The 8th Maine Infantry soldiers guarding the Union artillery batteries placed upriver from Fort Pulaski helped prevent Confederate reinforcements from reaching that post, but could not shell it into submission.
To do that, Army engineer Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore needed artillery placed on Union-held Tybee Island at the mouth of the Savannah River. Working “in the dead of night over a narrow causeway, bordered by swamps on either side,” Union soldiers hauled with “herculean labor” 36 pieces of artillery across the island to its north shore, where 11 batteries were constructed at distances ranging from 1,650 to 3,400 yards from Fort Pulaski.
The 13-inch mortars weighed “8½ tons [apiece] … and [the] columbiads but a trifle lighter,” Gillmore noted.
“Two hundred and fifty men were barely sufficient to move a single piece on sling carts” after dark, when the soldiers “were not allowed to speak above a whisper,” he said.
Col. John Rust had brought his remaining 8th Maine companies — D, E, F, H, and I — from Hilton Head to Tybee Island. Although men from the 7th Connecticut Infantry transported most of the artillery the 2½ miles across the island, soldiers from “the 3d Rhode Island, 46th New York, and 8th Maine Volunteers moved several of the guns under similar circumstances,” noted Lt. Horace Porter, the assigned ordnance officer for the Pulaski expedition.
“On arriving here the batteries were incomplete and the whole battalion was put at once at work mounting the monster guns and finishing the embankments,” an unidentified 8th Maine soldier wrote under the pseudonym “Pulaski” to the Bangor-published Daily Whig & Courier.
Digging by day and camouflaging their work each dawn, the tired, mud-splattered Union men gradually created the 11 batteries. Six mounted either 10- or 13-inch mortars, the rest a mixture of rifled cannons. “Much of the work had to be done by night … to conceal what was done from the enemy in the fort,” the 8th Maine soldier informed Daily Whig & Courier readers.
To the west at Pulaski, Confederate officers scanned Tybee Island with field glasses by day, and scouts slipped out by night to discover what was happening across the South Channel. Built to mount 140 guns, the fort had 48 cannons by late March. Twenty pointed at Tybee Island: five 10-inch Columbiads, five 8-inch Columbiads, four 32-pounders, one 24-pounder Blakeley rifle, two 12-inch and three 10-inch seacoast mortars.
With 36 cannons and mortars to man and fewer than 200 Rhode Island artillerymen present to do so, Gillmore ordered infantrymen trained as gunners. To Battery Burnside (a 13-inch mortar) went soldiers from companies E and H, 8th Maine, split into three shifts with each commanded by a U.S. Engineers sergeant. Men from companies D, F, and I reported to Battery Lincoln (three 8-Columbiads) and Battery Lyon (three 10-inch Columbiads); the men at Lincoln shared the post with 3rd Rhode Island gunners.
The unassigned 8th Maine lads were “ordered to the centre reserve, the place that regulation tactics assigned to the best troops,” Whig & Courier readers learned.
With the bombardment of Fort Pulaski set for April 10, John Rust and his ad hoc 8th Maine gunners quietly slipped into their assigned batteries at 1 a.m. that Thursday. Rust was designated ‘“Field Officer of the Trenches’” that day.
Thursday’s dawn “broke clear and cold,” and “a fresh easterly wind whipped the red waters of the Savannah River into whitecaps.” Federal gunners had removed the batteries’ camouflage, and a sharp-eyed Confederate officer spotted ominous-looking objects jutting above the Tybee shore.
Under a truce flag, a rowboat ferried to Cockspur Island Army engineer Lt. Joseph H. Wilson with a letter requesting that Col. Charles H. Olmstead, the Fort Pulaski commander, surrender his post.
He declined the offer.
Union gunners at Battery Halleck opened the bombardment at 8:15 a.m. with a shell from a 13-inch mortar. The other mortar-equipped batteries “opened one after the other,” Gillmore noted, and observers watching through field glasses calculated “the approximate ranges [to the fort] by the use of signals.”
All 11 batteries were blazing away by 9:30 a.m.
As the bombardment began “unsuitable” pintles dismounted the three 10-inch Columbiads in Battery Scott and another at Battery Lyon. What the 8th Maine lads at Battery Lyon thought as the 10-inch gun recoiled off its carriage is not known, but no one was hurt.
All four cannons were soon remounted.
Confederate gunners opened fire, and iron and explosives flew both ways. Pulaski presented a large target for the Federal artillerists, but not so the burrowed-in-the-muck Union batteries to the Confederate cannoneers.
“Owing to the peculiar construction of our batteries,” Olmstead’s artillerists “could get no shot into them. If he fired at the top of our embankments, his shots flew harmlessly” overhead, and “if he fired lower, the shots fell short or stuck into the embankment, doing no harm,” the 8th Maine correspondent noted.
With Rust busy checking the batteries, Capt. William McArthur of Co. I and Limington served as de facto commander of the 8th Maine battalion. Both men were maneuvering across “the open space of about 150 yards between Battery Scott and the protecting bank below” when two enemy shells “passed very near them,” the regiment’s Whig & Courier correspondent noticed.
Rust “took it very coolly and repassed the same spot several times again during the day.”
For the 8th Maine lads working their assigned guns inside the mud-and-muck artillery emplacements on Tybee Island, the day would be long, indeed
Next week: The infantrymen of the 8th Maine prove they can shoot a cannon as accurately as a professional gunner can. Part I is available at The 8th Maine arrives opposite Fort Pulaski and Part II is available at Three brave soldiers
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Sources: Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, Chapter XV, No. 5; Lt. Horace Porter, April 12, 1862 report to Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, Papers on Practical Engineering, No. 8, Appendix D, D. Van Norstrand, New York, N.Y., 1862; Pulaski,” Letter from the Eighth Maine, Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, April 26, 1862; Ralston B. Lattimore, Fort Pulaski National Monument, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1954
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.