On this day in 1861, Captain Francis S. Bartow, of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, led a force of Georgia Militia to seize Fort Pulaski near the mouth of the Savannah River. Bartow acted under orders from Governor Joseph Brown. The fort was not garrisoned at the time, with only a fort keeper and ordnance sergeant on duty. So there was no resistance.
Captain William H.C. Whiting, the district engineer, was at the time was attending duties at Fort Clinch, in northeast Florida. When informed of the move, he made his way to Savannah. Arriving at Fort Pulaski on January 6, Whiting confronted Colonel Alexander R. Lawton, commanding the Georgia Militia. Officially, Lawton indicated the militia was to preserve public property from loss or damage.
Whiting could only wait for instructions from Washington. Other installations in Georgia – to include the Fort Jackson and Oglethorpe Barracks in Savannah, and the arsenal in nearby Augusta – remained unoccupied but under the watch of the Georgia troops. And only administrative staff manned those installations. In Savannah, Ordnance Sergeant Edwin Burt maintained a presence at Oglethorpe Barracks.
These “military” affairs did not happen in isolation from other events. On January 2, Georgia held a referendum, not on secession directly but to elect delegates to a state convention. State records filed later tally the vote as 50,243 in favor of secessionist candidates to 37,123 for pro-Union candidates. But evidence of vote irregularities abound. In fact, in the 1970s the Georgia Historical Society reviewed the records and suggested the vote was actually much closer. (One source indicates 42,744 pro-Union and 41,717 pro-secession. Others, including the online New Georgia Encyclopedia tabulate 44,152 to 41,632 in favor of the secessionists.)
The convention did not meet until January 16. With plenty of time for events occurring in Charleston and at other points to play upon opinions. Still, Georgia’s secession was not a forgone conclusion. Voting on January 18 over a pro-secession resolution, the delegates split 166 to 130 in favor. The final vote for the ordnance of secession passed the next day, 208 to 89.
But the occupation of Fort Pulaski occurred before those votes, and perhaps even while the delegate vote count continued. I’m never one to let coincidence pass without note. By moving on Fort Pulaski, did Governor Brown intend to send a message to Washington? Or to pro-secessionists in Georgia? Did Brown deliberately “cross a Rubicon” to block any attempt to cool the situation? And what threat was the militia protecting the installation from? The understaffed overseers? Certainly Brown’s action was preemptive and signaled the intent to join South Carolina.
Across the south, other states followed Georgia’s lead, seizing military installations. State troops in Alabama occupied an arsenal on January 4 and Forts Morgan and Gains on the 5th. Florida troops occupied seized the Apalachicola arsenal on January 7 then Fort Marion, St. Augustine, on the 8th. Citizens marched into Forts Johnson and Caswell, January 9-10. Louisiana seized facilities at Baton Rouge on January 10, following with seizures of Forts Jackson, Saint Philip, and Pike on January 11-14. The seizure of Fort Pulaski, in advance of an official statement of secession, was the first in a wave.
Many of the key players in the Fort Pulaski seizure remained at the fore as the war progressed. Governor Brown served through the war, but in the end was calling for peace as Federal troops marched through the state. Bartow died leading a brigade at First Manassas, shot through the heart while urging his men on. Lawton commanded from regiment to division level in the Army of Northern Virginia, concluding the war as Quartermaster General.
Whiting resigned his commission the next month and joined the Confederate, and served with distinction as division commander. Whiting defended Fort Fisher outside Wilmington, North Carolina in the last winter of the war. After that fort fell, he died in a Federal hospital recovering from a wound and suffering from dysentery.
As for Sergent Burt, I do not know his fate. But I’ll bring him up again later this month with regard to actions after Georgia’s formal secession.
UPDATE: A couple of folks have emailed, mentioning the activities of Charles A.L. Lamar in Savannah prior to the action at Fort Pulaski. As I composed this post, I opted for brevity (soundly failing!) and felt that any mention of Lamar would require a lengthy discussion of the pro-secessionist movement in Georgia prior to December 1860. It is true that Lamar first advocated a move of Pulaski as a preemptive strike. And it is true that Lawton warned Brown of such. It is also true that Lawton and Brown feared Federal troops reinforcing Fort Pulaski based on telegrams forwarded from South Carolina officials.
All of this, I feel, plays into a sense of urgency on the part of Brown to simply do something that would signal Washington while satisfying the pro-secessionists in his state.