The history of this State Historic Park parallels that of the land as a prime site for human use because of its unique positioning geographically. It occupies a point of land that is bounded by the Great Ogeechee River and salt marsh, Ossabaw Sound separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the barrier island of the same name, and Redbird Creek. Because of this location, the land has provided an unusual variety of flora and fauna, access to both salt and fresh water and a strategic point of entry into the interior.
Serving as a camp and hunt site for the Native Americans from prehistoric times, it was the site of a protective fortification guarding the back door to Savannah during the Civil War. Further, it figured significantly in the maritime history of the nation as the definitive proof of the superiority of earthen over brick fortifications to withstand heavy naval shelling. Last of all, it established the undisputed advantage of ironclad over wooden vessels, marking a turning point in naval history . Most recently, the site has become the focus of the ripe field of underwater archaeology which has gained national attention with the locating and recovery of the Hunley at Charleston. Historically, this site offers something for everyone with an interest in the state's history.
Historical records and archaeological evidence suggest that this site was inhabited by Native Americans as early as 3000 B.C. The presence of these "Guale" Indians, as they were called, continued and was recorded at the time of first European contact, as the Spanish set up missions along the Georgia coast from their Florida base. This early Europeans contact greatly reduced the native presence in the area for many reasons.
The Native American inhabitants were not likely permanent residents of the site for any long period of time. Their culture tended to be nomadic as they practiced a hunter-gatherer form of economic life. At some times they would occupy a site for a number of years; more often, however, they would visit a site during the year to coincide with a hunting or fishing season or the ripening of some plant or fruit.
A number of archaeological explorations on the site have revealed sporadic occupation, the location of a possible village and burials. Pottery shards and projectile points indicate the time and intensity of occupation. Further evidence is needed, however, to complete the prehistoric record of habitation at the site. Exhibits incorporating the use of many artifacts from this archaeology are part of the new museum. Further work will continue to expand the knowledge of aboriginal use of this site in the future.
The greatest interest of the English colonies in the site occurred with the establishment and settling of the colony of Georgia in 1734. Initially, the land was granted to I. Baker and Paul Jenys from South Carolina. Visited by the naturalist William Bartram in 1750, the area was know then as "Jennis Point." Passed by deed to the Governor of Georgia, Henry Ellis, the land was acquired by Thomas Stone just before the American Revolution and called "Jensis" Point. It was owned by various planters who cultivated rice and later, cotton , as well as other agricultural activities at the site throughout the early period of American history . Finally, in 1850, Genesis Point was bequeathed to Joseph L. McAllister from his father.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, McAllister founded the Hardwicke Mounted Rifles which served in Virginia. He also agreed to allow the construction of Confederate gun defenses with earthwork fortifications for four guns on his land. This structure was to guard the southern flank of the Savannah defenses as well as the entrance to the Ogeechee River. An important railroad trestle of the Atlantic and Gulf railroad, as well as rich cotton and rice plantations, lay upstream.
The initial structure built with slave labor was augmented by the construction of officers' quarters and barracks. The capture of Hilton Head, S.C. by the Union in 1861 and a visit by Robert E. Lee to the site to review its defenses brought additional strengthening. The occupation of Tybee Island and blockade of the Savannah port was followed by the fall of Ft. Pulaski in 1862. Now called For t McAllister , its defenders added obstructions to the river . At nearly the same time the blockade runner, Thomas L. Wragg, slipped into the Ogeechee. Formally the Nashville, the steamer had outrun Union vessels blockading the port at Charleston and became trapped as the Union blockade closed around Genesis Point.
Throughout the remainder of 1862, Union vessels attempted to reach the ship. To do so, however, meant they must pass the guns at Ft. McAllister. Despite four attempts and heavy shelling, the Union Navy was unable to silence McAllister's guns. At the close of 1862, the Confederate ship, the railroad line and the plantations of the Ogeechee were still protected from the Union attack. The damage to the fort from naval shells was quickly and easily repaired, establishing the superiority of earthen, rather than brick fortifications in withstanding stiff bombardment.
In early 1863, the Union blockade was strengthened by the addition of ironclads, heavily armored vessels they felt could destroy the fortifications and reach the C.S.S. Nashville, as well. The attack of the U.S.S. Montauk failed to capture the fort on January 27 and again, February 1. By now converted into a privateer and renamed the Rattlesnake, the Confederate ship attempted to run the blockade on February 27. Failing, she retreated upstream, but ran aground rounding Seven-Mile Bend just upriver from the Fort.
The next morning, February 28, 1863, the Montuak returned, anchored downstream and begun battle against the grounded vessel. Her shelling finally resulted in the Rattlesnake catching fire and sinking. Despite Fort McAllister's repeated firing on the Montauk, answered by the Union gunboats' steady bombardment of the fort, the Fort McAllister batteries remained intact. So, too, did the Montauk, although when removing from the battle, she struck a mine in the river and was severely damaged. On March 3, three additional Union ironclads joined in the attack upon the Fort. Unable to silence her guns after hours of bombardment, they finally withdrew, ending the naval engagement.
Fort McAllister continued to guard the Ogeechee until late 1864 when General William T. Sherman's 60,000-man army began to close on Savannah. Needing control of the Ogeechee River to open supply lines, Sherman dispatched a Union division to cross Bryan's Neck and attack Fort McAllister overland from the rear. Never constructed to withstand a land attack, the fort fell after fifteen minutes of intense combat. Sherman's March to the Sea ended as the Ogeechee now lay open. Within a week, the city of Savannah became the Union's prize at the close of the western campaign to split the Confederacy.
Never having surrendered, the Fort was nonetheless taken. A series of photographs showed the occupation of the site by federal troops, including the use of Confederate prisoners to remove land mines planted as a final defense against the Union assault. The Confederate officers there occupied the overseers home (reconstructed as the old visitor's center and museum). Confederates were removed and Union troops oversaw the dismantling of the Fort's guns. Today, the old museum building's first floor is to serve as an additional exhibit of this occupation by officers and men as a barracks.
Following the Civil War, nature reclaimed the land at Genesis Point and the remains of Fort McAllister were forgotten. In the 1930's then owner, Henry Ford, began restoration of the Civil War earthwork fortification. Before restoration was complete, the area passed to the International Paper Company which deeded it to the State of Georgia. The site opened to the public in 1963, one hundred years after the great bombardment by the Union ironclads.