While I like history–I love darting around vast areas honeycombed with “secret” rooms and dank passages while being dangerously unsupervised!
I have had an ubiquitous fascination with forts ever since my fourth grade class trip to North America’s oldest fort, Castillo de san Marcos, in Saint Augustine, Florida.
At 260 acres, Fort Pulaski is more than ten times bigger. Castillo is a shoreline coquina-constructed kids’ clubhouse in comparison.
Named after Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish noble who got killed during the American Revolution at the Battle of Savannah, this place has eight of everything a wanderlust could want.
It has ramparts that you can climb.
It has “secret” subterranean tunnels and passages you can transverse while not getting ridiculed for wearing a fedora.
You can reenact civil war battles by pretending to shoot through the tiny slits of the claustrophobic turrets.
It has a furnished officer quarters, a pharmacy, barracks, the disconsolate jail used to dispirit confederate prisoners of war, cannons galore, earthy smelling storage rooms, and a wonderful lack of velvet ropes and “do not touch” signs.
For the thirsty, there is a gift shop where you can buy a bottle of water for $28 or a can of soda if you will trade away your spleen.
It’s a venerable fantasyland for historians, the young, and the socially awkward.
If you have time or energy leftover from what should be an engrossing two-hour exploration, there is a visitors’ center and an alluring signage of plaques where you learn the following:
- The Fort was Robert E. Lee’s first assignment after his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy and he oversaw part of its construction.
- Every surviving officer-engineer involved in designing Fort Pulaski became either a Confederate or Union General.
- The Fort was thought to be impenetrable because its walls were between seven and a half to eleven-feet thick. This meant they could only be destroyed by the then-height of technology–the smoothbore cannon (barrel without rifling). The range of the smoothbore cannon maxed-out at between 700 and 1,000 yards and the Fort was built more than a mile away from any reasonable staging ground for an enemy force.
- Construction was finally completed in 1847 at a cost of $1,000,000.
- Perhaps because it was thought to be invincible to an advancing enemy, the U.S. Army never bothered to station anyone there besides a caretaker and a single gunnery sergeant.
- In preparation of Georgia secession, Governor Joseph Brown sent 110 men from Savannah to take control of Fort Pulaski. Apparent experts in probability theory, the caretaker and sergeant gave the Fort over and left peacefully.
- Robert E. Lee briefly returned to the Fort to explain to its new and very inexperienced commander, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, that, since the Fort was considered impenetrable, all he had to do to protect the Fort was–well, nothing.
- Rifling (adding spiral grooves to the inside of a barrel, thus increasing the range and intensity of anything intended to be fired from it) had been discovered in Germany at the end of the fifteenth century; rifled cannons, however, came about just in time to threaten Fort Pulaski.
- The battle lasted two days with Pulaski’s ramparts quickly eviscerating under the attack of Union Captain Quincy Gillmore and the new James Riffled Cannon.
- Confederate Colonel Olmstead promptly surrendered.
- Union Major General James Hunter, an ardent abolitionist, took command of the Fort and surrounding environs and wrote General Orders No. 7, freeing the slaves in the surrounding area.
- Emboldened when he heard no rebuke from Washington D.C., on May, 9, 1862, Hunter issued General Orders No. 11 where he wrote: “Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States–Georgia, Florida and South Carolina–heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”
- On May, 19, 1862, President Lincoln rescinded Hunter’s Order, instead wanting to engage in a single national approach.
- On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
You can read an exhaustive account of the battle for Fort Pulaski here.
You can read Major General Hunter’s General Orders No. 11 and President Lincoln’s Proclamation of May 19, 1862, rescinding General Orders No. 11 here.
You may still see the cannonballs embedded into the ramparts of Pulaski by driving twenty minutes out of Savannah’s historic district and visiting here.
This is an easy day trip from Savannah but you will need a car. It is a twenty minute ride from downtown.
If you leave after breakfast, you can view the introductory film, watch park rangers shoot muskets (or whatever they are demonstrating that day) and take a thorough tour of the Fort, its tunnels, and its ramparts–and be back in time for a late lunch and more tunnel exploration at the Pirates’ House.
Both the visitor center and the Fort are open from 9AM to 5PM. If you leave at closing don’t amble around the parking lot too long–they shut the bridge-gate promptly at 5:15.
There is a $5 entrance fee. Admission is free for those under 16, and for everyone on a few select weekends and holidays, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day Weekend, and Veterans’ Day.
If you’re thrifty, bring your own refreshments.