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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Northern Coast > Near Savannah

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) The shrub palm of the coast is recognized by the sharp saw spikes that grow on the stem of the plant. Near Savannah

Fort Jackson

[Fig. 6(1)] Fort Jackson is Georgia's oldest standing fort and important to understanding the shipping and military history of the Georgia coast. Here visitors will enrich their knowledge of Savannah's Civil War and maritime history with a backdrop of the Savannah River and huge cargo ships, in a serene setting of coastal marsh.

Fort Jackson is located on the strategically important Salters Island. During the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War, all ships wishing to approach Savannah had to pass by this piece of real estate. Even today, all merchant ships still must pass by Fort Jackson. Geography is the reason. The different channels of the Savannah River and inland waterway approaches to Savannah converge at Fort Jackson. Attacking naval forces could go around Savannah's other guardian Fort Pulaski by using the Wilmington River to the south or navigating around Daufuskie Island to the north—but all still had to pass by Fort Jackson to attack Savannah from the water. The fort also had the advantage of being protected by marshes from a land attack, and a deep-water anchorage at the fort's dock on the Savannah River eased shipment of supplies and troops.

Salters Island was first the site of a brickyard belonging to Thomas Salter in 1741. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this high spot was surrounded by rice fields and marsh, which sometimes would be submerged during spring tides. The river here was called "five fathom hole" and was a popular anchorage site for cargo vessels. Salters Island's strategic value was recognized early in American history and during the 1770s was the site of an earthen battery called Mud Fort that was used during the Revolutionary War. Later, President Thomas Jefferson decided that a national system of coastal fortification was needed to protect the young nation. The original brick fort on Salters Island was begun in 1808 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under Captain William McRee and was used by local militia and federal troops as a signal station during the War of 1812.

Named for James Jackson, a governor of Georgia and a hero of the American Revolution, the fort was enlarged and strengthened between 1845 and 1860, when engineers built the moat and drawbridge, brick barracks, privies, rear wall, and powder magazine. A close look at the brick wall near the drawbridge reveals three distinct layers of bricks. The first layer of brown and red bricks was laid between May 1808 and June 1812. The topmost brown bricks were added between 1845 and 1860. The fort has 20-foot-high walls, and a 9-foot-deep moat. It held nine cannons: five 32-pound smooth bore, one 32-pound rifled, two 8-inch Columbiads, and one mountain howitzer. A 32-pounder is still fired in demonstrations; it is the largest black powder cannon still fired in the United States.

Although the surrounding marsh protected Fort Jackson from land attack, it also brought the threat of the mosquito-borne diseases of yellow fever and malaria. The fort was described in 1819 as "the most distempered spot in the universe." Consequently, the Fort Jackson garrison was housed in Savannah from May to November. The fort was abandoned during the Revolutionary War due to malaria, thereby allowing the British to sail up the river and capture Savannah with ease. The fort was also used as a quarantine station during years of epidemic diseases.

During the Civil War, Fort Jackson became the Confederate headquarters for the Savannah River defenses. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard all visited this fort. This inner line of defense consisted of Fort Jackson, the Savannah River Squadron, and a network of earthen batteries and signal stations along the marsh and waterways between Savannah and Wilmington rivers, as well as river obstructions and underwater mines.

Despite as many as 40,000 Union troops on nearby Hilton Head and the fall of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island to Union troops on April 11, 1861, the Savannah River defenses kept Savannah safe from Federal forces attacking from the sea. Savannah was not surrendered until December 21, 1864, when Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, on his famous March to the Sea, captured Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River and poised his huge army outside the city. However, the 18,000-man Confederate garrison was able to sneak out of the city unharmed, something that Sherman was much criticized for by his superiors. On the night of December 20, 1864, the garrisons of Causton Bluff, Thunderbolt, and the Savannah River batteries gathered at Fort Jackson and evacuated across the Savannah River by steamer and on makeshift bridges, successfully eluding capture. The army and naval forces joined up with North and South Carolina forces and continued to fight Sherman's army until they surrendered at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 26, 1865—17 days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Three hundred yards away from Fort Jackson, a red buoy in the Savannah River can be seen marking a historic remnant of the Savannah River Squadron. The Savannah-made C.S.S. Georgia lies under water, scuttled by her crew the night of Savannah's evacuation to prevent it from falling into Union hands. Built from funds from the Georgia Ladies Gunboat Association, it was Georgia's first ironclad, launched May 19, 1862, and stationed downstream from Fort Jackson as a floating battery with its ten heavy guns. The C.S.S. Georgia is an internationally significant naval relic as it was one of the few ironclads that was engineered and built as an ironclad and today remains largely intact under the water with all her armament and stores. (Most of the other ironclads were re-engineered and retro-fitted steamers.) The ship awaits a Herculean and expensive effort to raise it from the river.

When troops under Sherman seized Fort Jackson, they raised the American flag over the fort. A member of the Savannah Squadron, the ironclad C.S.S. Savannah, displeased with this display, fired on the Federal troops from the river. This gunboat was commissioned in July 1863 as the flagship of the squadron and was 174 feet long and 45 feet wide and had five rifled guns. The C.S.S. Savannah was blown up by rebel troops on December 21, 1864, to prevent it from falling into Union hands. Following the Civil War, Fort Jackson was modified and then abandoned by the Army in 1905.

Fort Jackson has excellent living history demonstrations that feature cannon firing, musketry, blacksmithing, and other programs. Fort Jackson's museum features the naval history of the area and houses artifacts from the C.S.S. Georgia brought to the surface by divers.

The self-guided tour of the 8-acre site takes approximately one hour. The entrance and gift shop to Fort Jackson is the former pre-World War I Tybee Train Depot. The depot, which was barged to the site in 1988, was the departure point for train rides to Tybee Island between 1887 and 1933.

Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center

[Fig. 5(2)] From 1830 to 1890, a canal operated between the Ogeechee and Savannah rivers. Put out of business by economic and natural disasters in the late 1800s, sections of the canal still exist. The canal is owned by the City of Savannah and currently under a long-term lease to Chatham County for the purposes of establishing a linear park. One of the most preserved sections of the canal is found at the Ogeechee River end located 2.3 miles west on Highway 204 west of Exit 16/94 on I-95. This section lies adjacent to the 184-acre tract owned and operated by the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Society Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the canal's history and appreciating the natural communities found on the property. This is a good site for a hike through an interesting and rare sandhill community as well as a beautiful lowland hardwood river swamp, consisting of baldcypress and tupelo gum. The nature preserve is on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail established by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Adjoining the property is the Ogeechee Natural Area that features a river dune ridge ecosystem community, which consists of a dwarf oak-evergreen shrub forest with a lichen floor. Georgia-threatened gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus), Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus), and Eastern kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula getula) inhabit the sand ridge.

This ecosystem, according to Dr. Charles Wharton in The Natural Environments of Georgia, is "one of Georgia's most exceptional, picturesque, and unique." A larger section of river dune ridge ecosystem is found on the northern and eastern banks of the Ohoopee River. The Ohoopee River dune system stretches 35 miles and covers approximately 40,000 acres and is a registered State Natural Area and a National Natural Landmark. The Nature Conservancy of Georgia has preserved a (912) 267-acre tract of the dunes in Emanuel County near Swainsboro. The Ohoopee Dunes Preserve is open to those who have an interest in this fascinating natural community, but must make prior arrangements with The Nature Conservancy of Georgia. Call (404) 873-6946.

The dunes, found only on the eastern side of rivers, are believed to have been created by strong winds during the late Pleistocene era 20,000 years ago and formed of deep, coarse, riverine alluvial sand. Similar dunes are found east of the Canoochee River. The impoverished soil produces dwarfed versions of native trees such as Live Oaks, with a 6-inch diameter tree being approximately 140 years old. Other interesting indicator flora found in this ecosystem include trees such as turkey oak and longleaf pine; shrubs such as rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides), red basil (Calamintha coccinea), shrub goldenrod (Chrysoma pauciflosculosa), and jointweed (Polygonella polygama); along with the lichen commonly known as British soldiers. Fauna consists of sandhill-adapted animals, or animals that burrow, such as gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) and pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis), and burrowing insects. With cypress ponds nearby, the following vertebrates have been recorded: canebrake rattlesnake; smooth earth, coral, pine, and copperhead snakes; green, pinewoods, squirrel, and barking treefrogs, and oak toad. Some scientists believe that this unusual ecological community has been in existence long enough to have evolved endemic species. More study and protection of this unique environment is needed.

The canal began in 1824 as a venture by Ebenezer Jenckes, a local turnpike owner. He obtained a charter from the state to build a canal that would connect the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers, and eventually the Ogeechee and Altamaha rivers. When he failed to raise enough capital, several Savannah citizens took control of the project in 1826. By 1830, the work had been completed on 16.5 miles of canal, built by hundreds of slaves and Irishmen at the cost of $190,000. The canal, which had four lift locks and two tidal locks, was operated much like the Erie Canal, with flat-bottomed barges pulled by horses on the banks. Problems plagued the operation, including decay of the wooden locks and erosion of the embankments, and by November of 1836, the company was foreclosed and the property sold. In 1837, Amos Scudder, who was a major contractor for the construction of the canal, believed the canal could be successful and purchased the stock owned by the City of Savannah and State of Georgia. During the late 1830s and early 1840s, he replaced the wooden locks with the brick, which you can still see today. He improved the embankments and towpath and widened the downtown channel, ushering in an era of prosperity for the canal company from the 1840s to 1860s.

In 1864, the canal was the scene of several skirmishes and was damaged by Confederate forces hoping to slow Sherman's army during his March to the Sea. Union forces repaired it and used it to supply their operations against Savannah and Fort McAllister.

After the Civil War, with the continued rise of railroads, the canal continued operation, but with declining profits. On September 11, 1892, a storm broke the summit level dam and the canal company lacked the funds to repair it. The Central of Georgia Railroad bought the Canal Company property, planning to use it as a rail route, but never did. The City of Savannah acquired the canal in 1916, which was leased by Chatham County in 1992 to be developed into a linear recreational facility.

The museum and nature center are located on 184 acres where the canal meets the Ogeechee River. Several trails take you through the lowland hardwood swamp. The 0.4-mile Heel Path, which follows the canal to the Ogeechee River, is accessed by crossing Lock #5 located by the museum and picnic pavilion. The Tow Path is on the eastern side, and is also a 0.4-mile walk to the river and Lock #6. On the grounds just west of the canal, U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman's army encamped. They crossed the canal and followed Jenckes Road. This 0.5-mile road is now a nature trail that leads to the Ogeechee River, crossing bridges and boardwalks. The easternmost route over the Ogeechee, Dillon Bridge, was located here. Confederates burned it to delay Sherman, but Union engineers quickly repaired it and marched on to Fort McAllister, where they overran the Confederate fort on December 13 before the evacuation and fall of Savannah on December 21. The 0.15-mile Ridge Trail leads off of Jenckes Road to the Holly Trail, which connects to an old logging road for access to the river dune community. The Popcorn Trail is a 0.2-mile loop off of Jenckes Road.

Other remains of the canal are visible nearby. Bush Road, located opposite the museum off Fort Argyle Road, takes you 3 miles to Half Moon Lake. The lake was the primary source of water that fed the canal. It was constructed by an impoundment on the Little Ogeechee River. On your way to the lake, look for Lock #4 on your left. Lock #3 is found near Tom Triplett Park in Pooler.

The museum and nature center feature exhibits on the history of the canal, various canal artifacts, and live reptiles and amphibians native to the area. Lectures concerning the flora and fauna of the area and canal history, and guided nature walks are available to groups at a nominal charge. Please call for further details, prices, and reservations.

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