The Mysterious Sightings of a Phantom Cat have encouraged a long-standing legend at these Civil War earthen works.
To all outward appearances, Fort McAllister was anything but the crown jewel in the defensive ring that protected the city of Savannah, Georgia’s prized harbor during the Civil War. Its sister fort, Fort Pulaski, was a modern technological wonder constructed using modern engineering techniques and elaborate brick masonry while Fort McAllister was built using bricks made of sod and fill from the Ogeechee River bottom. As different as both of these Civil War forts are in appearance, they both have one thing in common, they both are still manned by long dead defenders that seem to cry out even to this day.
Construction of Fort McAllister’s seven gun emplacements, almost completely protected by mounds of river mud and sod, was completed in 1861. The fort’s massive earthen walls interconnected, creating a “bomb proof” central spiral, which was used to safely house the post’s hospital, powder magazines and barracks for the Fort McAllister’s 230 defenders. In addition, to the fort’s traversing weapons platforms, Fort McAllister housed an impressive ten-inch mortar battery that was constructed away from the main defenses because when fired, its blast tended to shake the fort’s walls apart.
Compared to other Civil War fortifications that saw active service during the war, a soldier’s life at Fort McAllister was considered relatively quite and uneventful. Fort McAllister’s defenders would hear the sound of battle seven times during the War Between the States. During those times of high drama, garrison life changed drastically when enemy cannon balls were intentionally directed at the fort’s embankments and its gallant defenders.
In 1862, Fort Pulaski fell to determined Union ground forces supported by Union Ironclads and other wooden support vessels. The loss of Fort Pulaski prompted Confederate commanders to place “pilings” and other obstructions in the Ogeechee River within the range of Fort McAllister’s guns. This man made obstacle course allowed only ships loyal to the Confederacy to navigate the river.
In July 1862, Fort McAllister’s defenses would be tested for the first time. Union ships pursuing the side wheeled Confederate Blockade-Runner, Nashville, attacked the fort in an attempt to capture the Nashville. The Nashville had unsuccessfully attempted to run the Union fleets blockade of Charleston Harbor and now its captain looked to Fort McAllister’s seven pieces of heavy artillery for protection from the Union steamers in hot pursuit. Union forces would attack Fort McAllister on four separate occasions during the remaining months in 1862 in an attempt to seize the fort and capture the Nashville. During each attack, the fort’s earthen ramparts appeared to “swallow-up” the enemy’s cannon balls, thwarting the Unions advances and protecting the Nashville laying at anchor nearby.
The Union navy would not give up on Fort McAllister so easily. On January 27, 1863, the U.S.S. Montauk, a Federal Ironclad sporting a 11-inch and a 15-inch smooth bore cannon in a huge revolving turret, and several other wooden warships, attacked the fort.
During the bombardment, the U.S.S. Montauk steamed within 150yards of the river pilings in front of Fort McAllister, its belching cannon plowing gaping holes in the fort’s defenses. During the attack, Fort McAllister would be reportedly struck by over 450 cannon balls, each being absorbed by the fort’s earth and sod embankments. Confederate gunners found their mark on the iron hull of the U.S.S. Montauk 15 times during the battle, but the ships armor deflected the rounds without significant damage or casualties. At the same time, the hardened defenders of Fort McAllister also reported no casualties or significant damage as a result of feverish Union shelling. At the end of the engagement, The U.S.S. Montauk and the remaining Federal Fleet steamed away, vowing to return.
On February 1, 1863, the U.S.S. Montauk and several wooden support craft returned to Fort McAllister determined to win the day. During the first attack, both sides traded numerous volleys of cannon fire with pretty much the same results as experienced in the previous attack in January 1863. It was reported that the U.S.S. Montauk was struck 48 times during this engagement causing little more that slight dents and dings in the ships armor.
During the second Union assault, the fort’s commander, Major John B. Gallie, was decapitated by a 15 inch Union shell that ricocheted off one of Fort McAllister’s many cannon. Major Gallie was valiantly supervising one of the fort’s 8-inch artillery positions when he was violently dispatched in front of the startled eyes of his comrades in arms. One later report suggested that Major Gallie was “scalped” by the errant Union round while some say the blast “exposed his brains”.
Union forces, consisting of three Ironclads, three mortar schooners and two wooden gunboats attacked Fort McAllister a third time on March 3, 1863. After seven hours of shelling, the fort experienced its second “unusual” casualty of the war.
Camp mascots were common place in the Union and Confederate encampments during the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict were known to adopt all kinds of mascots to help relieve the monotonous rigors of camp life. “Tom Cat” was Fort McAllister’s cherished mascot. “Tom Cat” was a coal black cat that was loved and adored by the fort’s defenders. It was reported that “Tom Cat” would run back and forth along the fort’s defenses during the maelstrom of combat. Each time, “Tom Cat” would wager one of his nine lives dodging the wall of lead cannon and musket balls that flew overhead.
On March 3, 1863, “Tom Cat’s” luck had finally run out. In the heat of battle, a stray round found its mark, killing the post’s most cherished occupant. Following the battle, a report detailing the death of “Tom Cat” was forwarded to General Beauregard.
The death of “Tom Cat” would not signal the end for Fort McAllister. The fort and its defenders would fight on until December 13, 1864. On this date, Fort McAllister, the unmovable rock of the Confederacy, would find itself face to face with unstoppable force, Union General William T. Sherman, a man intent leaving his mark on history.
In fifteen minutes, 4000 Union infantry under the command of General Sherman, overpowered Fort McAllister’s 230 defenders, marking an end of the posts distinguished battle history. The fall of Fort McAllister also heralded the end of General Sherman’s famous “march to the sea”.
In the late 1930’s, world famous industrialist Henry Ford took an active interest in the historical preservation of Fort McAllister. Ford purchased the Civil War landmark and invested his own money in the extensive re-construction of this famous fort. Today, Fort McAllister is the best-preserved Civil War era earthen fortification in the South. But like may other Southern historic sites, this tranquil 1700 acre park has its own fare share of ghostly occupants.
During the 1930’s, Henry Ford’s hired workers refused to spend the night at Fort McAllister because it was reported that strange noises could be heard emanating from the grounds. It has been said that source of the eerie noises was never identified and that the ghostly sounds that are reported at Fort McAllister today continue to be unexplained. In addition to the chilling noises, Re-enactors, visitors and park staff have reported seeing the ghosts of the forts most famous Civil War casualties.
Visitors and staff have reported seeing a black cat running along the Fort McAllister’s earth ramparts and in the various “bomb proof” rooms of the fort. Re-enactors have spun tails about how they have seen “Tom Cat” peering out toward the river while others have said that they have felt the touch of his arched back rub along their leg. When questioned about the existence of a cat at Fort McAllister, staff and park administrators adamantly deny that any cats live on the park grounds.
Though a run in with “Tom Cat” would most definitely be a unearthly experience, then a chance encounter with the decapitated ghost of Major Gallie would truly be considered a brush with the unknown. Many visitors claim to have seen that the headless body of Major Gallie on the park grounds at night, pacing near the ramparts where he lost his life in the defense of the Confederate cause.
On a February morning during the 1960’s, grounds keepers trimming the grass at Fort McAllister reported that their normal work routine was shattered when they noticed that an icy chill seemed to engulf them even though the sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. Already nervous and on edge, the workers claimed that for several minutes, they observed the headless body of a man, wearing a Civil War era officers uniform standing in the same location where Major Gallie was to have died that fateful day in 1863.
From all available published reports and eye witness accounts, it would appear that Major Gallie and “Tom Cat” continue to stand by their prior allegiances to the “Stars and Bars”. Many of the fort’s staff and visitors alike swear that some one or something continues to ensure that Fort McAllister is ready to rally to a call to arms from this world or the next.
Fort McAllister State Park
3894 Fort McAllister Road
P.O. Box 394-A
Richmond Hill, GA 31324
© Copyright 2003 by Dave Goodwin. All Rights Reserved.
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