Firing the Mortars on Fort Pulaski

    The Federal victory at Fort Pulaski in April 1862 is credited to the superiority of Federal artillery that was used to bludgeon the fort's masonry walls to fragments. Captain Quincy Gillmore, the chief engineering officer of the Federal commander General Thomas Sherman, arrayed a series of rifled batteries and heavy mortars along the north shore of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia and on April 10th let loose with a devastating barrage. Private Oliver M. Mason of the 7th Connecticut was not only an eyewitness to the bombardment, but actively assisted with the operation of one of the huge 13-inch seacoast mortars as he describes in the letter below. 

    "One must need be a witness to judge of their destructive power," he wrote. "The mortars, of which there are 12, were manned by details from the 7th Connecticut Volunteers and did good execution throughout the bombardment which I think has given much credit to the regiment. A brisk fire was kept up on both sides until dark when the Rebels ceased firing. We had already shot their flag down and dismounted a number of their parapet guns. Thus it was ordained that the first day’s bombardment would pass without the loss of a man on our side." 

    Private Mason’s account of the capture of Fort Pulaski appeared in the May 2, 1862, issue of the Southbridge Journal.

 

Captain Quincy A. Gillmore, a native of northern Ohio and West Point graduate serving as General Thomas Sherman's chief engineering officer, planned the bombardment of Fort Pulaski with characteristic attention to detail. The Federals deployed 10 heavy rifled cannon, 10 columbiads, and 16 mortars at eleven positions along the northern shore of Tybee Island, some as close as 1,650 yards from the fort. Private Mason's detachment from the 7th Connecticut assisted with one of the 13-inch seacoast mortar batteries similar to the one depicted above. The massive weapons weighed more than 17,000 lbs and threw a 200-lb shell upwards of two miles. Despite their impressive appearance, Captain Gillmore stated in his after action report that the 13-inch mortars were ineffective against masonry fortifications.  

Fort Pulaski, Georgia

April 18, 1862

 Mr. Editor,

          During the past few weeks when victories have crowned our armies on all sides, the forces stationed at this point can claim one more victory from our efforts here. I will try to give you a few details of the battle for the benefit of your readers which may not yet be furnished otherwise.

          Thursday morning April 10th our batteries being completed and all ready for action, a flag of truce was sent over to the fort to demand its surrender. It was met by the Rebels who replied that they were placed there to defend, not to surrender the fort. On receiving this answer, orders were given to open our batteries on the fort and soon they were sending their missiles of death among that band of traitors who then held possession of the fort. The fire was returned by the Rebels and kept up throughout the day.

          Our batteries extended along the shore for a distance of two miles, mounting guns of the heaviest caliber. One must need be a witness to judge of their destructive power. The mortars, of which there are 12, were manned by details from the 7th Connecticut Volunteers and did good execution throughout the bombardment which I think has given much credit to the regiment. A brisk fire was kept up on both sides until dark when the Rebels ceased firing. We had already shot their flag down and dismounted a number of their parapet guns. Thus it was ordained that the first day’s bombardment would pass without the loss of a man on our side. Firing at intervals was kept up through the night to prevent the Rebels from repairing their works.

This period map depicts the eleven batteries arrayed on the northern coast of Tybee Island. The 13-inch seacoast mortars were deployed at Batteries Halleck, Burnside, Sherman, Stanton, and Grant. Following the surrender of Fort Pulaski, the 7th Connecticut crossed over to Cockspur Island and occupied the fort. For those with an interest in the Cold War, Tybee Island is infamous as the suspected site of a lost nuclear bomb jettisoned after a B-47 collided with an F-86 in February 1958. After years of searching, the weapon is still missing and presumably is still sitting somewhere in the vicinity of Tybee Island. For my Civil War relic hunting friends, beware as that big signal you get may not be what you think it is!

          At daylight both sides were at it again. Our batteries at Goat Point had been successful in making two large breeches in the walls and were now playing against the magazine. The fire from our batteries was so hot that they could no longer work their parapet guns and their casemate guns did us little harm. Our fire which was now brought to bear on the weakest points was fast letting daylight into the fort. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the white flag was hoisted and the fort surrendered after a bombardment of about 30 hours. The Rebels fought well. I was on the mortars eight hours each day and can tell you that the shot and shell were rather thick for comfort although most of their shots passed over our batteries.

General Quincy A. Gillmore

          We lost one man killed and three slightly wounded. The loss of the Rebels is not known as they buried some of their dead, but it is thought that they lost 12 killed and six wounded. The 7th Connecticut was ordered to move on and take possession of the fort. We soon crossed the river and were within Pulaski. We took 400 prisoners, a large lot of provisions and firearms, some of which were brought over from England in the Fingal which ran the blockade a few months ago and is now at Savannah. A majority of the prisoners were in favor of the Union, or at least were sick of fighting for the South and were glad the fort was taken. Others were set in their cause and only wished our forces were at Savannah where they are very confident we shall be defeated.

          A sad accident happened to us the day after landing. Some men from the 3rd Rhode Island were employed in emptying shells that did not burst when fired from their batteries. One of them held a shell in his hand when it burst, killing four men and wounding two others. The Rebel prisoners have all been sent North except a few sick who are to be sent to Savannah under a flag of truce. Our regiment is now in the barracks of the fort but how long we are to remain is hard to tell. I think we shall move on towards Savannah soon. Colonel Alfred Terry of our regiment has been promoted to brigadier general which of itself speaks for the qualities of the man. Lieutenant Colonel Hawley it is thought will be our colonel and no man has gained the respect of the regiment more than he. Always ready to look after the welfare of his men, we have all learned to respect him very much.

The shattered wall of Fort Pulaski gives mute testimony to the powerful rifled cannons Gillmore employed to breach the fort's thick masonry walls. 

          Although I have but a few moments to write you before the mail leaves, I must give you a slight description of the mortars used by us in taking the fort. Each mortar alone weights 17,500 pounds and throws a shell weighing 228 pounds and are the only ones of the kind in use in the country except those used by Commodore Foote on the Mississippi. As we now have command of the main channel, Fort Jackson will be the next place to attack which is within four miles of Savannah. The city can be seen from this island although 12 miles up the river. It is reported they have a force of 7,500 men in the vicinity. For want of time, I must close this letter, hoping that I may have another opportunity to write you.

 

Source:

Letter from Private Oliver M. Mason, Co. K, 7th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), May 2, 1862, pg. 2


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