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Walking on hallowed ground

By Walter Geiger Though I visited Fort Pulaski as a youngster growing up in Savannah and have passed the entrance to it countless times since on the way to Tybee Island, I had forgotten much of its history. So, on a recent beach trip and with three 14-year-old girls in tow, I went back. It was amazing. Named for Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish hero of the American Revolution who was killed in action in Savannah, work on the fort began after the War of 1812 as part of a coastal defense system. It was designed by Gen. Simon Bernard, a French genius at building fortifications. The Fort was built on Cockspur Island to guard the north and south channels of the Savannah River and thus protect the dual accesses to the bustling port town a few miles upstream. Construction began in 1829. It cost $1 million ‘“ a ton of money back then ‘“ and required 25 million bricks and 18 years to build. The designer of its system of dikes was one Robert E. Lee who was fresh out of West Point. By the end of 1860, it was still not fully armed and when the War Between the States broke out, Georgia seized the fort and gave it to the CSA. Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of southern ports and Savannah suffered. The Yankees landed at Port Royal with little Rebel resistance and took Hilton Head. From there they brought troops and artillery across the river to Tybee. Those pieces included 10 new rifled cannons. As it was being built, U.S Chief of Engineers Joseph G. Totten, called the fort impenetrable. ’You might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains,’ he boasted. His Army’s rifled cannons proved him wrong. The Yankees urged the Rebels in the fort to surrender. They scoffed. The rounds began raining down from Tybee on April 10, 1862. Thirty hours later, in fear the new rifled shells would penetrate his main powder magazine, the commander of Ft. Pulaski, Col. Charles H. Olmstead, surrendered. Only one Confederate soldier was killed. We learned all this as we trooped around the fort which, oddly, had the most expansive fig tree/bush I have ever seen growing in its interior parade ground. The girls pilfered a few figs but wilted in the heat and we left before I wanted. Since my $5 pass was good for a week, I went back the next day to walk the island’s trails. I had gone 20 yards along the dike trail when the mosquitoes drove me away. I went to the fort’s meager store for repellent but the man in front of me had bought the last bottle. Fortunately, he was willing to share. Lathered in DEET, I resumed the march to the Cockspur Island Lighthouse. I had the place to myself. You could tell the path was ancient. It had been well-worn over 100 years ago. I wondered which historic figures had trod it before me as I blew gnats from beneath my sunglasses. After viewing the old, battered lighthouse, I walked back and took a little side trail where I came upon an obelisk. On it was a marble plaque with an inscription which read: From the journal of John Wesley: ‘Fri, 6, (1736) – About eight in the morning I first set my foot on American ground it was a small uninhabited island,’¦over against Tybee, called by the English Peeper Island. Mr. Oglethorpe led us through the moorish land on the shore to a rising round’¦We chose an open place surrounded with myrtles, bays and cedars, which sheltered us both from the sun and the wind, and called our little flock together to prayers.’ The following day, Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached his first sermon in America in Savannah. Fort Pulaski National Monument is hallowed ground indeed and much worthy of a visit but take bug spray and lots of it or go during the winter. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of The Herald Gazette and Pike County Journal Reporter.

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