Pulaski Monument in Savannah, GA on a sunny day with trees surrounding the white monument.

Casimir Pulaski Monument in Savannah, GA

Casimir Pulaski was born in Poland in the mid 1700s, the third son of an aristocratic family. Back then the custom was that the title, land, and money went to the firstborn son. Any later sons joined the army, navy, or priesthood and the daughters were married off to whatever family offered the best prospects. Therefore, Casimir wound up in the Polish cavalry and excelled, rising quickly to higher and higher rank. In the 1700s, the Polish army was one of the best in the world and nothing could withstand a charge of their heavy cavalry right up until the coming of tanks in the 1930s.

Since there were no major wars being fought in Europe at the time, Casimir made his way to America in 1776 and offered his services to George Washington. Washington was just forming the Continental Army and was in desperate need of trained officers, so he put Pulaski in charge of recruiting and training a cavalry force to go up against the British. Casimir and his cavalry performed as well as any European force and eventually he led his troops at the siege of Savannah in 1779. There, he was mortally wounded and died a few days later. He has been immortalized with the title of “Father of the U.S. Cavalry.”

Today, he is commemorated by his statue in Monterey Square which is also his tomb. In the mid 1990s, the statue was in a poor state of preservation with some of the stone crumbling and threatening to bring the whole monument down. Back then, I was spending a lot of time in Savannah in connection with the 1996 Olympics and wound up sitting in on several meetings of the statue restoration committee. They had received a donation to restore the statue and also to confirm that the body buried under it was actually Pulaski.

Dr. Jimmy Metz, the Chatham County Coroner, explained that the DNA is passed down through the female side of the family as there may be some question of who the true fathers were. After an extensive search, they found no female descendants, however they did locate his grandmother’s grave in Poland. Luckily her grave had survived all the wars and turmoil of the ensuing 200 odd years. The committee got permission to collect a DNA sample which proved that the body in Savannah actually is that of Casimir Pulaski. He was laid back to rest under his statue where he had been for over two centuries.

Jump forward (or backward) to the Civil War. The Port of Savannah was defended from the sea by Fort Pulaski, named in honor of Casimir. It was a strong masonry fort on the Savannah River, armed with a number of powerful, smooth bore cannons, and was considered absolutely impregnable. It is located a few miles upstream from Tybee Island and the Atlantic Ocean.

At that time the Union Navy had blockaded the entire coast of the south and Savannah was a major port for the blockade runners. The Confederacy depended on the port for war materials such as weapons, gun powder and anything that they could not manufacture themselves. It was also vital for the export of cotton and other products.

Now the Civil War, like most wars since, saw a tremendous advance in technology, as well as medicine and transportation. One of those advances was the development of the “rifled” cannon. “Rifling” is a series of spiral grooves that cause the cannon ball to spin as it goes down the barrel and travels in a straighter line toward its target. In a “smooth bore” gun, the cannon ball just bounces down the barrel, and where it winds up depends on what direction the last bounce took it.

The North was far ahead of the South in developing these guns and when the Union Army decided to attack Fort Pulaski, they simply set up a rifled cannon on Tybee Island, about five miles away from the fort and accurately shelled it for two days. The fort fought valiantly, returning fire with their smooth bore cannons, but they had neither the range nor the accuracy to do much damage to the Union gun. In just 36 hours the Union Army destroyed the supposedly “invincible” fort which had taken 13 years to construct. This signaled the end of masonry forts constructed of brick and mortar. Subsequent forts made of reinforced concrete or stone were used as a means of coastal defense.

This country has a treasure trove of history, and fortunately, historical societies do a great job of preserving it.

If you are ever in the city of Savannah, a walking tour visiting the Pulaski Monument and a drive out to Fort Pulaski are a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Photo: by Alan Hope