Perhaps frightened — and at least worried — three privates from Co. C, 8th Maine Infantry Regiment, sensed the enemy approaching late one cold winter’s night in Georgia.
Surely their captain would not leave them out here to face an enemy impervious to bayonets and bullets, would he?
For some reason, Capt. John E. Bryant certainly did.
During winter 1862, the Army and Navy collaboratively campaigned to capture Confederate-held Fort Pulaski, which blocked Union warships from steaming up the Savannah River to attack Savannah, a major Southern port.
Located at a latitude of 32-2 north and a longitude of 3-51 “west from Washington” and named for Revolutionary War hero and American ally Casimir Pulaski, the fort was “a brick work of five sides,” reported Army engineer Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore, sent to map the islands around Pulaski and find places to site siege guns.
Constructed with some 25 million bricks, Pulaski was a formidable roadblock to Union ships. The fort was “casemated on all sides, [with] walls 7½ feet thick and 25 feet high above high water, mounting one tier of guns in embrasures and one en barbette (atop the roof),” Gillmore indicated.
The fort’s rear wall, called the “gorge,” was protected by “an earthen earthwork (demi-lune) of bold relief,” he noted. The moat surrounding Fort Pulaski was 48 feet wide around the five main walls and 32 feet wide around the demi-lune.
Into mid-February 1862, Union troops labored in horrid conditions to build earthworks and site cannons on islands upriver or across the river from Fort Pulaski. “These islands, as well as all others in the river, are merely deposits of soft mud on sand shoals, always covered at high tide and overgrown with rank grasses,” observed Brig. Gen. Egbert L. Viele.
On the night of Feb. 20, soldiers from the 8th Maine helped engineer Lt. Patrick H. O’Rorke stake out a battery site on the north side of Bird Island, upriver from Pulaski. Flat boats brought cannons, shells, gunpowder, and buildings materials to the island.
The next day, the 8th Maine lads helped build the gun platforms and mounted the cannons on them. Incoming tides swirled into the battery; sinking into the glutinous mud as they worked, the Maine soldiers erected with the soupy material a levee that defied formation.
Finally the levee at least partially blocked the tide water.
Viele praised the “great labor and perseverance of the troops under most trying circumstances, the fatigue parties always standing in water” 24 hours a day.
“Twice each day these islands were covered with water,” said an 8th Maine veteran. “Although the men sank deep into mud and water, the work progressed, and was completed.
“But the sufferings of the soldiers … employed upon the work were almost unendurable,” he noted.
Then, on a cold night in late February, John Bryant of Co. C sent three privates — Lindsey O. Goff, Samuel Holt, and Maurice Woodbury — to picket an island (likely Bird). The men were “instructed under no circumstances to leave their post,” according to a comrade.
Goff was a 28-year-old shoemaker from Gray when he joined the 1st Maine Infantry in May 1861. Mustered out with that regiment that August, he signed up with the 8th Maine a month later.
Standing 5-10, Goff had blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion.
Samuel Holt, a 20-year-old “stitcher” from North Turner, mustered with Co. C on September 7, 1861. Also 5-10 in height, he had brown eyes and brown hair and a dark complexion.
Like Goff, Maurice Woodbury was a shoemaker, albeit in Buckfield. He stood 5-11 and had blue eyes, “light” hair, and a light complexion.
Perhaps Bryant selected the three men for picket duty based on their height. He positioned them at a picket post on the island and then walked away.
Bundled up in their inadequate clothing, the men probably jumped up and down and clapped their hands together to keep warm. Suddenly someone’s brogans (shoes) splashed in water where only muck had sucked at the man’s heels a moment earlier.
The enemy approached. Having ordered his men not to leave their post, Bryant had not ordered the Savannah River to stay out of it.
Rising around the island, the incoming tide surrounded Goff, Holt, and Woodbury and cut them off as effectively as attacking Confederates might have. Higher lifted the cold, fast-flowing salt water, swirling up around the men’s ankles and then their knees and then their waists.
Other men might have fled for fear of drowning. Not so these three heroes, the best of the best from the 8th Maine Infantry. They remained at their assigned post as the incoming tide “came up slowly around them, rising nearly to their breasts,” a comrade later reported.
The soldiers held their weapons and ammunition pouches above their heads. Finally the tide “as slowly ebbed away; and yet those faithful sentinels obeyed their instructions.”
Afterwards the exhausted men struggled to the company’s camp and fell sick. “Broken down in health,” Goff shipped north to Maine to linger, his health completely broken, before dying of disease on Oct. 23, 1864.
Holt, too, died “from the effects of the night’s exposure,” said his unidentified comrade. Holt “died of disease” on Aug. 22, 1862.
Maurice Woodbury, a precious inch taller than Goff and Holt, stayed with the 8th Maine. He transferred to the Veterans Volunteers on New Year’s Day 1864 and remained on duty until Jan. 18, 1866.
John Bryant, another 5-11 resident of Buckfield, also survived the war to muster out on Sept. 15, 1864. A student when the war broke out, he had “dark” eyes, a “dark” complexion, and brown hair.
For some reason, Bryant was never promoted during his service with the 8th Maine. Was it perhaps because he had ordered three privates, “You will guard this river by standing in it?”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.