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Civil War Series

Fort Pulaski and the Defense of Savannah

   

THE ATTACK ON FORT McALLISTER

Rifled artillery rendered masonry fortifications like Fort Pulaski obsolete. Sprawling, untidy earth fortifications, thrown up by both sides during the Civil War, now proved themselves to be the impregnable defenses. Fort Wagner, on Morris Island, and Fort Fisher, at the mouth of Cape Fear River, are examples of large earthen forts that withstood prolonged, heavy bombardment.

The earthen fort at Genesis Point on the Great Ogeechee River was begun in 1861 as the southernmost part of the Savannah inner defense line. It was designed to protect the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad as well as the rice plantation's along the river. Although General Robert F. Lee visited the site during his command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the ultimate design must be credited to Captain John McCrady, who applied the lesson's learned from the rapid breaching of Fort Pulaski. Each gun in McAllister was separated by a large traverse, beneath which was located a magazine. In the center of the fort was a huge bombproof. Sandwiched between the traverses, each gun was shielded in a protective valley. A Union naval officer stated in 1864 that it was "so crammed with bomb proofs and traverses as to look as if the spaces were carved out of solid earth."

A WARTIME SKETCH OF FORT MCALLSTER. (BL)

From the time of its construction the fort saw no activity until July 1862. That month the Confederate sidewheel blockade runner Nashville, unable to dash into Charleston, eluded her pursuers after a long chase and slipped into the Ogeechee River. Guided through the pilings that diagonally crossed the river a third of a mile below the fort, she came to rest above Fort McAllister. Federal naval officers would keep her from leaving for eight months until they could destroy her. To reach the Nashville they would have to silence Fort McAllister.

On July 1, 1862, the USS Alabama, a nine-gun sidewheel steamer, fired on Fort McAllister but withdrew before she was hit. At the end of the month, July 29, three gunboats, the six-gun Unadilla, the four-gun Huron, and the three-gun Madgie, fired on the fort for an hour and a half but neither caused nor received any damage. During the engagement, the sailors did not see the Nashville.


Although federal guns produced shell craters "large enough to bury a horse," they caused no permanent damage. The vessels left the Nashville bottled up.

On November 19, 1862, the gunboats Wissahickon and Dawn, along with a mortar schooner, engaged Fort McAlister for almost five hours. The Wissahickon was hit below the waterline and "reluctantly dropped down beyond their range and succeeded in partially stopping the leak." Although Federal guns produced shell craters "large enough to bury a horse," they caused no permanent damage. The vessels left the Nashville bottled up.

Renewed efforts to reduce Fort McAllister began early the next year. On January 27, 1863, the Montauk, a two-gun monitor, along with the gunboats Seneca, Wissahickon and Dawn and the mortar schooner C. P. Williams, slowly steamed up the river and anchored 150 yards below the obstructing barrier of pilings. The Montauk's revolving turret was armed with eleven-inch and fifteen-inch Dahlgren guns, the latter the largest gun ever mounted on a warship. Similar in construction to the Monitor, she was commanded by the Monitor's commander, John L. Worden.

THE MONTAUK FIRING ON FORT MCALLISTER, JANUARY 27, 1863. (FMTW)

Within 1,500 yards of the fort, the Montauk hurled its 400-pound projectiles at the fort for almost five hours before ending the engagement. All the while, the masts of the Nashville protruded above the trees on the neck of land that projected into the river curve. Although the Montauks shells tore into and through the twenty-foot-thick parapets, they caused no real damage and no casualties. Confederate guns hit the Montauk fifteen times but only dented her armor plate. Commodore Du Pont observed that "whatever degree of impenetrability they [ironclads] might have, there was no corresponding quality of aggression or destructiveness as against forts, the slowless of firing giving full time for the garrison in the fort to take shelter in the bomproof."

Monitor-class ships were new to the United States Navy, and before their deployment in Charleston Harbor, Commodore Du Pont wanted to evaluate their effectiveness against fortifications. Although relieved at the slight damage to the ironclad, Du Pont wondered "if one ironclad can not take eight guns—how are five to take 147 guns in Charleston harbor." During the five days that elapsed, the Federals resupplied their vessels. The Confederates laid mines in the river near the pilings. On the twenty-ninth the Confederates burned the rice and brush fields behind the fort to remove possible cover for a land attack. The Nashville dropped down to the vicinity of McAllister. Federal sailors could see the raider from the masts of their vessels.

COMMODORE SAMUEL F. DU PONT (USAMHI)

The Montauk opened at 7:45 A.M. from 600 yards away. For almost five hours the bombardment continued.

On February 1, Worden made a second attempt to destroy the earth fort. The night before, using information obtained from runaway slaves, Federal crews removed the mines from the river. The Federal fleet, the Montauk and the four other vessels, were able to move closer than on the previous engagement. They could see no damage from the previous bombardment. The Montauk opened at 7:45 A.M. from 600 yards away. For almost five hours the bombardment continued. The Montauk, along with her escort gun boats, caused little damage. They were successful, inadvertently, in killing Major John B. Gallie, garrison commander. Confederates, in turn, hit the ironclad 48 times but caused more damage than in the first encounter. Colonel Robert H. Anderson, commander of Confederate forces along the Ogeechee, reported that "the enemy fired steadily and with remarkable precision. Their fire was terrible. Their mortar fire was unusually fine, a large number of their shells bursting directly over the battery. The ironclad's fire was principally directed at the VIII-inch Columbiad, and . . . the parapet in front of this gun was so badly breached as to leave it entirely exposed. . . . I think that the brave and heroic garrison of Fort McAllister have, after a most severe and trying fight, demonstrated to the world that victory does not, as a matter of course, always perch itself on the flag of an ironclad when opposed even to an ordinary earthwork manned by stout and gallant hearts."

Meanwhile, Confederate authorities had given up freeing the Nashville for further blockade-running duties and converted her into an armed commerce raider with the ominous name Rattlesnake. The Federals feared the Rattlesnake would be as dangerous as the Alabama had proved herself. At dusk on February 27, a cloudy and rainy day, she descended the river to try for the open sea but was deterred by the four-gun blockader Seneca and returned up the Ogeechee, only to go aground on a mud bank in a part of the river known as Seven-Mile Reach. Through their telescopes, Federals could see the Rattlesnake's crew moving busily on the decks and in the rigging trying to lighten her to float free. At 4:00 A.M. Worden prepared his men and signaled the Seneca, Wissahickon and Dawn for a daylight attack. At 7:05 A.M. he anchored twelve hundred yards below the fort and about the same distance from the Confederate vessel, which was across the river bend. A Confederate tug was having no luck dislodging the Rattlesnake. The Montauk and Rattlesnake exchanged unequal fire over the half mile of marsh. An observer on the Montauk wrote:

At twenty-two minutes after seven we landed a fifteen-inch shell close to the Nashville, and five and one-half minutes later we sent another—it was our fifth shot—smashing into her hull, just between the foremast and paddlebox. Almost immediately followed the explosion . . . . Smoke settled about us, and after the eighth shot we ceased firing to let the air clear. Presently a breath of wind swept the drift aside, and we saw to our great joy a dense column of smoke rising from the forward deck of the stranded vessel. Our exploding shell had set her on fire. A few minutes more, and flames were distinctly visible, forcing their way up, gradually creeping aft until they had reached nearly to the base of the smokestack.

A SKETCH OF FORT MCALLISTER AFTER IT FELL INTO UNION HANDS. (FMTW)

THE CONFEDERATE NASHVILLE IS DESTROYED BY THE IRONCLAD MONTAUK ON THE OGEECHEE RIVER. (BL)

Worden recorded that "at 9:20 a.m. a large pivot gun mounted abaft her foremast exploded from the heat; at 9:40 her smoke chimney went by the board, and at 9:55 her magazine exploded with terrific violence, shattering her in smoking ruins. Nothing remains of her."

Fort McAllister fired at the Montauk and the gunboats Wissahickon and Dawn, accompanying the ironclad, fired on the fort. The Federals damaged a barrack and plowed up the parade of the fort but little else.

As the vessels dropped down the river there was "a seemingly double explosion" as the Montauk shuddered, raised slightly in the water, and twisted violently. Although Worden initially thought a round from the fort had caused the damage, he quickly found that he had struck a mine. The ship quickly steered for a mudbank and beached, sealing the leak. The mine had caused a six-foot scar of separated, cracked plates and bent ribs. After temporary patching, the ironclad sailed to Port Royal for repairs.


Unlike Fort Pulaski's masonry, the sand of Fort McAllister absorbed the impact of the bombardment. The damage could be shoveled back into place during the night.

On March 3, the Federal navy made one last attempt to reduce Fort McAllister. Three two-gun ironclads, the Passaic, Nahant, and Patapsco, along with gun boats Seneca, Wissahickon, and Dawn, and mortar schooners C. R Williams, Para, and Norfolk Packet moved up the Ogeechee. The mission was primarily gunnery training for the monitors in the coming campaign against Fort Sumter. Captain Percival Drayton, a South Carolinian who had remained loyal to the Union while his brother served as a Confederate general, commanded the squadron. The fort and gunboats exchanged fire for seven hours. The disappointed Drayton observed that there was no damage done that could not be repaired with "a good night's work." He added, "I do not believe that it can be made untenable by any number of ironclads . . . brought into position against it." The only casualty was the fort's mascot, "Tom Cat." The following day, no visible evidence of the bombardment remained. Unlike Fort Pulaski's masonry, the sand of Fort McAllister absorbed the impact of the bombardment. The damage could be shoveled back into place during the night.

The Union monitors made no further attacks on McAllister. The navy moved north to attempt to take Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The garrison at McAllister shoveled dirt back onto the walls and waited for the next Federal move.

UNION IRONCLADS PATAPSCO, PASSAIC, AND NAHANT SHELL FORT McALLISTER ON MARCH 3, 1863 (FL)
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