When I was in ninth grade my family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, from Guam. This turns out to be as big a cultural relocation as it was a physical one. We moved into a nice little house on the marsh on James Island in Fort Johnson Estates. I went to what was then called Fort Johnson High School on Fort Johnson Road. If you go to the North end of Fort Johnson road you come to the South Carolina Marine Research facility, which is at the site of historic (wait for it) Fort Johnson.
My Family was a Navy family. We had lived all over the United States, well, all over the places where there was Ocean and it was usually warm enough for the Navy to be happy. But we certainly lived in many places that thought they were in the South. Places like Norfolk Virginia. But I had never heard of Fort Johnson before. Not sure I had ever really heard much (officially) about the civil war before. But now I was going to a high school and living in a sub-division that were both connected together by a road all named after this Fort Johnson. A place whose remnants I could walk to in half an hour from my house. So what was Fort Johnson that people had decided it was a place that needed to be remembered in such a way? Why, Fort Johnson was where the War Between the States began. The place where the first shot of the war was fired.
Many people might think that this dubious honor goes to Fort Sumter, but those people would be guilty of Yankee revisionist thinking. Fort Sumter was just the recipient of the first shot. Not the originator. The South started the war, and that war was started by a signal gun fired from Fort Johnson. Unclear if that signal gun actually had shot loaded and even more unclear what shot first HIT Fort Sumter. There were many (not yet) confederate forts that had been quickly built and they were all loaded up and ready to shoot that early April morning. But it was definitely Fort Johnson that sent the signal that lit up the whole shooting match.
So there are all of these Confederate fort (and war veterans) names all of the place in Charleston (My family's home was just off of Robert E. Lee street). With all of this Pro-South (essentially Pro-Cause) propaganda in so many public places is it surprising that the War stays as such a living thing in the mind of many southerners?
Sorry. I believe we were going on a Trip to Fort Sumter, which happened to be an American Fort at the start of the American Civil War. It is now a National Monument run by the Park service.
Fort Sumter is also built on a man-made island just off to the south side of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. It was built right where the modern cannon of the day would give it (and its sister structure, Fort Moultrie, on Sullivans Island) strong overlapping fields of fire on any vessels entering the harbor. Originally this was done to keep out those pesky Brits just after the war of 1812. Since it is on an Island, you need to take a boat ride to get to it. The park service has a contract with a local ferry company to transport passengers from the Monument office (which is in the city of Charleston right next to the Aquarium) over to the pier at Fort Sumter.
If you decide to visit Fort Sumter, you can park in the parkings structure that is next to the Aquarium (and marked for the Aquarium). You should call ahead and book a ticket for the boat ride. Make sure you arrive early enough to allow yourself time to stroll around the very nice museum building and read some of the history of the Fort. The history is wrapped up in the unpleasantness between the North and South and focuses a lot on the the one issue that they just didn't harp much on in history class in Charleston: Slavery.
There are many aspects of the evil of Slavery that we could discuss. I thought I would mention one that is alluded to with the following printed quote I found on a plaque inside the Fort Sumter Monument embarkation lounge/museum.
Here we have a well established and seemingly ubiquitous practice of the White Master having sex with his slaves. Pretty insidious stuff; you have these young women that you own and who can't say no to you and so you have your way with them. We would call this Rape. And then the girls have children. Now these kids are your daughters and sons, but since they cannot be recognized as such (especially by your wife and family) they are born and live their lives as Slaves. That is the horror of generation 1. Now look ahead a bit. Your (white) Son has grown up and inherits your home and other property. This property includes young girls and he knows that the common practice of his father was to have sex with these women and he continues this practice. Except in many cases, these women are his half sisters. There were many many generations of Slavery in the South, many cycles of this institutionalize incest-rape. I was first introduced to this historical inconvenient truth in the novel "Seventh Son" by Orson Scott Card. He addresses it as (essentially) Satan trying to destroy the South through ultimate sin. (Hey, it is a work of magic and fiction but that doesn't mean he doesn't capture the awfulness of the truth).
Man, it takes a long time to get to Fort Sumter. All of these side tours. But we have waited long enough and it is time to board our vessel for the 30 minute trip out to the Fort.
|Our Boat ride out.|
|Cooper River Bridge|
|Castle Pickney (another old fort)|
|Part of the Charleston Skyline. This is Ravenell Park (and a grounded sailboat)|
Note that the Charleston Skyline is very low.
Now that we are back in the center of the Cooper river and headed toward the entrance to the harbor, look off to your right (Starboard). What a lovely view of the downtown Charleston Peninsula. You can see the various church steeples rising over the city and the beautiful old houses lined up and stretching to White Point Garden and The Battery out on the end of the peninsula that marks the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. By the by, "Cooper" is pronounced with a soft u sound, like "cup". sort of.
There is an automated voice speaking at times over the loud speaker and telling us of historic points of interest. Off on James Island (hey, that is where I live) there is a Marine Research center. That is also the location of Fort Johnson (or what is left of it). From here you can see how cannons at that point could fire on Fort Sumter, in the distance. You can also imagine that it might have been a pretty hard shot to make. A mile or so away, and presumably you have to loft your shells pretty high in the air to make the distance. Lots of windage and stuff. But I understand that the top mathematicians of the time used to spent a lot of effort creating tables for calculation how to shoot the big guns. Math is always key to efficient mayhem.
|We approach the island that is Fort Sumter|
|Those are Gun Embrasures. The fort used to be 2-3 stories taler.|
We pull up at the dock that is on the North side of the man made island on which lies Fort Sumter. The island was originally made from imported stone that was just dropped into the water at a local shallow point in the river. The stone had to be imported because there really isn't any local stone in the low Carolina country. Just mud. Perhaps some occasional limestone. It used to be that the river flowed on all sides of the island, but back in the 40s they dredged the harbor entrance so the larger boats could get in and they put all of that dredge in the shallows south of Sumter. So now there is land (marsh) there and you can occasionally walk to the Fort during a real low tide.
Fort Sumter is really 2 forts. A "more modern" installation built on top of the old Civil war fort. You enter through what was a side door through the original fort wall. These walls are all made of bricks. These were locally sourced bricks created from local clay by local Slaves. Thousands and Thousands of bricks. Oh, and it is illegal to take one, so don't even think about it.
Once inside the walls you can see the plan of the fort. There were 3 tiers of guns. The bottom tier, with the biggest guns, had these long rifled affairs. They can be elevated and traversed because they sit on metal rails that allow the real of the gun to be slewed from side to side. When they are "run out" they stick out through a little slit, thus maximizing wall and minimizing return fire killing your crew.
|Note the Brick work.|
|A row of guns pointed pretty much at our Ferry.|
Ironically, the fort was made sort of backwards to what it actually "Needed" to be in the only war it participated in. The fort was made with its "front" facing south to a pier where supplies and such could come in. But any large ships would have to pass by the rear (North) of the fort. And that is where all of the thick walls and big guns were placed. But when the South started shooting at the fort, many of the guns firing where shooting from the south side, at the front and poorly armored side of the fort. That must have been depressing for the Union troops.
|Looking from the "New" Fort down into the bottom part of the Old Fort|
After WWI the US built of a sort of Aquatic Magniot line of big forts at Various harbor entrances. You can see the remanents of the forts all over the USA. A few big ones, for instance, out at the mouth of the Columbia river in Oregon (Fort Stevens). Well, such a fort was built on top of the wreck of Fort Sumter. The army corp of engineers just came in and filled the old fort up with dirt, leaving all of the old guns and such in place, and went ahead and built the new modern Huge Gun concrete emplacement. That set of buildings isn't very pretty, but it does serve as a nice place to have the rest of the historic artifacts and placards displayed. The filling of the fort with Dirt also turned out to be something of a godsend for the historic guns and such as it preserved them from the elements and graffiti artists until Fort Sumter was named a historic monument and some money could be spent to dig the old fort out and restore the walls and guns.
When I was learning history, there was much ado made of the battle of the Monitor and Merrimack. The way the lesson was taught, it always seemed to me that the Monitor was some sort of freak One-off that had that one battle and then sank in a storm in the Atlantic. Turns out there is a lot of problems with that view. For one, the Confederate ship was actually called The Virginia. It made been the Merrimack when it was captured from the Yankees, but then it was converted to a steam powered iron clad and renamed The Virginia as a ship of the CSA. How much of history do the victors get to rewrite? The other thing is that there were a LOT of monitor type vessels made by the Union and deployed around the country. A squadron of 9 of them, under command of Rear Admiral Du Pont, sailed into Charleston Harbor in 1863 and tried to take Fort Sumter back from the Confederates later in the war ( you know, after the Confedreates took it from the Union).
You can learn about this history in the environment controlled museum room inside the black concrete part of the fort. You can also wander around and see the old guns and read about how they work and what sort they are. Some of them were confederate guns. Others were newer guns brought in just after the civil war in a modernization effort. As you walk around, you need to try and visualize what it might have been like in 1853. There would have been 3 tiers of the big guns, back then, and an big brick barracks to house the soldiers. Most of that is gone, but there are still some outlines of the buildings and enough of the guns down one corridor to give you an idea of what the place looked like.
We came on the 2nd (last) boat of the day. So we (and everyone else on the island, including the Park Rangers) had to return on that boat after about an hour of walking around. There was a nice flag ceremony conducted by the head Ranger and he got some of our fellow tourists to help lower and fold the big USA flag flying over the fort. Then we all walked out the long pier together, got back on the ferry, and took off back for Charleston. The tide was going out strong, making a strong current right at the pier. There was a group of Dolphin swimming there in the rocks. My partner and I like seeing the dolphin, though they are a bit hard to photograph.
|Dolphin in the channel. Sullivan Island light in the background. That is also where Fort Moultrie is, |
gives you an idea of what an attacking squadron would have to face to get into the Harbor.
They would be sitting ducks.
The day had been cold and blustery, but there was a snack bar on the ferry and my Partner and I got a nice hot cup of coffee for the return trip. There is a lot of things to see and read that I have not mentioned. But really, you don't want me to tell you about everything, just enough to get you thinking that the next time you are in South Carolina, and you visit Charleston, you may just want to take a nice boat trip out to Historic Fort Sumter.