As the 36 Union artillery pieces embedded in the Tybee Island muck fired on Confederate-held Fort Pulaski on Thursday, April 10, the 8th Maine Infantry soldiers hastily trained as artillerists soon proved they could shoot as well as professional gunners.
Army engineer Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore had anticipated that the Union’s carefully sited 13-inch mortars would tear Pulaski apart. However, although “the pieces were served with a fair degree of care and skill,” fewer than 10 percent of the mortar shells fired at Pulaski actually fell within its walls, Gillmore noted.
Over at Battery Burnside, the 8th Maine boys of companies E and H demonstrated how to accurately shoot a mortar. Shells from their 13-inch mortar “knocked over one or two” Confederate guns on the Pulaski barbette, and a mortar shell from Burnside supposedly “cut down the enemy’s flag,” too, but Confederate troops quickly raised it again, stated an unidentified 8th Maine soldier in a letter to the Daily Whig & Courier of Bangor.
Connecticut and Rhode Island gunners in nearby batteries also claimed “the honor” of knocking down the enemy’s flag. “Circumstances, however, highly favor the opinion that the Maine boys did it,” the 8th Maine correspondent stated.
The bombardment continued unabated until 7 p.m. As daylight faded, Union officers carefully studied Pulaski with their field glasses. Serious damage had been done; “night showed several of the enemy’s barbette guns disabled, and deep, ugly looking scars in the wall, and in one spot near the magazine, almost a breech (sic),” Whig & Courier readers learned.
Gillmore saw the breach clearly through his field glasses; so did Brig. Gen. Henry W. Benham, commanding the Northern District of the Army’s Department of the South. Estimating “that over 3,000 projectiles” were fired at Fort Pulaski during the day, he was pleased with the “successful commencement of the breach.”
Sending the exhausted Gillmore to get “the rest which he required,” Benham took charge of the land forces “during the first half of the night.”
The two officers apparently discussed Battery Sigel, located 1,670 yards from Pulaski. On April 10, soldiers from companies H and K, 46th New York Infantry, had worked Sigel’s five 30-pounder Parrott rifles and one 48-pounder James rifle.
The guns “appeared not to have been so successfully served during the day,” Benham observed. Thursday night he replaced the New Yorkers with “a detachment of 100 seamen from the Navy” and an 8th Maine detachment commanded by William McArthur.
Commanded by Lt. John Irwin from the frigate USS Wabash, the sailors were assigned to the 48-pounder James and three Parrotts; McArthur and his men, who quickly learned the rudiments of gunnery from Army Capt. John Wesley Turner, went to the other two Parrott rifles.
The Union batteries opened fire at 7 a.m., Friday, April 11. The rifled Union cannons pounded at the south-southeast corner of Pulaski; the six rifles at Battery Sigel fired percussion shells that exploded on impact.
Benham, Gillmore, and Col. John Rust of the 8th Maine flitted among the batteries as the morning progressed. Between 10 and 11 a.m., Benham dropped into Battery Sigel and observed the Maine and Navy gunners at work; he found the six rifles “most efficiently served.” He “visited all the batteries” and, in late morning, stood and peered at Pulaski through a high-powered telescope.
The high-velocity rifled shells had punched a hole so wide that Benham could see a recess arch inside a casemate. Around 12 noon, “the whole mask and parapet wall” of the damaged casemate “fell into the ditch (moat), raising a ramp quite visible to us,” he noticed.
The rifles at Battery Sigel “were worked with fearful accuracy” by the sailors and the 60 men from companies D and I, 8th Maine, noted “Pulaski.” Under the targeted and cumulative fire from all the Union rifled cannons, “a breech (sic) was soon made, and then another,” the Whig & Courier readers learned.
With Union shells whizzing through the widening breach to pound the magazine walls, Confederate commander Charles Olmstead decided to surrender to save his men. “At about 2 p.m., we discovered a white flag thrown up” over Fort Pulaski, Benham reported. “The rebel flag, after filling out to the wind for a few minutes at half-mast, came slowly to the ground.”
After the white flag appeared over Fort Pulaski, Union gunners stood in their respective batteries and cheered. The infantrymen particularly realized the bombardment-caused breach meant they would not go into a fort bristling with bayonets and cannons.
“Our shells had penetrated so near the magazine that in two hours more the rebels would have all been blown up together if the firing had continued,” wrote “Pulaski” to the Whig & Courier.
Benham bestowed an unexpected tribute on the 8th Maine, which “had won that honor by their good behavior, superior discipline and gallantry in the action.” The regiment’s “flag … would go up first in the fort.”
Col. Edward W. Serrell of the 1st New York Engineers rightfully protested that his men had expended tremendous sweat and toil to site and construct the Tybee Island batteries. So “Benham decided that the standards [of both regiments] should be lashed together and both raised first on Fort Pulaski,” Whig & Courier readers learned.
“In consideration of [his] meritorious conduct in the action,” John Rust was assigned to command the flag-raising detachment. He took with him William McArthur and Sgt. Samuel Gould from Co. D, “and a Captain and Sergeant of the Engineers.”
The flags went up over Fort Pulaski, and watching Union soldiers and sailors cheered. A few days later, Rust sent the 8th Maine’s flag north to Governor Israel Washburn Jr.
The fort was a mess, “sufficiently ruinous,” according to an 8th Maine soldier. “Eleven guns were disabled, the parapet and traverses on all sides shattered, the area torn up by shot and shell, and covered with bricks and fragments.”
The soldier noticed that “the wall of the magazine was badly crushed, and the casemates in the rear in ruin. Over [at] the angle where the breach was made, the wreck was nearly complete.”
Only the accounting was left after Pulaski fell. During the bombardment, “Rust distinguished himself for bravery and soldier like bearing,” and “McArthur evinced much skill in the handling of his guns,” according to “Pulaski.” He noted that the 8th Maine lads held in reserve “were all very eager to rush into the greatest peril, and all wanted to be at the guns.”
Part I is available at The 8th Maine arrives opposite Fort Pulaski and Part II is available at Three brave soldiers guard a post against the rising tide and Part III at 8th Maine soldiers take crash course in gunnery
Sources: Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, Chapter XV, No. 5; Pulaski,” Letter from the Eighth Maine, Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, April 26, 1862; Brig. Gen. Henry W. Benham, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, Chapter XV, No. 2; Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, April 24, 1862 and Wednesday, April 30, 1862
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.