Discovering Tybee Island’s Rich Military History: Exploring Fort Screven, Tybee Post Theater and Fort Pulaski
In 1999, Congress designated May as National Military Appreciation Month, a special observance commemorating the service and sacrifice of our military members both past and present. Across the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force and Coast Guard, more than 1.3 million brave service members are currently answering the call to defend our nation – and that figure doesn’t even include the many military members serving part-time in the National Guard and Reserve. We owe these gallant men and women our sincerest gratitude day in and day out, and Military Appreciation Month is a perfect time to demonstrate your support for our Armed Forces.
Locally, Tybee has long standing military ties. Our coastal location has made it important terrain for defense historically. Tybee’s military history dates all the way back to the late 18th century, specifically in 1786, which is when the Georgia legislature approved the creation of a fort on Tybee. The fort was to be named after Revolutionary War hero, General James Screven. Despite having origins shortly after the birth of our nation, nearly a century passed before the fort was constructed and established. In 1808, the federal government obtained jurisdiction over the property where Fort Screven would eventually occupy. The U.S. established the fort during the late 1890s to improve Georgia’s coastal defenses in anticipation of the Spanish-American War. The fort was informally known as Fort Tybee and then Camp Graham, but in 1899 the name was changed to Fort Screven via presidential proclamation.
By 1904, Fort Screven had seven batteries each with a cannon, ammunition and surrounding fortifications. During World War I, the fort was a part of the U.S. coastal defense system, serving as a coast artillery fort. After the war, Fort Screven was deactivated in 1921 as a part of the Army’s downsizing efforts, only to be reactivated the following year, becoming the Headquarters of the 8th Infantry Regiment. It remained an active base through World War II. Fort Screven closed for good in 1947 and the property was sold to the City of Tybee. In the ‘60s one of Fort Screven’s batteries, Battery Garland, was converted into the Tybee Island Museum. The museum now exhibits hundreds of years of local history. Other parts of the fort, like Officer’s Row – one of the island’s most sought after neighborhoods – and some of the fort walls have been redeveloped as private residences.
Tybee Post Theater
Another remnant of Fort Screven is the historic Tybee Post Theater, which remains active to this day. The Army erected the Post Theater in 1930 as a movie house for soldiers stationed at the fort. It was the pinnacle of recreation for soldiers and their families on the island. The theater was among the first in Georgia equipped to show films that included dialogue, music and other sounds – known then as ‘talkies.’ During this era, the Post Theater attracted famous patrons like Dwight Eisenhower and Johnny Mercer.
After the end of WWII, when Fort Screven was sold to Tybee, the theater was operated as the Beach Theater by the family that owned Savannah’s Lucas Theater at the time. It remained this way until the mid-1960s when the theater was shuttered. The theater remained vacant for the next 30 years with a developer applying for a demolition permit in 1999. Recognizing the important history of the theater, the City of Tybee took out a temporary lease on the property to save it. Then in 2001, the Tybee Island Historical Society purchased it, founding Friends of the Tybee Theater that same year. Over the next decade or so, FOTT launched an extensive campaign to raise awareness as well as the funds necessary to restore and reopen the theater. In 2015, the restoration was complete and the Tybee Post Theater reopened its doors to the public. Today, the historic landmark serves as a center of entertainment, hosting movies, concerts, musicals and other exciting shows, hearkening back to its days as a recreation hub for the military community.
Of course, no retelling of Tybee’s military history is complete without mentioning Fort Pulaski. The fort was built by free and enslaved workers between 1829-1847 under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The fort was claimed by the state of Georgia before the outbreak of the Civil War. Once the war began, Confederate troops occupied Pulaski. Only one battle occurred there, the Siege of Fort Pulaski, which saw Union forces from Tybee and Confederate forces inside the fort face off on April 11 and 12, 1862. The Union troops overtook the Confederate troops, and they remained there through the end of the Civil War. After 1862, Fort Pulaski was used as a military and political prison. It was also a destination on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves pursuing freedom.
In the decades following the Civil War, Fort Pulaski had fallen into disrepair. The War Department declared the fort a National Monument in 1924 as an effort to save it. Repairs began, and the fort was opened to the public for a short time before WWII, during which the fort and Cockspur Island served as a Naval base. After the war, Fort Pulaski was under control of the National Park Service, and it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. A museum was opened in the 1980s and Fort Pulaski now remains open to the public.
As a part of Military Appreciation Month, find some time in the coming days and weeks to visit these important military history landmarks. Present day, Tybee continues to be a place of recreation and relaxation for service members stationed at nearby bases like Hunter Army Airfield and Fort Stewart. And it’s a revered retirement location for quite a few veterans. If you spot any of them out on the island, be sure to thank them.