The Construction of Fort Pulaski would be quite challenging even with today’s modern technology, but in the early 19th century it was truly a monumental task. It took 18 years to both prepare the unsuitable salt marsh for construction and to build the fort. Cockspur Island, where the fort sits, was a lot more remote (relatively) than it is today. There were no roads or rail lines leading from Savannah to the island, which lies about fifteen miles east of the city. All travel to and from the island was by boat via the Savannah River, the Atlantic, or the numerous creeks which form a Labyrinth throughout the low country. For this reason, it would be impractical to shuttle the work force back and forth from Savannah.
In order to support such a grand project on a long-term basis, a construction village had to be built on the island. The person most responsible for the earliest structures in this village was young Second Lieutenant of engineers, Robert E. Lee.
Lee arrived in Savannah in November 1829. It was his very first assignment after graduating 2nd in his class at West Point the same year.
He was ordered to report to Major Samuel Babcock who oversaw the project on Cockspur Island. At this point the proposed fort was nameless. It would not become Fort Pulaski until 1833.
An 1808 graduate of West Point, Babcock had already served over 20 years in the Army and was in failing health. Because of this, a great amount of responsibility for the project was placed on Lee.
In January 1830, Lieutenant Lee, acting in his capacity as assistant engineer, took over much of the direction of the work.
Construction of quarters for the Officers and workforce (both free and enslaved) was top priority, as well as a system of dykes and drainage canals that would eventually transform salt marsh into semi-solid land, suitable for construction of a large masonry fort.
As January 1830 ended, Lee prepared this map showing not only the work accomplished, but the work projected as well. The shore of the island was outlined, and marshy and high ground indicated. The partially finished quarters, the beacon, and the boathouse were shown, all early components of the construction village.
Also indicated were the proposed sites of the fort and advanced battery, and the location of the projected wharf and system of drainage ditches and embankments.
Behind me you can see remnants of water cisterns which were once part of the construction village. Fresh water was scarce in this remote salt marsh environment, so rainwater had to be gathered for drinking, cooking, etc.