Kayaking to Morris Island | Charleston, South Carolina
This past weekend, we went on a kayaking trip to an island accessible only by boat, saw a historic lighthouse, and enjoyed a long walk on a beach ALL BY OURSELVES! This is by far the coolest thing we’ve done in Charleston, and honestly my favorite weekend adventure since we moved here. I now realize that we’ve been doing it all wrong. We can’t appreciate the beauty of the Low Country by walking around in the woods. The best way to enjoy the outdoor scene here is by water! I should have listened to Curtis when we first got here and invested in a kayak from the start. Oh well. Now we know, should we ever find ourselves living in the South for an extended period of time.
I remember Curtis mentioning how fun it would be to kayak to Morris Island and Morris Island Lighthouse a while back. Morris Island was where one of the 6 forts that once guarded the Charleston Harbor was built, and while this fort is completely eroded he still wanted to walk on the island. Initially I thought it sounded fun, but then that same week I saw on local news that 2 kayakers were doing this exact trip and something went terribly wrong, and after a search, only one was found. I am definitely the cautious one in the relationship and I get rather anxious about things, so I told Curtis that before I’d think about going, he needed to do a lot of research to figure out the safest possible way to do this. And being the wonderful and caring husband he is, he did his research, studied maps, and came up with a plan. He also invited a couple friends to join, which made me feel much more at ease knowing that if something happened, at least we wouldn’t be alone.
On Morris Island – right after landing on the beach
Despite thunderstorms being forecasted all week long, when we awoke early Saturday morning, there were no storm clouds and it looked like the rain would hold off until the evening. We packed a lunch and plenty of water – as much as we would for a hike of this length – and set off on our adventure. We drove to Bowen’s Island where we met up with friends and rented 2 tandem kayaks from Charleston Outdoor Adventures. We loaded them on top of our cars and then drove just over the bridge to Folly Island, then turned right immediately to the boat dock for Folly River. We could have began our kayaking excursion back at the rental place on Bowen’s Island, but that would have added 4 miles to our 8 mile trip, and we had next to no experience kayaking. (The only other time we had gone kayaking was in Lake Michigan from Door County, WI last year!) The rental company also gave us ropes and blocks to put the kayaks on top of our cars for free, so this decision was kind of a no-brainer.
We put the boats in the water at around 9am and set off heading toward the ocean! Almost from the very start, we could see the Morris Island Lighthouse in the far distance. It was almost like hiking, and we could see the peak in the distance, so we knew how close we were the whole time. Of course, the river didn’t just go in a straight line – Curtis had to do a fair amount of navigating with a laminated map (also provided by the rental company) to make sure we stayed on the main channel. I was pretty impressed with how confidently he led us through – but I shouldn’t be surprised, since he’s an officer in the Navy and all. 😉
The main factor of why he chose this weekend had to do with the ocean’s tides. Last Saturday, low tide was at 11:45am, so our logic was that we could take the tide out and ride the high tide back. I’m not sure how much this actually helped, but I think it’s generally always good when the tides are in your favor. It was a perfectly calm day, besides the waves caused by boats, and the weather couldn’t have been better. Not too hot, with beautiful clouds stretching across the sky.
I didn’t bring my camera on this adventure, so enjoy our phone pictures 😉
One highlight of the boat ride was seeing dolphins swimming around us. Kayaking with dolphins! I didn’t even think to put that on my bucket list, but I might just write it down now so I can cross it off. 😉 We also enjoyed seeing pelicans and other waterbirds on the shore, in the air, and diving after fish in the river.
It took us about 2 hours to paddle the 4 miles to Morris Island Beach. Once we reached land, we pulled our boats up high on the shore and had some snacks. There were a few other boats along the South side of the island, but the people who were there were all having picnics or fishing right next to their boats so once we started walking toward the lighthouse, we were all alone. Our friends, Lars and Billy, went off and did their own thing while Curtis and I did what we do best at beaches: walk. 🙂
Now, I’m going to have Curtis share about the history that happened here that makes this island special, and what drove us to want to visit:
Around the location of where Fort Wagner once stood – except probably more in the water since this beach has eroded!
Morris island is a sea island that makes up the southern entrance into Charleston Harbor. As such it is of critical importance commercially. In 1767, a lighthouse was built by the colony of South Carolina to aid in navigation into the harbor. This light would continue to operate until the 1860’s which brings us to the second importance of Morris island. Coastal Defense.
As has been discussed before, Charleston, being a maritime based economy, has had need for coastal defenses since its existence. Formally, this came about first with Fort Moultrie in 1776 on the North Side of the harbor. Throughout the 1800’s the United States government built up and improved Fort Moultrie and built other forts to complete the defense of Charleston harbor, including Fort Sumter, Fort Johnson, Charleston Battery, Castle Pickney, and Fort Wagner.
As should be apparent, we have visited most all of the major fortifications during our time here. And for good reason. Originally built by the Federal government, they were all used against the Federals during the Civil War. All of them were engaged against Fort Sumter during the first shots of the Civil War, and later formed the back bone of the extensive Confederate defense of Charleston. And it was Fort Wagner that guarded the Southern entrance into the harbor upon Morris Island. (Castle Pickney is also on an island in the middle of the harbor and actual exhibits remains of the fort. It is currently owned and maintained by the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans).
After the Union soldiers were evacuated from Fort Sumter, all of the Charleston defenses were in Confederate hands. But under General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda plan, all Confederate ports were to be blockaded in order to stifle commerce and the Confederate economy. This was first seen in South Carolina near Beaufort, then Hilton Head, and then Fort Pulaski in Georgia. But in each of these instances, the naval blockades were supported by land troops to help enforce the blockade. In Charleston, the naval blockade was the only thing preventing trade. But the defensive ring around the harbor made the blockade difficult to enforce and many smugglers made a lot of money by running goods in and out of Charleston.
In June 1862, there was a brief expedition to take Charleston that ended in a humiliating Federal defeat on James Island at the battle of Secessionville. Following that, the Union decided that the best course of action would be a combined army-navy action against the coastal defenses. The first target was to be Fort Wagner. The belief being that, if that island were to be captured, Union batteries could be constructed and used against the remaining fortifications.
Union forces under the command of Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore, the man responsible for the capture of Fort Pulaski, landed on Folly Island and constructed a battery there. Under the cover of this battery, Brigadier General George Strong led his brigade across Lighthouse Inlet (which we paddled across) on July 10, 1863. Initially successful, Strong managed to capture many of the outlying batteries, but were ultimately foiled by Fort Wagner itself.
Fort Wagner, located at the Northern tip of the island was only accessible by a thin strip of sand roughly 80 feet across. All troop movements would have to run the gauntlet before even approaching the Fort itself. After Strong’s initial assault, naval ships and the Folly batteries bombarded Fort Wagner, and General Gillmore sent several diversionary attacks onto James Island in an effort to convince the Confederate General (Brig. Gen. Taliaferro) to abandon or weaken his position. Then a week later, General Strong launched another attack upon Fort Wagner. This attack would be led by the 54th Massachusetts, an all black regiment (with white officers) commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who would take the brunt of the assault in an effort for the remainder of the brigade to pass through the gauntlet.
On the evening of July 18, 1863, the 54th Mass. charged forward along the beach sustaining heavy losses. Some made it as far as the fort’s parapet, but the bombardment and diversionary tactics had failed to remove the Confederate forces and the Union forces were turned back at heavy loss including the deaths of both Col. Shaw and Gen. Strong.
Although rather insignificant, the battle proved much in respect towards black soldiers. It proved to Federals and Confederates alike that a black soldier could fight just as well, and just as gallantly as a white.
It is also worth noting that the 1989 movie “Glory” features this battle as its climatic ending. And I must say, after watching it again, that the movie does a very good job at being historically true (at least to my knowledge). To the interactions and engagements near Beaufort, its reference to the Penn School and Port Royal Experiment, names and ranks of historic persons, to the flag being flown over Fort Wagner (it happens to be “The Stainless Banner”, which was adopted only two months prior to the battle). All of that, and yet the final scene shows the 54th charging…south. The Atlantic on their left, the fort to the front. South. (I am sure there are many other historical inaccuracies, but having just visited the island and walked the length of the beach, I know very well that they charged North).
Fort Wagner was reinforced by the Confederates during the night, and the Confederates held out there until September 1863 before abandoning it to the Federals. The Federals during that time continued to construct batteries; the most famous being “The Swamp Angel,” a parrot-rifled canon capable of lobbing shells the full five miles into Charleston. Throughout 1864, the Federals launched numerous abortive attempts against the remaining fortifications, but largely contented themselves with using their rifled canons to burn a large portion of Charleston to the ground.
It wasn’t until 1865 with the threat of General Sherman marching up from Savannah that the Confederate defenders abandoned their post and Charleston (and all of its numerous forts) returned to the Union.
Today, all of the Fort Wagner is gone. Due to the construction of jetties in the late 1800’s, the island experienced an increase of erosion. This is most evident by the fact that the lighthouse (which was destroyed during the war, but rebuilt in the 1870’s) which was several thousand feet inland, now stands several hundred feet off shore.
Views of Morris Island Lighthouse
The island itself is currently protected. There was a brief period where it appeared that the island would be turned into yet another resort getaway. But the Trust for Public Land purchased the island and now cares for it, potentially seeking for a way to bring it in to the Fort Sumter National Monument system. But for now, it and its history remain obscure only a couple hundred feet off the shore of Folly Beach.
(Back to Jess) After Curtis & I walked forever on the beach (and didn’t see a single person that entire time!!!) we headed back to our kayak. We met up with our friends who had also enjoyed their time here – they waded through the water to reach the lighthouse, and arrived around the same time as a crew of guys who were working on maintaining it. These workers even let them take a peek inside!
We pushed back into the river at around 1:45 and took 2 hours to get back to where we started. As great as an experience that this was, I think I was really unprepared for paddling a kayak this far. It got pretty painful toward the end, especially in the last long stretch when we could see the bridge in the distance, but we never seemed to come any closer. But we made it, as did our kayaking buddies, now sporting some crispy red burns. OUCH! The funny thing is that, besides a light burn when my family was visiting, this is technically our first sunburn while living here in SC. Shocking, right?! Not because we’re never outside, but because we are almost always under a tree cover, so much so that we haven’t even used sunscreen up until today! (Well, I applied SPF 30 today before we began, but Curtis did not – and yet I feel like we suffered the same amount of burn.) Needless to say, we picked up some Aloe on our way home, and spent the evening watching none other than Glory, since we were just there and all! (However, I just learned that the movie itself was not filmed on Morris Island, but on Jekyll Island in Georgia and some parts in Savannah. Hey, we’ve been to both of those places too! Haha)
And that was our awesome weekend adventure! I would say that if you are an outdoorsy person who enjoys getting away from crowds and enjoying the natural beauty of untouched land, this should be a must if you’re ever in Charleston. Skip the touristy Folly Beach and spend a day kayaking to Morris Island – once the sunburn is gone and you’re no longer stiff from paddling, you won’t regret it. 😉