun was fired. It was Pulaksi's 48 guns versus Gillmore's six 10-inch and four 8-inch Columbiads, five 30-pounder Parrots, twelve 13-inch and four 10-inch siege mortars, and one 48-pounder, two 64-pounder and two 84-pounder James rifles.
According to Olmstead, "In the very first hour of the firing I saw the bricks under one of the embrasures bulged inward by a shot that struck the outer wall while it was yet intact; a very disquieting fact to one who understood its significance. One after another during the day our guns were dismounted, and when night drew near more than half of those that bore upon Tybee Island had ceased to be of use to us. By afternoon, the Union bombardment broke through the heavy walls."
But the Confederates held out until the following afternoon. About 2:00 p.m., an exploding shell exposed the main magazine filled with 40,000 pounds of black powder. Olmstead writes, "... with anguish of soul that returns to me even now in dreams, I ordered the display of the signal of surrender."
The capture of Pulaski prevented blockade runners from reaching Savannah. However, the earthwork fortification, Fort McAllister, south of Savannah on the Ogeechee River, made it necessary for U.S. Gen. William Sherman to capture Savannah by land.
The Confederates would learn from their mistakes at Pulaski. To his frustration, Gillmore would fire more metal into the "sand work" Fort Wagner in Charleston, S.C. then he did at Pulaski, with very different results.
Olmstead was given the same honor as Lee after surrender - the opportunity to keep his sword. In his report to headquarters, U.S. Gen. H. W. Benham would recommend, "... in relation to the commander of the garrison of the fort, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, whose gallant conduct as an enemy and whose courtesy as a gentleman are entitled to all consideration, that, should you deem it proper, the courtesy of the return of his own sword should be extended to him. His defense, I would remark, was continued until almost the latest limit possible, for a few hours more of our fire would, to all appearance, have sufficed for the destruction of the magazine and a larger portion of the fort, while another day would, in any event, have unavoidably placed the garrison at the mercy of a storming column from our command."
A few days after his capture, Olmstead's surrendered sword was returned to him.