Monday, January 3, 2011

January 3, 1861 - The Taking of Fort Pulaski, Georgia

Fort Pulaski (NPS Photo)
On January 3, 1861 (150 years ago today), Georgia militia troops took possession of Fort Pulaski, the primary defense of Savannah.

Begun in the 1820s and completed in 1847, Fort Pulaski was a massive five-sided brick fort that stood on Cockspur Island near the mouth of the Savannah River. The system of dikes and canals that drained the site to allow construction had been designed by Robert E. Lee, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Lee, among others, considered Pulaski to be one of the most impregnable positions in the South.

Aware that Pulaski was not garrisoned as his state moved rapidly forward with political maneuverings that would likely lead to its secession from the Union, Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia ordered militia troops to seize the fort on January 3, 1861. Georgia was then still part of the United States and although Fort Pulaski was not then garrisoned by U.S. troops, Brown knew that situation could change at any minute.
Fort Pulaski (NPS Photo)

A clerk from the Engineer Corps was stationed in Savannah at the time and immediately sent a telegram Captain W.H.C. Whiting, then at Fort Clinch in Florida, of the movement to take the fort. Whiting would later become a Confederate general, but was still serving in the U.S. Army when Fort Pulaski was seized. He proceeded to Savannah as soon as possible and made the following report to his superior officers in Washington on January 7, 1861:

...This morning I proceeded to Fort Pulaski, which I found occupied by Georgia troops, commanded by Colonel Lawton. I was received with great civility, and informed by him that he held possession of all the Government property for the present, by order of the governor of the State, and intended to preserve it from loss or damage. He requested a return of the public property, both Ordnance and Engineer., which I have given as existing January 1.... 

The Colonel Lawton mentioned by Captain Whiting was Colonel Alexander Lawton of the 1st Georgia Militia. Under orders from Governor Brown, who was at Savannah in person, he had led a force of 150 men from the Savannah Volunteer Guards, Oglethorpe Light Infantry and Savannah's famed Chatham Artillery aboard the steamboat Ida and steamed down to Fort Pulaski. As rain was falling, they moved into the fort without opposition from the ordnance sergeant and caretaker stationed there and raised the Georgia flag.

Fort Pulaski had fallen and it would take more than one year and a severe battle for the Union army to take it back.

Also on January 3, 1861, the Florida Secession Convention met for the first time in Tallahassee and agreed to meet again two days later on Saturday, January 5th.

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