Civil War Savannah: The View from Two Parapets

On June 1 I defended my dissertation in History at Penn State. One week later, I turned my trusty Subaru Crosstrek south from State College and set my GPS for Savannah. What better way to celebrate six years of intensely studying the Civil War era than taking a vacation to see some Civil War sites? Savannah’s rich Civil War history offers a great deal for historians and buffs to enjoy–it was, after all, probably one of the best Christmas gifts Abraham Lincoln could have dreamed of receiving.

I spent my first night out from PSU in Florence, South Carolina. During the war a stockade in Florence held between 12,000 and 18,000 Union soldiers as prisoners of war. Early the next morning I merged onto 1-95 and was flying toward the Carolina Low Country. As a born-and-raised westerner the Low Country proved a shock to my system; there were plants and tree that looked nothing like the brittle cottonwoods of the Platte and Rio Grande rivers and the humidity levels made me long for the dry heat of the high plains. Still, the scenery was beautiful and alien–giving texture to my recollections of the stories of Flannery O’Connor and calling to mind a statement made by William T. Sherman as he rode from Fort Laramie to Denver, Colorado in 1866:

It is impossible to conceive of a more dreary waste than this whole road is— without tree or bush, grass thin, and the Platte running over its wide, shallow bottom with its rapid current; no game or birds; nothing but the long, dusty road, with its occasional ox team, and the everlasting line of telegraph poles. Oh, for the pine forests of the south, or anything to hide the endless view.

I might not agree with Sherman about the dreariness of the Platte River country, but I certainly understand his appreciation for the scenery of Georgia and the Carolinas. Like most officers in the Regular Army, Sherman lived a life inaccessible to many of his contemporaries: he travelled extensively across the width and breadth of the United States–from postings in the antebellum years to Florida (Second Seminole War) and to California (the war with Mexico), to the bluffs of the Mississippi, the heights of Lookout Mountain, and the cities of Atlanta and Savannah, and then, after the war, to the West. He know of what he spoke–and he appreciated for most of his life the beauty of the Low Country, and its importance to Union victory in the Civil War.

The first of the two forts I saw on my visit to Savannah represented a typical antebellum installation, built of brick and mortars by the army’s best engineers (among them Robert E. Lee) to defend the port of Savannah. Fort Pulaski was and is a grand bastion of American military engineering, and impressively intact. Had Fort Sumter not been reduced to rubble it would have looked quite similar to Pulaski. Like Sumter, Fort Pulaski had a serious problem, owing to its impressive construction. Though quite modern for an American fort when it was finished in 1847, by 1860 the advent of rifled ordnance put the fort in significant danger. With relative ease, Union naval forces bombarded and reduced an entire wall of the fort in 1862–ending Confederate control of the installation less than a year into the war.

Fort Pulaski, inner walls from inside outer lunette.

Fort Pulaski, interior; the slanted wood along the far wall allowed Confederate soldiers to walk along the interior of the fort during the bombardment without fear of being hit by falling shells.

Unlike its northern neighbor, Fort McAllister was not so easily reduced when soldiers under the command of Sherman advanced toward Savannah in December, 1864. Fort McAllister also stood in defiance of the Union naval blockade of one of the South’s most important ports, but its appearance differed sharply from the brick bastion at Pulaski. McAllister was an earthen fort constructed to protect the Ogeechee River (Lee also played a hand in its construction, in 1861). Though subjected to riverine attacks throughout 1862 and 1863, Union artillery struggled (in spite of rifled technology) to significantly disturb the fort’s defenders; who stayed safe behind massive earthen mounds that protected the fort’s hospital, its powder stores, and the soldier’s quarters. Though multiple water-borne attacks failed, when Sherman’s troops approached over land the fort fell in approximately 15 minutes–the final obstacle facing Uncle Billy in his quest for Savannah.

Fort McAllister, interior

The Ogeechee River from inside the fort.

Despite several run-ins with insects and the shock of Low Country humidity, I highly recommend both sites to anyone visiting the Savannah area. Fort Pulaski is a federally managed national monument while Fort McAllister is part of the Georgia state parks system. Both feature excellent museums, interpretive tours and signage, and the opportunity to understand the importance of river and naval operations to Union victory. Though I still may prefer the arid desert climate of my youth, I have no doubt I will return to these sites and more across the Low Country; next time with bug-spray.

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4 Responses to Civil War Savannah: The View from Two Parapets

  1. Joe Redding says:

    Actually Fort Pulaski was reduced by Union batteries on Tybee Island, not naval fire.

  2. Ed Flanagan says:

    There is another Civil War era fort in the Savannah area, Old Fort Jackson, located east of Savannah on the river, which is owned by the State of Georgia.

  3. Daryl McDonald says:

    Congratulations on your doctorate and thank you for this excellent and entertaining travel/history article.
    Bug spray is very important to historians everywhere during warm weather.

  4. Katy Berman says:

    Beautiful photos; I want to take the same trip! I remember my surprise at seeing the Low Country landscape; like nothing I’d ever seen before.

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