Fort Night

Candlelantern Tours take visitors back in time at an American Civil War-era fortress
travel, history, culture, savannah
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Stephanie Lipscomb

The sounds send Mark Watts into an almost trance-like state. The crackling of the wood as it burns in the fireplaces. The snap of the “Stars and Bars” as a breeze catches the flag flying above. The melodious echo of the carolers as they rehearse in the officers’ mess. The grunts and groans of the cannon crew as they prepare the 30-pound gun for action on the parade ground.

Watts sits on a wooden bench outside the officers’ quarters at Fort Pulaski National Monument. Only to Watts, the brick-and-mortar citadel is, on this clear December night, not a historic site or tourist attraction but an active military fortification occupied by Confederate troops in the American Civil War’s early days—December 25, 1861, to be exact.

Watts is dressed as a master of arms, complete with a plumed cap and a polished saber. He will soon direct a musket-firing demonstration as part of the fort’s annual Candlelantern Tours. The two-day event recreates the Confederate nog party of 1861, described in detail in letters and diary entries archived at the fort, located a 45-minute drive east of Gulfstream’s Savannah, Georgia, world headquarters.

“Every time you visit this place, it’s like stepping back in time,” says Watts, noting the fort sits on an isolated, undeveloped island at the mouth of the Savannah River. “But when you come here for a living history event, like the nog party, it comes to life. It takes you back to when there was a war going on here, at a time when the conflict could have gone either way.”

Pulaski's Place in History

Fort Pulaski stood as a Confederate stronghold during the 1861 holiday season. The Civil War was barely 7 months old, and Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s decisive “March to the Sea”—culminating in Savannah—was still three years away.

Confederate troops occupied Fort Pulaski in February 1861, with orders from Gen. Robert E. Lee to prep the citadel for a bombardment. War was imminent. Union warships prowled offshore, and the South’s harbors were to be the Civil War’s initial frontlines. The conflict began at nearby Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, and a naval blockade of Confederate ports followed.

By December 1861, Union troops had taken Tybee Island, located a cannon shot from Fort Pulaski. A battle was inevitable, as control of the fort meant control of the river. The Union soldiers spent the holidays constructing artillery batteries along Tybee’s beaches.

The Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski numbered 385 volunteers and officers and was led by a 25-year-old colonel, Charles Olmstead. The Confederates would surrender the fort the following spring after enduring a 30-hour bombardment. The battle marked a turning point in the history of warfare—the Union employed a new artillery innovation, highly accurate rifled cannons, in the attack. The pounding remains evident today in the fort’s pockmarked walls.

The 1861 holiday celebration suggests happier times for the Confederates. Many in the Fort Pulaski garrison were Savannahians, part of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry. The Ida, a steamship, brought family members and “baskets of delicacies” down river to the fort. Sgt. L. Wilson Landershine wrote in his diary, “We lived that week more as lords than as soldiers.”

The Dixie mess and Hades mess had an eggnog party at the casement, and we invited members of the company to it, also the officers of the garrison, and we had a very pleasant evening and everything passed off pleasantly amid songs and jokes from both officers and men. ­— December 1861 at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, from the diary of Sgt. L. Wilson Landershine, Confederate States of America

Time Travel Treat

Today’s Confederate nog party attendees come by car instead of steamship. Yet crossing the parking lot is akin to stepping through a time portal.

Lanterns, fires, candles and the moon and stars provide the only light. The flickering flames cast eerie shadows along the fort’s approach.

“Mind your step on the drawbridges,” a guide, dressed as a Confederate soldier and carrying an iron-and-glass lantern with a candle inside, cautions.

Crossing the moat, eyes are drawn to the three-quarter moon illuminating the Confederate States’ flag flying overhead.

Once inside the fort, Phil Coleman welcomes visitors to the fireplace-lit officers’ quarters. Coleman is the guitarist and front man for the “Shades of Grey” bluegrass band. The quintet, reenactors with the 22nd of Georgia Artillery Battalion, shares Civil War-era songs, including the haunting “Battle Cry of Freedom.”

A song leader who identifies herself as “Miss Nancy, down from Savannah on the steamship Ida,” stokes the holiday spirit with carols while the visitors nosh on tea biscuits and hot cider by candlelight. Col. Olmstead thanks visitors for “braving the trip down river.”

The nog party ends with a rifle and cannon demonstration on the parade ground. The cannon crew captain encourages his charges to “send a message to those Yankees across the way on Tybee.” The gun’s ear-splitting boom and the feel of its shock wave thrills the children among the visitors.

The reenactors stay the night in what they call the “Hilton of reenacting,” bunking in the same fireplace-warmed quarters Landershine and his peers once did. They stew beef in a pot over an open fire and bake biscuits in a Dutch oven.

The only thing missing from the nog party is the nog.

“We used to serve eggnog, but we’d always have nog left over afterward,” says Gloria Lee, Fort Pulaski’s director of interpretation and the event’s organizer. “Tastes change over time like everything else, I guess.”

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