Fort Pulaski National Monument
There’s one must-see before you get to Tybee Island proper. On Cockspur Island, you’ll find Fort Pulaski National Monument (Hwy. 80 E., 912/786-5787, www.nps.gov/fopu, fort daily 8:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m., visitors center daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., $3 per person 16 and up). Not only a delight for any history buff, the fort’s also a fantastic place to take the kids. They can climb on the parapets, earthworks, and cannons, and burn off calories on the great nature trail nearby. Along the way they’ll no doubt learn a few things as well.
Synchronicity and irony practically scream from every brick. Perhaps prophetically named for Count Casimir Pulaski, who died leading an ill-fated charge on the British in 1779, Fort Pulaski is also symbolic of a catastrophic defeat, this one in 1862 when Union forces using new rifled cannons reduced much of it to rubble in 30 hours.
Robert E. Lee—yes, that Robert E. Lee—helped build the fort while a lieutenant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And the Union general who reduced the fort, Quincy A. Gillmore, was in the Corps of Engineers himself, helping to oversee the fort’s construction.
By all means, visit the visitors center a few hundred yards from the fort itself—but the palpable pleasure starts when you cross the drawbridge over the moat and see a cannon pointed at you from a narrow gunport.
Enter the inside of the fort itself and take in just how big it is—Union occupiers regularly played baseball on the huge, grassy parade ground. Take a walk around the perimeter, underneath the ramparts. This is where the soldiers lived and worked, and you’ll see re-creations of officer’s quarters, meeting areas, sick rooms, and prisoners’ bunks among the cannons, where Confederate prisoners-of-war were held after the fort’s surrender. Cannon firings happen most Saturdays.
And now for the pièce de résistance: Take the steep corkscrew staircase up to the ramparts themselves and take in the jaw-droppingly beautiful view of the lush marsh around the fort, the Savannah River and Tybee Island spreading out in the distance.
Stop and sit near one of the several remaining cannons and contemplate what went on here a century and a half ago. (Warning: There’s no railing of any kind on the inboard side of the ramparts. Keep the kids well back from the edge, because it’s a lethal fall to the fort interior.)
Afterwards take a stroll all the way around the walls and see for yourself the power of those Yankee guns. Though much of the devastation was soon repaired, some sections of the wall remain in their damaged state. You can even pick out a few cannonballs still stuck in the masonry, like blueberries in a pie.
Save some time and energy for the extensive palmetto-lined nature trail through the sandy upland of Cockspur Island on which the fort is located. There are informative markers, a picnic area, and, as a bonus, there’s a coastal defense facility from the Spanish-American War, Battery Hambright.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition