Shortly before 8:00 in the morning on Thursday, April 10, 1862, a message from Union Major General David Hunter was sent across the North Channel to Confederate Colonel Charles Olmstead. The message demanded “the immediate surrender and restoration of Fort Pulaski to the authority and possession of the United States.” Thirty minutes later, the Olmstead’s reply reached the Union commanders: “I am here to defend the fort, not to surrender it.”
A little past eight, a single mortar shot broke the silence of the morning. Soon, the entire line of Union artillery opened fire and for the next thirty hours, the air was filled with smoke and these walls were struck thousands of times by projectiles. Soldiers inside of Fort Pulaski returned fire, of course, but the Union army was too far away for their cannons to be effective.
When Fort Pulaski was being built in the 1830s, people across the nation believed that it and other masonry forts like it were nigh on impregnable. For Fort Pulaski in particular, the lack of solid ground surrounding the island meant that, with the technology of the time, the fort could not be taken by artillery on land. And any ships trying to get pass would have to run the gauntlet of the fort’s 146 cannons that controlled the two channels.
Except, the fort was never fully armed with 146 cannons. By the time of the battle in 1862, the Confederates only had around fifty cannons to control the two channels. Of those cannons, the majority were smoothbore guns with a range of only around a mile, just enough to reach the banks of Tybee Island.
Tybee Island was where the Union had entrenched and begun bringing in their own weaponry. Like the Confederates, a portion of their armament were smoothbore guns, but of the thirty-six guns the Union brought to battle, ten of them were rifled. These rifled guns were relatively new inventions with a range of up to five miles, but they had never been tested against solid brick walls.
Never tested, that is, until those thirty hours on April 10 and 11, 1862. Soldiers recalled “the dust of crushing bricks” as the shells pounded into these walls. Bricks shattered, flaking off in all directions, and the muffled sounds of splashes could have been heard as brick after brick after brick tumbled into the moat, reducing it from eight feet to only two to four feet shallow.
The rifled projectiles bored into the walls, creating massive dents and creating holes that allowed light to be seen through the gaps in the wall. As the hours passed, these breaches began to widen and widen, until this entire corner was in ruins, and the path to the powder magazine on the other side of the fort was completely exposed. As Union shells began to pass through this breached corner, they travelled across the parade to the Northwest Magazine that held nearly 40,000 pounds of black powder.
“The breach in our wall,” wrote Colonel Olmstead, “gave free access to the projectiles that hade made it directly to our North magazine, the brick work covering the magazine door was struck five or six times in succession, and it was evident that it was only a question of two or three hours whether the lives of the whole garrison should be discharged by the explosion of the magazine, for the result was inevitable. Under these circumstances, cut off from all hope of relief or the possibility of retreat, the Fort practically breached, some of my most effective guns rendered useless, and the magazine liable to be blown up in a very short time, I felt compelled to yield.”
After only thirty hours of bombardment, the battle was over, and fortifications would never be the same. The power of the rifled artillery had been proven, and masonry forts were shown to not be impregnable. Fort Pulaski marked the beginning of the end for this style of fortifications. By the end of the Civil War, masonry forts like Fort Pulaski were completely obsolete.