The Savannah river twists and turns for 301 miles in the Southeastern United States, forming most of the border between Georgia and South Carolina, before it’s divided into channels by several islands near Savannah Georgia, and then spills into the Atlantic. The last of those islands holds a storied past, having played a role in both the revolutionary and civil wars, as well as World War II.
I’m Jason Epperson, and today on America’s National Parks, Cockspur Island, and Fort Pulaski National Monument.
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Before the rapid population growth and development of the Savannah area, spring tides covered the entirety of Cockspur Island. Behind it was a series of marsh islands, which have now been joined to Cockspur by the dredging of the Savannah River to accommodate modern shipping.
It’s strategic coastal location meant the island was ideal for military fortification. In 1761, an earth and hewn log fort was built, along with a quarantine station and customs checkpoint. It was called Fort George, and it protected the entrances to the city from foes but was more focused on shipping regulation.
During the Revolutionary War, American Patriots dismantled Fort George. It was too exposed for its size against the big British ships. The crown then established the island as a safe haven for Loyalists who fled there with the Royal Governor, Sir James Wright. Cockspur became, for a short time, capital of the colony of Georgia.
Once the Revolutionary War ended, the new United States would build a new fort on the site. It was constructed very much like Fort George – with earth and log – and would be named for the Revolutionary War hero, General Nathaniel Greene. The life of Fort Greene was short and tragic. In September of 1804, a hurricane swept across the island washing it away.
In the early years of the 19th century, the United States would embark on a massive coastal fortification project, which you can learn a bit more about in our Guardian of the Gulf episode. At Cockspur, the 5-sided Brick bastion Fort Pulaski was built, by free men and slaves under the command of Robert E. Lee.
The new fort was finished in 1847, only a couple of decades before it would serve in the civil war.
Situated off the southeastern tip of Cockspur Island marking the South Channel of the Savannah River, the Cockspur Lighthouse stands twelve miles east of the port of Savannah. The first brick tower, used as a daymark, was built between March 1837 and November 1839. In 1848, John Norris, a New York architect, was contracted to supervise construction of an illuminated station. Norris designed many of Savannah’s grand structures.
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.
Though much of the island’s story is a violent one, spanning decades of war and natural disasters, passing ships warmed by the dedicated cheerfulness of one special woman.
Florence Martus was the daughter of a sergeant stationed at Fort Pulaski. Her brother George was keeper of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse but soon transferred to the nearby Elba Island light, bringing Florence him. One day, while spending an afternoon with her father, a sailing ship docked at Savannah, and a few of the sailors rowed out to Ft. Pulaski, just a stone’s throw from the lighthouse. Florence’s father offered to give the sailors a tour of the island, and lighthouse and Florence went along for the ride where she and one of the sailors caught each other’s eye. During his time in port, he visited Florence three times and when he left promised to return and marry her. The morning that the ship left port, Florence stood in front of her cottage and waved a white handkerchief. The sailor never returned.
Life at the remote cottage was lonely for Florence whose closest companion was her devoted collie. She began to welcome each incoming ship in memory of her love with a wave of her handkerchief. Sailors began returning her greeting by waving back or with a blast of the ship’s horn. Eventually, Florence started greeting the vessels arriving in the dark by waving a lantern.
She became a well-known and welcomed sight for all mariners who came to expect her as they entered port. Many sailors brought her gifts. One even presented her with a llama from Peru.
Florence Martus continued her waving tradition night and day for 44 years without break, and it is estimated that she welcomed more than 50,000 ships during her lifetime. She grew to become a legend, known far and wide as the “waving girl of Savannah.”
Florence died in 1943, having never loved another. She was laid to rest next to her brother in Laurel Grove Cemetery. The headstone inscription resonates the admiration for their service to the harbor and its visitors, saying “in memory of the Waving Girl and her brother, keeper of the lighthouse on Elba Island for 35 years.” On September 27 of that year, the SS Florence Martus was christened in her honor. According to the Georgia Historical Society, it was the thirtieth of eighty-eight liberty ships built in Savannah and was eventually scrapped in Baltimore.
Despite the loss of her namesake ship, Florence’s legacy lives on thanks to a statue that sits in the Savannah Harbor created by renowned sculptor Felix De Weldon, the artist behind the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. The figure can be found at the eastern end of River Street, overlooking the Savannah River from the bluff. The captain of the ship that delivered the statue declined payment in her memory.
The legend of Florence and her sailor love may or may not be true, there’s no concrete evidence, but her effect on sailors for nearly half a century is very real.
The Elba Island Lighthouse is gone to the sea, but the Cockspur light remains. It’s closed to visitors for restoration, but you can see it from the shore.
Brick forts like Fort Pulaski were a dying breed almost as soon as they were built. In the civil war, the Union army’s rifled cannon tore right through it, compelling the Confederate garrison inside to surrender. The outer walls are riddled with giant pockmarks from the bombardment.
After the Civil War, Fort Pulaski was unoccupied and neglected. The War Department finally made it 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 it and the surrounding landscape.