Road Trip Through History: Fort Sumter

My Own True Love and I are spending a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina.  For me, it’s a vacation/work sandwich.  Yesterday we bopped around together doing history-buff stuff.*  Today he heads off for twenty-four hours with his grandson’s Cub Scout troop aboard the USS Yorktown while I settle in for a day of reading and writing.  Tomorrow, we resume bopping.

The center of our first day was a visit to Fort Sumter, where the Civil War officially began.**  As always, the National Park Service did an excellent job.

Because Fort Sumter is on a island in the mouth of Charleston’s harbor, the visit begins with a boat ride, offered through an official park vendor.**** I must admit, I grumbled at the idea of a narrated boat “tour” of the harbor with only hour on the ground at the fort. I should have had more faith.  A hour was just about the right amount of time.

If you have the choice, I recommend the first trip of the day because it includes a flag-raising ceremony.  The ranger began with a brief, impassioned account of  the fall of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, including a description of the role that the American flag played in the events on Sumter.  (Stay tuned for some of the details.)  Then she asked for help raising the flag.  Twenty or thirty visitors (including me and My Own True Love) lined up to help unfold and hoist the flag.  Before we began, she asked us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors in the line.  It was moving and meaningful—a moment of unity in which no one mentioned the election or the inauguration that was going on as we shook hands and remembered a time of national division.

Once the ceremony was over, we were  free to explore the ruins of the fort and the excellent small museum. We would have enjoyed the visit even if all we got out of it was a more detailed version of the events of April 12, 1861—the ranger was interesting, the boat ride of lovely, the weather was amazing.  But, as is so often the case, the NPS did a good job of putting the place in its broader historical context, including a small exhibit on the role of African-American slaves in the fort’s history.  Here are some of the things that caught my imagination:

The fort was built as part of a string of coastal fortifications, planned as a result of the inadequacy of coastal defense in the War of 1812. (At some level, armies always plan for the last war.  And really, what choice do they have?)  They built a man-made island in the mouth of Charleston’s Harbor in 1829, using sand and 70,000 tons of granite from New England.  Intended for a garrison of 650 men with 135 guns, the fort was almost completed by 1860 but it was not yet manned   When Anderson and his men arrived at the fort, they raised the American flag there for the first time.

The military professionals of the Union and Confederate armies were drawn from the same small pool of big fish:  Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard led the Confederate troops that bombarded Anderson and his men.  Anderson was Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point.  This is the kind of thing that would lead to dramatic tension—or charges of implausibility—if I wrote historical fiction.

Major Anderson was allowed to surrender with full honors, including the right to take his flag with him.  At the war’s end, on April 9, 1865, he raised the same flag over Fort Sumter  once more.

The story of Fort Sumter didn’t end with Anderson’s surrender.  The fort remained a Confederate stronghold for the next four years despite repeated Union efforts to recapture it.  The Confederate garrison never surrendered.  They withdrew from the island when Sherman’s march threatened the South Carolina capitol.

The ruined fort was brought back into service during the Spanish-American War, when the army constructed a large concrete battery on the former parade ground, and it remained in service as part of the coastal defense until Pearl Harbor, when it became clear that aviation was the name of the coastal defense game.

Don’t touch that dial.  More historical adventures from Charleston are coming up.

*And eating.  Because everything you hear about food in Charleston is true.  The only thing that saved us from dyspepsia and blimpitude has been lots and lots of walking. I strongly recommend Jestine’s Kitchen.  And pimento cheese.

**For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story or want a refresher, here’s a recap:

In November, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president.  On December 20, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union.*** By March 2, a total of seven states had seceded and seized Federal forts and naval yards throughout the South.  Fort Sumter, an unfinished red brick fortress built on a man-made granite island,  was one of the few to remain in Federal hands, thanks to preemptory action by Major Robert Anderson.

Anderson commanded two companies—a total of 85 men, including musicians—at nearby Fort Moultrie.  Six days after South Carolina seceded, he decided Moultrie was impossible to defend and moved his troops in the night to Sumter.  The Confederate government saw Anderson’s transfer as an act of aggression.  (Unlike, say, seizing Federal forts.  Partisanship blinds us all.)

The fort became the emotional focal point of the conflict between Union and Confederacy.  The small garrison was cut off from resupply or reinforcement, but refused to surrender the fort to Confederate control. Anderson, a Kentucky native and former slaveholder, was praised as a hero in the North and reviled as a traitor in the South. President James Buchanan, at the end of his term of office, was unwilling to trigger civil war by attempting to relieve the besieged unit and equally unwilling to trigger a public outcry by recalling the troops from Sumter. He chose instead to leave the problem for his successor.

When Abraham Lincoln took office on March 4, the garrison at Sumter had less than six weeks of food left. Lincoln’s cabinet told him it was impossible to relieve the fortress and urged him to evacuate Anderson’s troops as a way of reducing tension between North and South. Popular opinion screamed for Lincoln to send reinforcements to the “gallant little band”.  With public opinion eager for action, and no sign that delay would improve the chances of reuniting the country, Lincoln chose to resupply the garrison but not send reinforcements unless the Confederates attacked either the fort or the supply ships—a compromise that pleased no one.

Shortly after midnight on April 12, with resupply ships on the way, the Confederate government gave Anderson until 4:00 AM to surrender. Anderson refused. At 4:30 AM, the bombardment began. Although they had neither the men nor supplies to mount a meaningful defense, the Union forces held out for a day and a half before surrendering.

The war had begun.

***No matter how contentious the recent election was, no one threatened to secede—unless I missed something.

****Only two round trips a day in January.  There are more in the high season, but there are also more people who want to go.  Plan ahead so you aren’t disappointed.

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