Since the first April of the Civil War sesquicentennial belonged to the Battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, I can’t let the second April pass without a mention of the Battle of Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, Georgia.
Guarding the mouth of the Savannah River just east of the city by the same name, Pulaski sits alone on desolate Cockspur Island. Most Americans have never heard of Pulaski, but the Civil War reenactors who reoccupied the fort earlier this month hope to change that. I had the good fortune to join them for a couple hours and the even better fortune to have a loving and patient wife willing to join me for the adventure.
When Confederate troops occupied the fort at the outset of the Civil War, Pulaski represented military engineering at its finest. No less of an engineer than General Robert E. Lee believed the fort could withstand a bombardment. While not in charge of the fort’s defenses, Lee had a personal stake in their success. He had helped build the installation years earlier as a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But Lee and the other Confederates had not counted on the devastating accuracy of the Union’s newest weapon – rifled cannons. When Union guns opened fire from nearby Tybee Island in April 1862, they opened a hole in Pulaski’s brick walls that exposed the fort’s combustible magazine. Pulaski’s defenders could hold out no longer. Thirty hours after firing began, the cannons fell silent. Just as suddenly, an entire generation of state-of-the-art coastal defenses became hopelessly out of date.
One hundred fifty years later, men dressed in gray graciously lowered the drawbridge for my wife and me, so we could share a few hours in their company. With the sound of rifled cannons booming in the distance, the fort’s defenders made preparations for their final night inside the brick walls. What little time they had left, they were eager to share by answering questions left out of books and lectures. Where else could one learn how to recognize the rank of an officer in a defunct army or fire a 150-year-old cannon?
As my wife and I prepared to take our leave – we had dinner plans in Savannah – one soldier asked why we were departing so soon. The battle was not over, he reminded us. We knew otherwise, of course. He was just playing his part. The ends of the past are no longer in doubt, but let’s be thankful for reenactors who remind us they once were.