The next day we awoke hoping that the rain would be gone for our visit to Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter was a site that my mom and I pondered when we visited Charleston back in 2004, but didn’t end up visiting. Since then, I’ve become much more interested in Civil War history, and this time around I was super-excited about seeing where the Civil War began. Fort Sumter is run by the National Park Service, who operates a contract with a vendor to run the ferry that takes tourists out to the fort.
Fort Sumter was unoccupied when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Six days later, on December 26, Major Robert Anderson secretly moved his troops from the indefensible Fort Moultrie, located nearby, to the more fortified Fort Sumter. He worked to shore up the still incomplete fort, but it was a bit of a lost cause from the beginning, because the fort was only supplied with half of the cannons that it was supposed to have. The battle began when the Confederates threatened to bombard the fort if the union sent supply ships to resupply the fort. Lincoln, wanting the Confederates to make the first move if there was going to be war, contacted the Governor of South Carolina and stated that it was a peaceful supply mission and if the Confederates held their fire, then the mission would only deliver food. However, if the fort was attacked, then Lincoln announced that he would reinforce the fort. The rest is history…
The Confederates fired the first shot on Fort Sumter at 4:30 am on April 11, 1861. Major Anderson waited more than 2 hours to return fire, and at 7:00 am, Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first cannon shot towards the Confederates. Doubleday, if you can’t remember where you have heard that name before, is also attributed with inventing the game of baseball. No Union soldiers were killed or injured during the bombardment, but two Union soldiers were killed when the cannon they were firing misfired during the surrender ceremony.
The Fort is out in Charleston Harbor, built on seventy thousand tons of granite that were transported to the site and dumped there to build up the sandbar. To get to the fort, you have to take a ferry, which takes about 30 minutes. The ride out was very smooth and an audio tape gives you the history of the other forts in the harbor, including Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie and Fort Wagner – although Fort Wagner doesn’t exist anymore. If you have seen the film Glory, Fort Wagner was the fort that the 54th was trying to capture. Once you are at Fort Sumter and you get off the ferry, you have 1 hour at the site. It isn’t really enough time.
Jon and I focused our time on the outer walls, and then spend the time we had left in the onsite museum. It would have been better if we had two hours. The Fort was almost entirely obliterated during the 34 hours of shelling, so the fort you see today is the version that was rebuilt after the war. You can still see places in the fort’s walls where shrapnel is embedded in the walls.
There is also a concrete and steel structure that was built during the Spanish American War in 1898. The National Parks Service understands that the later steel structure isn’t all that historic, but unfortunately it would cost so much to remove it that there it stays. It is much more indestructible than the original Fort! It was powerful to see Fort Sumter and to imagine how difficult it would be to defend – there are basically forts on all sides from which to blast you with cannon fire! Fort Sumter was very vulnerable. We walked around and looked at everything and read all the signs and I took pictures of everything. I was a bit surprised at how small it was – you would have had cabin fever in a bad way if you were stuck there for a long period of time.
After our hour, we reluctantly got back on the boat… On the ferry back in, we sat outside on the deck, enjoying the warm breeze. We felt a few big drops of rain, but it held off. And while we were sitting outside on the boat enjoying the view, we saw some dolphins playing in the wake! It was pretty neat to see, but unfortunately, they didn’t stick around long enough to get pictures of them!