Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Fort Sumter was still being completed when the Civil War began in 1861. Construction began following the War of 1812 in 1829 and it was the state of the art in brick and masonry fort construction of its time. Seventy tons of granite were imported from New England to create an island on a submerged sandbar in the Charleston Harbor. It was designed to hold 650 men with 135 cannons on three tiers, although it was never filled to capacity. While built to withstand the smooth bore cannonballs leading into the Civil War, it was no match for the new rifled cannonballs that would soon turn it into rubble. On December 26, 1860, six days after South Carolina seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Major Robert Anderson abandoned the indefensible Fort Moultrie and moved his 127 men garrison (13 of which were musicians) to the still incomplete Fort Sumter. Fewer than half of the cannon were ready to use and he used the next three and a half months to delay the Confederates while he prepared the Fort’s defenses and cannon. President Lincoln tried to resupply and reinforce the Fort on January 9, 1861, but the Cadets at the Citadel drove the Star of the West from the shoals protecting the harbor. Another attempt to resupply and reinforce the Fort was made in April of 1961 sending a fleet of ships. The first arrived on April 11, 1861. Knowing they could allow Fort Sumter to be reinforced, General Beauregard sent an ultimatum to Major Anderson who still refused to surrender, so at 4:30 am on April 12 Colonel Chestnut ordered Fort Johnson to open fire on Fort Sumter. Along with Fort Moultrie and Castle Pickney, they continued the bombardment for 34 hours. Little return fire came from Fort Sumter due to the number of troops, limited ammunition, and having no fuses for the explosive shells. On Saturday, April 13 Major Anderson surrendered the fort taking his troops onto the Union supply ships. Fort Sumter was now under the control of the Confederacy who manned and brought additional cannon to the Fort. On April 7, 1863, the Union attempted to retake Charleston Harbor by bringing a fleet of 9 new ironclads. The attempt failed mostly due to poor communications between the ships of the fleet who got in each others way and firing only 154 rounds versus 2209 from the shore batteries. A boat assault on Fort Sumter was attempted on September 8-9, 1863 by a combined navy and army unit. Due to poor communication and hostility between the navy and army, the assault was a disaster with the navy being repulsed and the army never making it to the Fort. By the end of July, 1863, the Union army had established multiple lines of cannon on Morris Island which were in range of Fort Sumter with their rifled cannon. Along with Union ships, the Union began the bombardment of Fort Sumter on August 17, 1863. The Union would bombard during the day and the Confederates would shore up their defenses with sand during the night. Ironically, the more the Union destroyed the Fort, the stronger it became as the debris and sand proved effective at minimizing further damage to its defenses. Through the rest of 1863 and all of 1864 the Union continued to bombard the Fort along with firing upon Charleston itself. By the beginning of 1865, General Sherman was moving north from Savannah and Charleston was abandoned by the Confederates on February 17-18, 1865. Fort Sumter was by now a pile of rubble with only the first floor intact since it had been buried by the other three floors. Following the Civil War the U.S. Army tried to restore it by removing what remained of the upper three floors and installing 11 100-pound Parrot rifles in the first tier. Until 1897 it was primarily used as an unmanned lighthouse station. With the start of the Spanish-American war the Fort was again reactivated and Battery Huger was built in the middle of the old Fort in 1898. This new fort was built of steel and concrete as part of the Endicott system of coastal defenses and today dominates the center of the Fort.
1) Fort Sumter is on a man-made island in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Therefore, you have to take a ferry over to the ruins of the Fort. You have a choice of either the ferry from the Visitor Center at Liberty Park in downtown Charleston or a ferry from Patriots Point on the north side of the harbor. For the ferry at Liberty Park you have to park in a parking deck which will not accommodate large vehicles. Our Super-Duty Ford F350 was nearly to big for the parking deck. Parking at Patriots Point can easily handle any size vehicle.
2) The Visitor Center in Charleston was a disappointment. It does have limited exhibits, but they do not provide much on the history of the Fort. There is also no movie available. It is obvious it’s primary purpose is to provide access to the ferry.
3) The ferry ride is 20 minutes long and you do get a wonderful view of the harbor, including a view of the remains of Castle Pickney, which is not open to the public. You are limited to about an hour at Fort Sumter before you have to catch the ferry back. For an additional fee, you can extend your stay until the next ferry from the same location which is about 2 hours since the two ferries switch off between them.
4) Since they have a captured audience all arriving at the same time, the Park Rangers put on an excellent talk about the Fort. However, the talk takes over 20 minutes, which does not leave a lot of time to view the ruins.
5) Since Fort Sumter was in ruins following the Civil War, there is not much left to see except some of the first tier. For a good view of this type of fort you should visit Fort Pulaski outside Suvannah. The most amazing sight was the Parrot rifles that were put into the fort after the Civil War. When Battery Huger was built in 1908, these cannon were buried in sand rather than being removed. When they were discovered during the reconstruction of the Fort by the National Park Service they were simply left where they were. Consequently they are in the best condition of any Civil War cannons that I have ever seen.
6) While important historically in its right, Battery Huger takes up the center of the island and really looks out of place. It’s steel construction certainly clashes with the original brick and mortar fort! For a better example and explanation of these Batteries you should visit Battery Jasper over on Sullivan’s Island at Fort Moultrie.