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Monday, January 3, 2011 - 12:22pm

Ft. Pulaski Marks A Civil War Anniversary

One hundred fifty years ago, on January 3rd, the Georgia militia took control of the federal fort that defended Savannah.

The takeover came four months before shelling began at Ft. Sumter, starting the Civil War.

But in January of 1861, no one knew exactly what was coming next.

The election of Abraham Lincoln two months ago in 1860 was the final straw for many Southerners.

After decades of sectional divide, South Carolina became the first state to break from the union.

Still, federal forces made no hostile moves against the South, until Christmas week.

That's when a federal commander, acting on his own, sailed across Charleston harbor to secure Ft. Sumter.

The move worried Georgia Governor Joseph Brown, says Mike Weinstein, a ranger at Savannah's Ft. Pulaski National Monument.

"Seeing the more aggressive actions in Charleston, he feared that other aggressive actions would be taken by United States troops at Ft. Pulaski and make it more difficult for Georgia to take control of Ft. Pulaski if necessary to keep the port open," Weinstein says.

And keeping the port open was of paramount interest to Georgia.

The port created mountains of wealth from the cotton and tobacco trades.

Ft. Pulaski protected it.

With that in mind, Governor Brown ordered 120 state militia to Ft. Pulaski on January third.

They sailed down the Savannah River and were given the fort by its two lonely protectors, a superintendent and on ordinance officer, basically just the guys with keys.

"A handover, a seizure," Weinstein says. "I wouldn't use a violent verb to describe it because it wasn't like that."

The fort was poorly protected because the nation wasn't at war.

That all began to change this month 150 years-ago.

"It's unbelievable what happened in January," Weinstein says. "Almost every day of the month of January 1861, there was some kind of state takeover a federal facility. The country unravelled."

As they arrived at Ft. Pulaski, the Georgia militia found, in large part, what visitors see today --- a large, imposing, arrow-shaped fortress with thick red brick walls and a castle-like moat.

Thought impregnable when it was built in the 1830's, Ft. Pulaski in 1861, however, was in no shape for war, says Joel Cadoff, another ranger at Fort-Pulaski.

"When you walked out today, the moat's full of water. They get out here, it's silted up. It's full of mud. So, they got to dig all that out. They have cannons here. This fort could hold nearly 150 cannons. There were twenty. In fact, they had been sitting here since 1840 and they weren't in the best working order," Cadoff says.

Georgia began to fix up the fort and train its militia.

And to do that, ranger Gloria Swift says, over the coming year and half, a "who's who" of names that later would become famous passed through the Savannah stronghold.

"They are in contact with General Robert E. Lee, who has just become the commander for coastal defense for South Carolina, Georgia and Florida," Swift says. "And he gives them guidance on how to prepare the fort and themselves."

It was an opening act in what would become a years-long drama.

One hundred fifty years ago this week, Georgia voters played their parts, electing representatives to a special assembly to consider the secession question.

They wouldn't meet until later in the month.

Ft. Pulaski's pivotal role -- Georgia's first military engagement of the war -- wouldn't be known for another a year.

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