Last weekend when my family was in town, we took the boat tour to visit Fort Sumter National Monument in the Charleston Harbor. Both the boat ride and the tour of the fort were a great experience, so today we are doing a post highlighting the historical significance of the fort and what it’s like to visit today. This is the 7th fort we’ve visited on the East Coast since moving to SC 3 months ago – it’s pretty much what we do here instead of hiking mountains, what we did weekly in AZ!
To start off, I had Curtis write the history portion of this site. Enjoy!
Top left: Ravenel Bridge with Mt. Pleasant on the right; bottom left: arrived on the island; center: the updated Endicott system battery; top right: leaving the NPS museum in Charleston; bottom right: Castle Pickney Island on the way to Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter was one of the most important battles of the Civil War, if only because it was the first. But first, some context.
Fort Sumter was one of the multitude of seaside fortresses built during the 3rd Stage coastal defense following the War of 1812. Paired with Fort Moultrie, it made Charleston Harbor near impenetrable. A grand structure, it was built upon a natural sand bar by importing granite from New England. Housing three tiers of cannons on an island, it was a formidable structure but saw no action during the Antebellum years.
In 1860, President Lincoln was elected president of the United States with less than 40% of the popular vote, much to the dismay of Southerners. (As a side note, in light of current political situations, I suggest a maxim: “The flaw of democracy is not that the 51% will ‘rule’ the 49, but that the 35% will ‘rule’ the divided 65.” Although Lincoln is considered to be one of the greatest presidents, consider the ramifications if factionalism had been reversed.) Even though Lincoln was purportedly running on the party platform to leave the institution of slavery in place in the slave states, Southerns everywhere felt that the sovereign right of State self determination was in jeopardy.
The first to act (publicly and as a body) was South Carolina, who on December 20th declared that the Union between the State of Carolina and the other states composing the United States was dissolved, citing a list of reasons. Six days later, fearing that militant townspeople would come to seize the arsenal, Major Anderson, in charge of the garrison at Fort Moultrie, retreated under cover of darkness to Fort Sumter.
Over the next several months, this act would be the match to set off the country in war. Secessionists believed that by seceding, all Federal property – including forts and the like – would be turned over to the state. The Unionist either believed that Federal property remained as such, or simply denied the right of states to secede. In early January, President Buchanan makes one feeble attempt at relieving the garrison at Fort Sumter by sending the merchant ship “The Star of the West” with supplies and relief. Warned in advance, the batteries on Morris Island at the mouth of the Harbor fired upon the ship, preventing it from its Rendez-Vous. Those defending the batteries belonged to The Citadel, a military academy located in Charleston, which, to this date, still boasts having fired the first shots of the Civil War because of this event.
By April 1861, the Confederate States had been formed of those states which had seceded. In many instances across the South, armed take over of Federal installations took place, yet Fort Sumter remains the only one that sticks to memory. For, by April 11, the situation in Charleston had reached an impasse. The Federals were nearly starved and had to give out soon, but would not surrender peaceably. Furthermore, reinforcements were fast coming to Sumter. After the requisite back and forth that 19th century warfare demanded, General P. G. T. Beauregard, in command of troops in Charleston Harbor gave the order to open fire at 4:30 am April the 12. At which point, a signal was fired from a mortar at Fort Johnson on the West side of the Harbor.
What commenced was a 34 hour bombardment of the Fort from all sides. Fort Moultrie and the Sullivan Island batteries to the east, Fort Wagner and the Morris Island Batteries to the South, Fort Johnson to the west, and Castle Pickney and the Charleston Battery to the North. The Federals, having little ammunition did little to fight back, and considering the position was untenable, surrendered.
What came next was the Confederate occupation of the Fort and Charleston harbor, for effectively the remainder of the War. While great battles were waged in the North and West, Charleston remained quiet. In 1863, the Federal Navy established a blockade of Charleston Harbor that remained difficult to enforce. In April 1863, the Navy made an attempted assault on the Fort with iron-clads which failed. The Federals soon resorted to pseudo-seige tactics. After landing a considerable force on the southern end of Morris Island, the Federals attempted two assaults on Fort Wagner, a beachwork defense on the Northern tip. Both attacks ultimately failed, but went down in history. For, leading the assault were the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first Black regiments of the US Military. This battle is now immortalized in the movie Glory. (I would love to be able to go to Morris Island someday, but it is only accessible by boat, AND is eroding into the ocean. So much so that the light house that once stood 1200′ from shore is now several hundred feet off shore).
Fortunately for the Feds, the Confederates soon abandoned the island for concerns over access to fresh water. And what commenced was the “Federal Retribution” for the First Battle of Fort Sumter. Using heavy rifled cannon they reduced Fort Sumter to rubble (and also parts of downtown Charleston 5+ miles away). But the Confederates still retained control of it. The three tiered structure soon became a pit of brick, which as the Rebels found out, was just as good a defense as any. With the exception of one ill fated amphibious assault, the Federals did little else to Fort Sumter.
In February 1865, with General Sherman marching through South Carolina, the Rebels were forced to abandon the Fort and the Federal Government retook control of the fort on February 22, 1865. All in all, only 53 reported deaths occurred during the war (1 Federal, 52 Confederate).
Following the war (Lee surrendered April 9, 1865), little was done to Fort Sumter except to clear the rubble leaving only a single tier of guns and a lighthouse (removed in early 20th Century). Following the Spanish-American War, Fort Sumter (like Fort Moultrie and Fort Fremont) received updates in the Endicott System. Those giant black concrete batteries. And today that is all that really remains. The single story brick structure is a pittance to what the fort once was. But this site is hallowed ground marking the beginning of four years of fierce and passionate fighting and the beginning of a New America.
Top left: the fort, the boat, and Charleston in the background; bottom left: Charleston skyline; both on right: inside the fort
The fort is now accessible to visitors through NPS boat tours which leave from 2 designated spots along the Charleston Harbor – Patriot’s Point in Mt. Pleasant, and from the NPS building near downtown Charleston. When we visited, there were 3 tours a day from the NPS side, and 2 from Patriot’s Point, but that changes depending on the season (with more tours in the summer and less in the winter). The fort itself is free to enter, but you must purchase tickets for the boat tours. Tickets can be purchased online or through either of the tours’ offices. ($19.50 for adults, $17 for Seniors/military, $12 for children 11 and under, children under 3 are free).
The boat tour was around 20-30 minutes long, and you’re given one hour to tour the fort (and that hour goes by so fast!). From the boat, you are given great views of both sides of the harbor, as well as Castle Pickney island. The NPS workers explain some of the history while on the boat ride, and the boat tour speakers also offers facts about the things you’re seeing on either side – such Fort Moultrie, Patriot’s Point, buildings and steeples along the Charleston skyline, and the Ravenel Bridge. The boat itself is a large ferry with 3 or 4 levels. We just sat up on the top to enjoy the sunshine and the views, but I heard there is a snack bar on a lower level.
As I mentioned before, you’re given and hour to tour the fort. Between walking around the older section, then up to the concrete battery, down and around on the grassy land near the water, and walking through the museum, the hour goes by very fast and before you know it, you’re back on the boat trying to process everything you just saw and read! We had a great time, and would definitely recommend it if you’re in Charleston and want to learn and experience some of the greatest relics to the area’s military history. If you want to learn more about the fort and information about the tours, visit this site.