I cannot stop watching fucking Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and I think there might be something wrong with me. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s a very enjoyable program.
In fact, I need KUWTK to keep me from having a word-induced seizure after watching the first two episodes of The Newsroom. I knew Aaron Sorkin used to be a cokehead, but do all of his characters have to talk like cokeheads?…ZING! That joke is just about as dated as the premise of the show.
Anyway, this post isn’t really about the television that is wasting away my youth, but rather about the old forts that dot the shoreline of Savannah.
One of the many undiagnosed mental diseases that runs in my family is a pathological love for war fortresses. My brother has no fewer than 10 Facebook profile pictures of him shooting imaginary guns at Gettsyburg. My father used to take us once a week to Sing Sing, the high security prison in Ossining, after dropping my mother at her meditation class, to see how many security checkpoints we could get past before we had to turn around. The answer was always zero.
In more extreme forms, this mental illness has manifested in the home itself. My sister used to make a war fortress in my bedroom. She would lure me into my closet on the third floor of our house, and then shut the door, which locked from the outside, leaving me screaming for hours for someone to come let me free. My brother, Stuprendan, lives in a fortress in his head, against which he wages war with David Jolan, the handyman who works on our house.
My war fortresses exist in my fantasy worlds, which are mostly informed by historical novels about the Second World War written by Herman Wouk.
I don’t know if it was Wouk who first got me into the Maginot Line, or if it was Cryptonomicon. Or a critical theory text I more than likely misunderstood in graduate school. But I think that the Maginot Line is one of the funniest things ever built. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about with myself.
In case you’re not an expert on “epic fails,” the Maginot Line was the defense network built by the French after World War I, in anticipation of future attacks by Germany. It consisted of concrete bunkers, tank obstacles, and machine gun posts, among many other thing. It also was air conditioned, had Michelin-star rated dining halls,* and underground railroads.
*Military dining halls don’t get Michelin star ratings, I’m lying.
The Maginot Line was so expensive to build, that it was never finished. Not only was it basically ineffectual, it also took funds away from the rest of the army, making the French unprepared to fight for war.
So during World War II, when the Germans were like, “We are going to occupy you tomorrow afternoon at 1pm on the dot,” the French were like, “But that’s when lunch is served! Nevermind, we’ll stay in our bunkers and eat, because your artillery fire cannot reach our dining halls.”
Then the Germans, as promised, flanked the Maginot line, and without any resistance, conquered France. “Hail Hitler!” they said. “You fucking idiots.”
Something about visiting the ruins of the old war fortresses in Savannah kind of reminded me of the Maginot Line. It could be that Savannah fell so easily during the Civil War. Or it could be that, unlike the French, the United States has never been attacked directly, so the fortresses seem superfluous. All of the bunkers and fortresses that the army built as a system of defense during, for example, the Spanish American War, seem almost bombastic because let’s be honest, did that war even exist? Or was it just invented to trip people up on their AP American History tests? And if it did exist, were the Spanish really going to come at the coast of Georgia?
Maybe they were. I don’t know a goddamn thing about fake history. But what I do know is that the main fortress that Caleb and I visited, Fort Pulaski, quite easily fell the first time it was tested, by Union Forces on April 10, 1862.
Fort Pulaski was built in 1829, as part of a system of coastal defenses first ordered by President James Madison after the War of 1812. It was named after a Polish cavalryman, Casimir Pulaski, who fought under George Washington in the Revolutionary War.
The fort was made out of almost 25,000,000 bricks mired in the muddy marshes between Savannah and Tybee Island, which at the time was mostly uninhabited. It cost an estimated $1,000,000 to build, and was completed in 1847. The walls were 11 feet thick, and were thought to be impenetrable by canon fire. Robert E. Lee, who at one point was in command of the fort, said: “One might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains as Fort Pulaski.”
Then, the Civil War came. When Georgia succeeded from the Union in February of 1861, the Fort was quickly “overtaken” by Confederate forces. They held it unchallenged until December 1861, when Confederate soldiers abandoned Tybee Island, claiming it was too isolated.
Soon after, the Union Soldiers occupied the island. There, they began constructing batteries facing Fort Pulaski. On April 10, 1862, after being refused a treaty, they began bombarding the fort with 36 guns, including the newly invented James Rifled Cannon and Parrott rifles. Previously, canon balls had only been able to reach a mile. The new guns reached 4-5 miles. Within 30 hours, after sustaining enormous damage, the Confederacy surrendered the fort.
The Union then went on to close the Savannah port, effectively crippling the Georgia war effort. The general in command, David Hunter, issued an order making slavery illegal in all of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, which President Lincoln quickly rescinded. He didn’t sign the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863. Still, the fort was the last destination for many escaped slaves on the underground railroad, due to its close proximity to open water.
Visiting Fort Pulaski today is less spooky than visiting many of Savannah’s other monuments, given that the structure has been so beautifully restored.
From the hills that cover the maze of underground tunnels, to the elegantly appointed general’s quarters, which feature high, cool ceilings, to the fig trees that dot the great lawn in between the battlements, the fort seems more like a park than a remnant of war, even despite the grand, heavy canons that line the battlements.
In New York, you can hardly approach an old brick on the street, nevermind climb all over a building from the 19th century. But Fort Pulaski is open game for tourists. You pay an entrance fee at the gate that leads up to the grounds. Once inside, you can basically go anywhere. You can scramble all over the hills with your dogs.
You can eat figs on the lawn. You can climb the narrow, winding staircase to the top of the battlements, and presumedly, swandive into the moat that surrounds the outer walls.
The views from the top of the fort are incredible. On one side are marshes laden with shrimping boats, that look like old pirate vessels.
On the other, the mouth of the Savannah river opening up into the ocean, where ships still come in to port.
Looking out over the broad expanse, it seems impossible that anyone inside of the fort could have stopped ships with canon balls. Firstly, the ships were moving, so even if you aimed perfectly, you still probably missed them. Secondly, it’s like trying to catch a fish by dropping a marble in a lake. I suppose the thing with war is that there was such a massive swarm of boats, that if you fired anything at all, you were bound to hit someone. Or at least, that’s how it worked other places. Because the guys who defended Fort Pulaski hit nothing at all.
Given how easy it was to conquer, and how luxurious the quarters were for the soldiers who once lived there, I thought of the Maginot Line often in Fort Pulaski.
And I thought of it each successive time we encountered another battlement as we explored the islands. From Fort Screven, on the North Beach of Tybee, to the abandoned concrete bunker on Wassaw, the relics of wars never truly fought in Savannah haunt the city just as much as ghosts.
Every time I would encounter one, I would ask myself, “Did they have cases of Bud Light in the 1890s? Because how could anyone think that this tiny hunk of concrete on an empty island is going to stop a war fleet unless they had a nice swerve on?”
Now, maybe the fortifications were far more impressive when people still thought that you could protect yourself from the plague by retiring to the countryside during warm weather. Or when war fought on our turf was a reality, rather than something that we’ve read about in history textbooks.
But still, I can’t imagine that even if the Spanish had attacked Savannah in 1898, or the Nazis had reached the coastline during the Second World War, the war fortresses could have done much to protect it. Rather, the men inside of them would have taken a few shots at the battleships, and when the beer ran out, they’d have surrendered, happy enough to return to their easy lives in one of the lushest deltas in all the world.