Decades of growing strife between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this Federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back. You can walk through history when you take a tour of Fort Sumter and see first hand the damage of shelling, the huge mounted canons, and gaze outward from the fort, imaging what it was like to be stationed here, waiting to defend the island fort. When visiting Charleston, a visit to Fort Sumter is a must for understanding the history that helped shape our nation – the hard-fought battles of countryman versus countryman – the place where the first shots of the Civil War began.
A brief history (from the National Park Service):
Construction began on the fort in 1829 as a response to the lack of coastal defenses made evident during the War of 1812. Located on a man-made island in the middle of Charleston Harbor, the five-sided, three-tiered masonry structure was designed for an armament of 135 guns and a garrison of 650 men. Its five-foot thick outside walls, towering nearly 50 feet above low water, enclosed a parade ground of roughly one acre. Combined with the existing early 19th century Charleston harbor forts, the new fort could effectively close the harbor entry to any hostile ships.
Fort Sumter was still not completed when Union Major Robert Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie to occupy Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. The fort quickly became the focus of political and military events which resulted in the opening bombardment of the Civil War on April 12 – 13, 1861. After the Union evacuation, Southern troops occupied Fort Sumter.
The Civil War began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery, under the command of General Pierre Gustave T. Beauregard, opened fire on Fort Sumter. Confederate batteries showered the fort with over 3,000 shells in a three-and-a-half day period. Anderson surrendered. Ironically, Beauregard had developed his military skills under Anderson’s instruction at West Point. This was the first of countless relationships and families devastated in the Civil War. The fight was on.
It remained under normal military operations until 1863 – 1865 when Federal bombardments reduced Fort Sumter to rubble. Despite its ruinous state, Confederate soldiers continued to hold the fort, now an impregnable earthwork and impervious to assault. Only after General William T. Sherman captured Columbia, South Carolina in February 1865 did the Confederate garrisons defending Charleston withdraw. Union forces once again raised the United States flag over Fort Sumer on February 18, 1865. The battered flag itself can be seen in the museum on Fort Sumter.
After the War:
When the Civil War ended, Fort Sumter was in ruins. The U.S. Army worked to restore it as a useful military installation. The damaged walls were re-leveled to a lower height and partially rebuilt. The third tier of gun emplacements was removed. Eleven of the original first-tier gunrooms were restored with 100-pounder Parrott rifles.
From 1876 to 1897, Fort Sumter was used only as an unmanned lighthouse station. The start of the Spanish-American War prompted renewed interest in its military use and reconstruction commenced on the facilities that had further eroded over time. A new massive concrete blockhouse-style installation was built in 1898 inside the original walls. Named “Battery Huger” in honor of Revolutionary War General Isaac Huger, it never saw combat.
Touring Fort Sumter:
There are two departure locations for the ferry to Fort Sumter:
- The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center is located at 340 Concord Street in downtown Charleston. Parking for regular passenger vehicles is available in an adjacent parking garage.
- Patriots Point is located at 40 Patriots Point Road in Mount Pleasant. Visitors with large vehicles such as buses and RVs should plan on departing from Patriots Point.
The Visitor Education Center’s museum features exhibits about the disagreements between the North and South that led to the incidents at Fort Sumter. National Park Rangers are on hand to answer questions. The museum at Fort Sumter focuses on the activities at the fort, including its construction and role during the Civil War. As you walk through the museum, you follow a timeline of events, the history of the area and view important artifacts recovered from the site.
Park rangers give a brief 10-minute history talk when you arrive at Fort Sumter and then you are free to roam the fort until it’s time to take your ferry on the return trip. Mounted signage gives the history, function and photos from the fort’s past at various locations, helping you to understand the layout and function of the different areas comprising the fort. This method of self-guided touring allows you to go at your own pace.
A bookstore, gift shop and restrooms are available on the fort. The boat to Fort Sumter, operated by Fort Sumter Tours, is comfortable and provides narration of Charleston history and descriptions of what you’ll see during the 30-minute boat ride. It’s a great way to see Charleston from the water, the towering Ravenel bridge connecting Charleston and Mount Pleasant, the Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Yorktown, docked at Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, and possibly even Bottlenose dolphin which frequent the harbor.
Since you have to plan your visit around that ferry schedule, and since the boats are sometimes filled to capacity during Charleston’s lengthy tourist season, consider making your ferry reservations early. If you plan to purchase tickets the walkup way, buy them immediately upon arrival.
Plan to be on hand 30 minutes before the ferry’s scheduled departure, but arriving even earlier can make good sense during the busy months, especially if you haven’t made a reservation. There are no reserved seats on the ferry, so you don’t want to be at the back of the line if getting choice seats is important. You may want to bring along a sweater or windbreaker. Most seats on the boat are in an area that is covered, but not enclosed. Once the ferry gets underway, the breeze that sweeps through the boat can be surprisingly chilly, even on warm afternoons. There is a very reasonably priced snack bar on the ferry. Picnicking is not permitted inside Fort Sumter, but there is a water fountain inside the fort.
Most of all enjoy your day visiting the beautiful Charleston area! And if you’re interested in living in this great area, please contact Drew Sineath & Associates, we’d love to answer any questions you may have and show you some wonderful lowcountry homes.