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Cockspur Island Lighthouse

Situated on an islet off the southeastern tip of Cockspur Island marking the South Channel of the Savannah River, the Cockspur Lighthouse is stands twelve miles east of the port of Savannah. The islet, often covered by high tide, is comprised of oyster shells, and marsh grass.

Documented references suggest the first brick tower, used as a daymark, was built on Cockspur Island between March 1837 and November 1839. In 1848, John Norris, a New York architect, was contracted to supervise construction of an illuminated station. The noted architect designed many of Savannah's grand structures including the U.S. Custom House in downtown Savannah, the Mercer-Wilder House, and the Green-Meldrim House, where General Sherman stayed during the Civil War.

Norris's duties were to "repair, alter, and put up lanterns and lights on Cockspur Island...and to erect a suitable keeper's house." This first tower had a focal plane 25' above sea level. The beacon housed a fixed white light emanating from five lamps with 14" reflectors visible for nine miles.

Tragedy struck again in 1854 when the structure was destroyed by a hurricane. The tower was rebuilt and enlarged on the same foundation the next year. At the start of the American Civil War, the light was temporarily extinguished. On April 10, 1862, Union forces in eleven batteries stretching along the beach at Tybee Island, started a long range bombardment of Fort Pulaski. Thirty-six guns participated in a thirty-hour siege of the fort with the Cockspur Lighthouse in direct line of fire.

Following the surrender of Fort Pulaski on April 11, 1862, the little beacon miraculously only suffered minor damage. Theories abound as to why the tower escaped destruction. One theory suggests to effectively hit the Fort walls approximately 1,500 yards distant, Union artillerists had to fire shots at a high angle, thus passing over the tower. This strategy, coupled with the short duration of battle could explain why the tower was spared. Soon after war's end, April 25, 1866, the beacon was relit and painted white for use as a daymark.

Throughout it's life, hurricanes plagued the Cockspur Light. August 27, 1881, a massive storm struck Cockspur Island causing water to rise 23' above sea level. The storm surge filled the lighthouse interior and destroyed the Keeper's residence.

Jeremiah Keane, the Assistant Keeper Charles Sisson, and two Fort Pulaski caretakers took refuge inside the Northwest stair tower of the brick fort when the great hurricane of 1893 struck. Afterwards, a two story house was built atop Fort Pulaski for the lightkeeper.

Man, not nature, extinguished forever the little light. No longer would this light guide vessels up the shallow South Channel of the Savannah River. To accommodate large freighters, the increasingly busy Savannah port routed vessels to the deep, more navigable North Channel. Effective June 1, 1909, the beacon light was snuffed.

As the threat to the beacon by salvage crews and other private interests grew, the National Park Service looked into the acquisition of the light. On August 14, 1958, by presidential proclamation, the Cockspur Lighthouse was transferred from the United States Coast Guard to the National Park Service.

The National Park Service is dedicated to the preservation of this historic marker. The lighthouse remains open to the public, though access is limited by the terrain of Cockspur Island. However, an overlook trail offers visitors the best chance to get a closer look at the lighthouse today.

Cockspur Island, Georgia

Cockspur Island has been of some importance since the founding of the Colony of Georgia due to its strategic location just inside the mouth of the Savannah River. Spring tides covered the entire island, monthly, with the exception of a low hammock near the South Channel and one near the North Channel. Behind Cockspur was a series of marsh islands, which in more recent times would be joined to Cockspur by the necessary dredging of the Savannah River to accommodate modern shipping using Savannah as a Port-of-Call.

Early Fortifications

The first military use of Cockspur was in 1761 with the construction of an earth and hewn log fort near the confluence of the South Channel and Lazaretto Creek. Nearby, on Tybee Island, was a quarantine station (Lazaretto) and customs checkpoint This Fort, named Fort George, protected both the entrances to the city as well as enforcing quarantine and customs regulations. The archaeology of Fort Pulaski has led to many discoveries of the fort's history.

During the Revolutionary War, the Patriots, because of its exposed location, dismantled Fort George. However, the British established a safe haven for Loyalists on Cockspur and since the Royal Governor, Sir James Wright, fled there with the great seal of the Province, Cockspur became for a short time capital of the colony of Georgia.

Once the Revolutionary War ended, the new United States would build a fort on the site of Fort George in 1794-95. This new fort was constructed very much like Fort George (earth and log) and would be named for the Revolutionary War hero, General Nathaniel Greene. The life of Fort Greene would be short and tragic. In September 1804 a hurricane swept across the island washing away all vestiges of the Fort.

Construction of Fort Pulaski

Assigned to assist Major Babcock was a recent graduate of West Point, Second Lieutenant Robert Edward Lee. Lieutenant Lee's job was classified as "acting assistant commissary of subsistence". The labor force would consist of white and black, slave and free,who lived in the Construction village which utilized the northern bank of the Savannah River. A large pier was constructed to handle the arrival of supplies from ports north nd south. Work continued until 1847 when the new fort, now named Fort Pulaski, was finally finished.

Fort Pulaski in the Civil War

Since the United States was more or less at peace with the world, Fort Pulaski was armed with only 20 guns. With the session of South Carolina in December 1860, suddenly Fort Pulaski became of extreme importance. Before the State even left the Union, Governor Joseph E. Brown ordered the Fort Pulaski to be taken. Since the Fort was being looked after by only a caretaker and Ordinance Sergeant there was no fighting and Fort Pulaski was taken uncontested.

Once Fort Sumter in Charleston South Carolina was fired upon on April 12, 1861 bloody civil war would consume the country and Fort Pulaski would suddenly find itself fighting a war it was never designed to fight. Almost immediately the Union forces started plans to retake Fort Pulaski and seal up the port of Savannah. Days after this event the departmental commander General Robert E. Lee would visit the Fort and suggest improvements to its defenses and advise the young commander, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead. The plan called for the abandonment of Tybee Island by the southern forces and having Fort Pulaski as the main defense for the river. Guns and men were removed from Tybee and, for the most part placed in Fort Pulaski.

By December, 1861 Tybee Island was left to the Union forces. Work would begin in February, 1862 on Tybee by Union forces and would continue until April. On the morning of April 10, 1861 the Union forces would ask for the surrender of the Fort to prevent needless loss of life. Colonel Olmstead, of course, The Fort was ready to be attacked by infantry. Within six weeks of the surrender the Union forces had repaired the Fort and now stopped all shipping into and out of Savannah. This stopped all area commerce and would help cripple the Southern war effort.

Because of the security of the repaired Fort, General David Hunter, who commanded the Union Forces during and after the battle, would declare Fort Pulaski a safe area for enslaved workers. The garrison of Union soldiers would at first be around 600, but as the War dragged on it became obvious the Southern forces would not be able to retake the Fort and the garrison was reduced to around 250. Life at the Fort would drag on.

Late in the War the Fort would be made into a prison for a group of captured Confederate officers known as "The Immortal Six Hundred. Thirteen of these men would die at the Fort of enforced ill treatment. It would house a Confederate Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, Assistant Secretary of War as well as 3 State governors, a senator and the man who had commanded the Fort after it had been taken by the South.

Post-Civil War

After the Civil War Fort Pulaski was unoccupied and neglected. The War Department finally made Fort Pulaski a national monument in 1924 by presidential proclamation of Calvin Coolidge. The 1930s saw new activity on the island with the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who worked to rehabilitate Fort Pulaski and the surrounding landscape, including rebuilding the island's early drainage system and wet ditches.

Cockspur Island saw further activity as a section base for the US Navy during World War II. Following the war, the island and historic fort again were under the watch of the National Park Service. Today the island is beautifully maintained and open to visitors looking to explore pristine marsh land, historic military engineering, and a diverse collection of native flora and fauna.

Information provided by national Park Service



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