Courtesy, In the Midst of War

I’m reading a book called Tybee Island: The Long Branch of the South, by Robert A. Ciucevich, because my wife’s cousin and her husband have a house on Tybee, and we just got back from a lovely beach trip.  This morning I came across something that gave me a chuckle, and I thought I’d share it.

In April of 1862, the Confederate army was shoring up Fort Pulaski to keep the Savannah river open and to repel any river-borne assaults on Savannah. About a mile farther down the mouth of the river, known as Tybee Roads, lies Tybee Island. Here, the Union army was building batteries with which to assault Pulaski. They were also building batteries behind Pulaski, including the introduction of new, and mostly untested, “rifled guns.”

Early on April 10, 1862, the commander of the Union army at Tybee, General David Hunter, dispatched a letter to the commanding officer of Fort Pulaski, Charles Olmstead, demanding his immediate surrender. Here is the text of that letter. Notice how the decorum of the time required it to be so utterly polite.

To the Commanding Officer, Fort Pulaski:

Sir: I hereby demand of you the immediate surrender and restoration of Fort Pulaski to the authority and possession of the United States. This demand is made with a view to avoiding, if possible, the effusion of blood which must result from the bombardment and attack now in readiness to be opened. The number, caliber, and completeness of the batteries surrounding you leave no doubt as to what must result in case of your refusal, and as the defense, however obstinate, must succumb to the assailing force at my disposal, it is hoped that you may see fit to avert the useless waste of life. This communication will be carried to you under a flag of truce by Lieut. J. H. Wilson, United States Army, who is authorized to wait any period not exceeding thirty minutes from delivery for your answer.

I have the honor to be, Sir, very respectfully your most obedient servant,

David Hunter Maj-Gen. Com’g

There’s no record of how close to the thirty minute deadline Olmstead made Wilson wait, but here is Olmstead’s reply:

To Maj-Gen. David Hunter, Commanding on Tybee Island.

Sir: I have to acknowledge receipt of your communication of this date, demanding the unconditional surrender of Fort Pulaski. In reply, I can only say that I am here to defend the Fort, not to surrender it.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient Servant,

Chas H. Olmstead, Col. 1st Vol. Regt. Of Georgia, Com’g Post

Shelling began at 8:10 AM. At 2:00 PM the following day, unable to withstand the devastating damage done by the “rifled guns,” Olmstead had no choice but to surrender the fort.

What I thought was particularly interesting about these letter is that while they were pointed and deadly serious, they were coated in 19th Century manners. Compare that to General Anthony McAuliffe‘s response in WWII, when a German commander demanded that US forces surrender the town of Bastogne: “NUTS!

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