History of Tybee's Martello Tower

Dunes and grasses bordering on a beach.

Among the defensive works erected on and around Tybee Island to protect the Savannah River and the city’s harbor from enemy ships was a structure known as a Martello tower.

Martello towers were squat towers, constructed from the late 18th century into the first half of the 19th century, mostly in the Mediterranean, Britain, Canada and the United States.

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Martello towers were built by the United States along the east coast in the early 19th century, from the 1800s to the 1840s.

According to one interpretation, the name Martello comes from the Italian matella, or hammer. Within the towers was a bell used to sound warning of the enemy’s approach, the name of the tower supposedly coming from the hammer with which the bell was struck.

More likely, the name comes from the Bay of Martella, Corsica, in which, in 1794, the British saw (and were defeated by) a fortified tower of design so impressively efficacious they applied it extensively at home, constructing similar towers along the southern English coast to ward off attacks by the French forces under Napoleon.

The British subsequently built more Martello towers in their colony of Canada, to protect both its land and sea approaches.

The Tybee Island Martello tower, along with a sister fortification in Charleston harbor, was constructed at some time between around 1806 and the conclusion of the War of 1812. It stood on the north beach near the Tybee Island Lighthouse.

The tower was constructed by the Savannah builder Isaiah Davenport. At the time, it was the only defense on Tybee Island. Fort Pulaski was not completed until the 1840s, Tybee Island unmanned with the exception of the keeper of the lighthouse.

The keeper, instructed to keep an eye out for British ships and communicate information of a sighting to Savannah by means of a system of signals relayed through Fort Jackson to the City Exchange, was the island’s sole standing protection against invasion from the sea.

A Martello tower was to substantially improve the security of the coast and the approach up the river to Savannah.

The Tybee tower followed the design of Martello towers erected elsewhere. Most of these structures were squat cylindrical towers, thirty or more feet across and twenty or more feet high. Solid walls, many feet thick, protected against enemy cannons.

Within the tower were usually two or three stories, powder being stored on the ground floor and quarters for troops garrisoned there on the second floor. The uppermost deck contained the cannons.

Martello towers, like other masonry fortifications, were largely abandoned after the Civil War. The new rifled cannons employed during that war easily destroyed the brick and stone walls able to resist the lesser powered artillery of earlier years.

Probably the last defensive towers (though of a slightly different design) built in the United States were erected in the 1840s on Key West, Florida.

Tybee Island’s Martello tower, though it could have become an interesting historical artifact, no longer exists. It too was abandoned after the Civil War. The government later granted permission to the Georgia Telephone and Telegraph Company to use the structure as their headquarters, but, at some point in the 20th century, it was destroyed.

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References

John H Estill, ‘Tales of Tybee,’ Savannah Morning News, February 12 1905.

Willard B Robinson, ‘North American Martello towers,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 33, no. 2 (1974), pp158-164.