A tale of two forts

A bald eagle (upper left) flies over Fort Knox, the granite casemate fortress guarding the Penobscot Narrows in Maine. Like Fort Pulaski in Georgia, Knox was built to keep enemy warships out of a particular river. Pulaski failed to do its job, and Knox was never tested. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Two Civil War-era forts in Maine and Georgia share some design features, but their construction materials differ considerably.

The American flag flies high above the moat-surrounded Fort Pulaski, a national monument near Savannah, Ga. (BFS)

Fort Knox on the Penobscot River and Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River were built to keep enemy warships from reaching upriver ports. Garrisoned from 1863 to 1866 and again during the Spanish-American War, Knox never faced combat, unlike the pentagonal Pulaski.

A Royal Navy squadron passed through the Penobscot Narrows in early September 1814 while en route to Hampden, where the USS Adams was moored for hull repairs. Landing at what is now Bald Hill Cove in Winterport, British troops marched north, rudely handled Maine militiamen during the brief Battle of Hampden, and then occupied Hampden, Bangor, and Brewer for a few days.

Torched by her crew, the Adams went up in flames.

The late 1830s’ Bloodless Aroostook War convinced Maine officials that British forces might invade the Penobscot Valley again. In fact, the fear of British invasion lingered through the Civil War and focused attention on building a railroad from Bangor to the New Brunswick border, if only for faster military transportation.

A cannon stands inside its casemate at Fort Pulaski. (BFS)

Pressured by Maine, the War Department started building Fort Knox on the Prospect bluffs in 1844; the bluffs are named for the Town of Prospect in which they rise. Barges hauled to the construction site the gray granite cut from upriver Mosquito Mountain. Red bricks lined interior living, cooking, and storage facilities. Because Congress did not steadily appropriate funds for Fort Knox, construction became intermittent at times, and the fort slowly took shape.

Never finished, the fort mounted Rodman guns in different batteries, with the larger 12-inch Rodmans threatening any approaching ships. One 12-inch Rodman stands in Battery A just above the fast-flowing Penobscot.

A 12-inch Rodman gun stands above the Penobscot River at Battery A, Fort Knox. (BFS)

Knox and Pulaski are casemate forts, built with large, lower-level arched casemates that house cannons and protect gun crews against enemy fire. Cannons lined both forts’ parapets, and flanker guns went into corner bastions.

Visitors on the Fort Pulaski parapet stand next to a large cannon damaged during the April 10-11, 1862 Union shelling. (BFS)

Pulaski’s construction began in 1829. Granite, brown sandstone, and some 25 million bricks went into fort, which cost around $1 million before its completion circa 1860. In early January 1861, Georgia militia occupied Pulaski, which stands on the amazingly muddy Cockspur Island. The five-sided fort mounted cannons in casemates and on the parapet. As at Fort Knox, Pulaski had a 360-degree arc of fire.

In late March 1862, Union troops (including the 8th Maine Infantry lads) started digging camouflaged batteries along the Tybee Island shore downriver from Pulaski. After dragging rifled guns, coastal mortars, and other artillery across Tybee, the Union troops sited guns in each battery and opened fire at Pulaski at 8:15 a.m., April 10, 1862.

Fort Pulaski’s southwestern corner still shows the scars of the Union artillery fire. (BFS)

Hastily trained as gunners, the 8th Maine boys worked their rifled cannons with surprising efficacy, the high-velocity shells often striking Pulaski’s walls and busting away large sections of brick.

Only one or two more accurate shells away from seeing his magazine evaporated, Confederate Col. Charles H. Olmstead surrendered Pulaski on April 11.

Unlike Pulaski, Fort Knox was never attacked. Because the Eastern Channel around Verona Island was too shallow, Confederate warships approaching from Penobscot Bay would use the river’s narrowing main channel. As Union sailors discovered while attacking Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, higher-elevation shore guns can severely damage warships unable to elevate their guns sufficiently.

The same problem would have affected Confederate warships attacking Fort Knox.

Click here for more information about Fort Knox State Park, also home to the Penobscot Narrows Observatory.

Click here for more information about Fort Pulaski, definitely worth the visit when in Savannah.

Sources: Ralston B. Lattimore, Fort Pulaski National Monument, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1954, reprinted 1961, pp. 7-9, 13-14; Brian F. Swartz, Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, Maine Origin Publications, Brewer, Maine, 2018, pp. 103, 106-111

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.