On a recent vacation to Savannah, GA my family discovered Ft. Pulaski. Located on an islet between Savannah and Tybee Island, the impressive red-brick structure stands as a monument to change. Only a few decades shy of two-hundred years, Ft. Pulaski is an unlikely standard–bearer for change, but the cannon balls lodged in the fort’s exterior walls give evidence of the power of innovation.
The federal government started construction on Fort Pulaski in 1831. Slowly, the mammoth walls took shape. Engineers, like later-Confederate General Robert E. Lee, labored to design and construct an impenetrable structure that could protect the strategic city of Savannah from enemy invasion. In 1846, after fifteen years of battling mosquitoes and humidity, Ft. Pulaski was completed, a marvel of technological ingenuity. The fort was essentially unused for the next fifteen years as no external armies advanced on the United States. In fact, it was not until the army that built the fort returned to reclaim the fort that Pulaski finally saw action.
The sparsely manned fort shifted bloodlessly to Confederate hands at the beginning of the Civil War. The Southern army occupied the former Federal stronghold and prepared to repel an attack on Savannah. Confident in the ability of Pulaski to rebel the Union army, the Confederate forces abandoned outposts on neighboring Tybee Island and prepared for a siege. The gray-clad soldiers remained confident as they watched the blue-coated Northern Army claim positions on Tybee and the surrounding areas. Robert E. Lee returned to Pulaski and insured Colonel Olmstead, the fort’s commander, that the strong walls would withstand the enemy onslaught. On April 10, 1862, Olmstead received a request to surrender Fort Pulaski to the Union army. Buoyed by Lee’s assurance, Olmstead refused the surrender and prepared for battle. Though a brilliant strategist, Lee grossly underestimated the Union firepower.
Shortly after 8 A.M. the Union cannons roared to life. After a few rounds of ineffective targeting, the Federal artillerymen started honing in on Ft. Pulaski. The bombardment made a greater impact than Lee or Olmstead had expected. The cannon balls traveled farther than projected. In addition, the cannon fire was more accurate than anticipated. Even worse for Olmstead and the fort’s defenders, the lengthy and accurate Federal fire did far more damage than they ever imagined. The battle at Fort Pulaski marked a turning point in technology of cannons. Many of the guns trained on Pulaski that day were rifled. The rifled cannons contributed the distance, accuracy, and destruction that overwhelmed Olmstead. The older, less accurate and less destructive cannons that Olmstead anticipated would have made little impact on the imposing structure of Ft. Pulaski, but the advanced weaponry made short work of the once impregnable fortress. By nightfall, the rifled cannons had rocked Pulaski’s walls. The powder magazine was exposed to enemy fire. After several additional hours of bombardment the next day, Olmstead recognized the danger of the situation. The Confederate leader was forced to raise the white flag of surrender, lest he lose both his men and his fort. In 30 hours, the walls that had taken fifteen years to build were breached. The Confederate flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised.
Looking back at the fall of Pulaski, it is easy to criticize the short-sightedness of the Confederate leaders. However, Lee and Olmstead made good strategic decisions based on their understanding of cannons. According to the old rules they did everything right. Unfortunately, the rules of the game had changed without their knowledge. The rifled cannons of the Union army changed the face of warfare forever. The Confederate leadership missed the change and paid the consequences.
Church leader, you haven’t been charged with protecting Pulaski, but you have been entrusted with a church or a segment of a church. You have been given the responsibility of nurturing and protecting the people under your care. Please don’t repeat the mistakes of Pulaski. The world is changing with such speed and frequency that it is almost impossible to keep up. The rules of engagement in culture shift constantly. Unfortunately, those of us in the church are often the last to see the cultural shifts. We are so immersed in our forts that we have little knowledge of the outside world. As a result, we continue to play by the rules of yesteryear. We continue to do what we’ve always done but in most cases our efforts yield little to no fruit. I’ve heard someone say, “If the 50’s come back, most churches will be ready!” Sadly, the 50’s aren’t coming back and our walls are not holding up well to the constant barrage of contemporary cannon fire.
Don’t misunderstand, this is not a plea to abandon or compromise faith. We must not jettison Scripture and doctrine in an effort to be contemporary, but we should constantly analyze our methods. Are we sharing truth in a language that those who need to hear it can understand? Have we erected walls around the Truth that prohibit the world from seeing the splendor of God’s grace? Don’t be afraid to think outside the walls of your fort. Don’t be afraid to consider the implications of rifled cannons. If you don’t, you might have to face the consequences!
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Kristopher Barnett is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages (2001) and a Ph.D. in theology with a concentration in preaching (2008). His dissertation was A Historical/Critical Analysis of Dialogical Preaching. His undergrad work was completed at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas with a B.A. in Communication (1997).
Prior to joining the Christian studies faculty at Anderson University, Dr. Barnett served as pastor to three different churches; Forestburg Baptist Church (TX), Ridglea West Baptist Church (TX) and most recently, East Pickens Baptist Church (SC). Prior to pastoral ministry, he served as youth minister at two churches and did a youth internship at another.
Kris Barnett is the author of What Now?, a companion guide to the Bible. He is a member of the Evangelical Homiletic Society and has twice presented papers at the EHS conference (Wake Forest, NC and Birmingham, AL). Dr. Barnett enjoys filling the pulpit for local churches and serving in an interim role for churches seeking a pastor.
Dr. Barnett is married to Kelly, who is a graduate of ASU with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in psychology. They have four children, Kenzie, Karsen, Noah, and Kassie.