Location: Sullivan Island, South Carolina
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The history of Fort Moultrie extends from 1776 to 1960 when it was decommissioned and transferred to the National Park System. It’s importance to the defense of Charleston Harbor is due its location on Sullivan Island at the entrance to the harbor. The shoals outside the harbor forced ships to navigate north, parallel to the coast, until they are able to turn west into the harbor. This meant that they had to sail directly towards the point of Sullivan Island providing the opportunity to fire cannons at them without the ships being able to turn broadside to return fire. In the colonial period leading up to the Revolutionary War, Charleston was by far the wealthiest and most important harbor in the New World. This was all recognized by the Patriots defending the city from the British in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, they hastily built a fort named Fort Sullivan on the point of the island using palmetto logs and sand. At the time palmetto was the most abundant building material, which turned out to be fortuitous since the spongy and fibrous structure of palmetto meant cannon shells literally bounced off of them. The fort was only completed on the seaward side when British Admiral Parker sailed 9 warships to capture Charleston on June 28, 1776. William Moultrie, commander of 400 South Carolina Militia fought a day long battle with the ships who retreated heavily damaged. The fort was renamed in his honor and the British turned their attention to the rebellious north. By 1780, the Revolutionary War in the north had become stalemated and the British turned their attention back to the South where they had stronger Loyalist support. Having learned their lesson, they did not take Charleston by sea, but rather General Clinton landed his army south of Charleston, blockaded the harbor, and easily cut off access to the peninsula of Charleston by land in the spring of 1780. While palmetto logs were great for repelling cannonballs, they are not a permanent structure. When Britain and France began another war in 1783, the new government in America decided to build a system of coastal forts, of which one was Fort Moultrie. This new fort again consisted of palmetto logs was completed in 1798 only to be destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. A new brick and mortar fort was then built to replace it in 1809. Over the next 50 years, Fort Moultrie changed little except for upgrading the cannons and other minor improvements. When South Carolina seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln in December of 1860, the commander at Fort Moultrie was Major Robert Anderson. By this time Fort Moultrie, along with Castle Pinckey, Fort Johnson, and the still unfinished Fort Sumter combined to protect Charleston, however, Major Anderson had only a garrison of 127 Union soldiers to man the defenses. Although Major Anderson was pro-slavery and owned slaves on his farm in Kentucky, he remained loyal to his oath to the Union and refused to surrender his post to the Confederacy as all the other forts in the South had done. Instead he moved his small garrison to the still unfinished Fort Sumter as it was not vulnerable to attack from the land. After three and a half months of failed negotiations, Fort Moultrie participated along with Fort Johnson and Castle Pickney in a day and half barrage of Fort Sumter until Major Anderson surrendered on April 14, 1861 thus starting the Civil War. Even though the Union pounded Fort Moultrie beginning in April 1863, the Confederates continued to occupy and defend Charleston until they retreated from Charleston in February, 1865. Following the Civil War, Fort Moultrie was repaired and outfitted with new huge rifled cannon and concrete bombproofs. In 1885 President Cleveland authorized improvements to the coastal defenses which became the Endicott system of steel construction and large disappearing cannons, of which Fort Moultrie was a small part of the Fort Moultrie Military Reservation. The Endicott system continued to be upgraded and manned through World War I. By World War II, coastal defenses at fixed locations had become obsolete, however, Fort Moultrie was still a vital part of the defense of Charleston harbor. Instead of cannons, it controlled the harbor nets and mines that protected the harbor from German submarines.
1) The Visitor Center includes a great movie and exhibits that must be seen. It is a beautiful building and the exhibits provide excellent historical information and archeological evidence found at the fort. I strongly recommend taking advantage of the Park Ranger tour of the fort. His background information and descriptions of the fort were invaluable and entertaining. It is a great way to get some in depth knowledge, as well as, an overview of the fort.
2) When the army captured the Seminole chief, Osceola in 1837, he was kept prisoner at Fort Moultrie until he died of malaria in 1838. His body was burned and buried outside of the fort. There is also the grave of William Moultrie, who was moved from his family plantation and re-interred at the Fort.
3) Not surprisingly, there are no remains of the first two palmetto forts built at the site and they are not even certain of their exact locations, although they were believed to be closer to the harbor then the brick fort. The Visitor Center does include an exhibit of the palmetto logs and design of the forts.
4) Fort Moultrie has gone through a lot of changes over the years and these are reflected in the Fort. They have done an excellent job in reconstructing different parts of the Fort to show the different periods. The tour begins with the World War II command center used to control the submarine nets and mines in the harbor. This command center is suppose to have the original equipment of the time on display, however, it was closed when we were there. Other parts of the fort are laid out showing the huge cannons installed following the Civil War and the original fort built in 1809, including a unique brick structure who’s sole purpose was to deflect cannonballs from the magazine.
5) Outside the fort, they have put on display a series of cannon that had been used in the Fort over the years. It was interesting to get a side by side comparison of the cannon and how they had evolved over the years.
6) Battery Jasper was built just to the north of Fort Moultrie and its steel construction is truly impressive. The disappearing cannon used throughout the Endicott system of batteries would raise up to fire and then use the recoil to lower themselves behind the steel walls. The tour provides access to one of the cannon emplacements as wells as the bomb storage and electronic lift system used to bring the bombs up to the cannons. Very interesting to see the last chapter of coastal defenses up to World War II.