One of the happiest surprises of my recent birthday was the gift of a hardbound copy of The Genealogy of the Olmstead Family in America (1912). As the keeper of an extensive family archive that includes more than 160 years of Olmste(a)d primary source material, the lack of this volume was one of the few deficiencies in an otherwise superb family record. There are many letters in my files from ancestors who maintained long correspondences with the author of this genealogy, and I was quite curious to see whether certain controversies - like whether my ancestor Moss Olmsted was born before or after his parents' marriage - were resolved (it was not). There was additional information about certain collateral relations I did not know and that I likewise took great delight in discovering.
And then there was the close relationship, heretofore unsuspected, with another Confederate in an otherwise staunch Yankee pedigree. Our branch of the Olmste(a)d tree dropped the "a" from the surname while his retained it, but they were both originally of Puritan, northern stock.
The officer above is Col. Charles Hart Olmstead, who turns out to be a second cousin, 5 times removed. Not as close a relationship as the previously celebrated "gray" sheep in our flock, my Gr-gr-great Uncle Brigadier General Archibald Gracie, but the same relationship back then to my direct ancestor, his second cousin Edward Olmsted of Philadelphia (whose son Pvt William Nisbet Olmsted served on the Northern side with the 7th NYSM), as mine is today to Walking The Berkshires commenters and erstwhile bloggers Tigerhawk, Charlottesvillain and Biotunes. Unlike Gracie, however, who was a native of New Jersey, Charles Hart Olmstead was a 2nd generation Georgian at the time of the Civil War. His grandfather Samuel was the son of Samuel Olmsted and Abiah Smith of Ridgefield, Connecticut, and Samuel's younger brother was my ancestor Ebenezer Olmsted.
The children of both of these brothers scattered far and wide after the American Revolution, as I have previously written here. Jonathan Olmstead (1793-1854) married Eliza Hart of Savannah, Georgia and settled there. Their son Charles Hart Olmstead was born April 2nd, 1837. He graduated from the Georgia Military Institute in 1856 and at the outbreak of hostilities was first a Major, then Lieutenant Colonel in the 1st Volunteer Regiment of Georgia, organized prior to the war and composed of the militia companies of Savannah. A bewildering array of military units had the designation of "1st Georgia", as this link helps to clarify. Olmstead was elected Colonel of the regiment in December, 1861, and fought in the unit throughout the war.
His service was notable for two engagements, both involving fortifications. He was placed in command of Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River, which the regiment had first occupied on the Governor's orders on January 3, 1861.The garrison consisted of 385 officers and men. The fort had been constructed over 18 years and at the cost of $1 million dollars, and was completed in 1847. The fort was thought to be protected from smooth bore artillery by 1000 yards of swampland, well beyond the range of the standard siege artillery and mortars of the time. General Lee himself, dispatched by Jefferson Davis to organize the coastal defenses in the fall of 1861, reportedly told Col. Olmstead:
"Colonel, they will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance."
Union forces soon invested Fort Pulaski, and unknown to Confederate strategists they had a secret weapon. The siege artillery included newly developed rifled cannon capable of reaching the fort and battering down its defenses. On April 10th after refusing an invitation to surrender, Col. Olmstead and the defenders of Fort Pulaski endured a devastating bombardment that would last for 30 hours. The following day, as projectiles were striking the walls of his powder magazine, Col. Olmstead surrendered the fort. Had he continued to resist and the magazine escaped the threatened explosion, there were 10,000 assault troop massed to take the fort by storm. It was an honorable decision, and one which lead to his imprisonment for several months before he was exchanged and able to return to his regiment.
The second fortification with which Olmstead was associated was the celebrated battery Wagner on Morris Island which formed part of the defense of Charleston, South Carolina. It was this fort against which the first black regiment recruited in the north, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, made its brave night assault featured in the 1989 movie Glory. There were actually two assaults made on Wagner in July, 1863, and just before the first of these took place on July 11th, the fort was reinforced by two regiments, including 550 Georgia troops commanded by Col. Charles H. Olmstead. This attack was repulsed in less than 30 minutes, but the next assault on July 18th was to be far greater. By then Olmstead's troops had themselves been relieved and other confederate troops comprised the garrison when it was bombarded and then subjected to a night assault by northern regiments that included the 54th Massachusetts.
That attack also failed, but the fort was abandoned in September, 1863 after two months of continuous shelling. Morris Island has since been subject to the erosive forces of wind, waves and littoral drift - processes explained in fascinating detail by David Churbuck in his recent post Living on a Sandbar - and the fort itself is long gone. The Trust for Public Land announced last winter that it has reached an agreement to purchase the 126-acre island from Ginn Clubs & Resorts and is working with the Charleston community to secure the funds needed to preserve it. Charleston's Mayor Joseph P. Riley applauds the effort:
"It is a sacred place, a fragile, coastal island, the shape, landscape, and size of which have been altered by the hands of man trying to direct nature and history. The shifting sands of Morris Island reflect the changing times of our history. There, the grounds were consecrated with the blood of brave Americans who wore both the blue and the gray. The struggles that have gone on there should instill in us the challenge to mount one last effort to preserve Morris Island."