It has been over 150 years since the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 marking the start the Civil War between the North and South. Our family travel loves taking summer vacations or weekend day-trips to see historic sites and during our travels we have been very fortunate to have visited a few Civil War sites. Several years ago, during a summer road trip to Pennsylvania, we visited the Gettysburg National Battlefield which was the location of an intense three day battle between the Union and Confederate troops. On another road trip through Virginia, we visited the site of an earlier battle of the Civil War, the Manassas National Battlefield located near Washington, D.C. On that same trip we visited Appomattox, the location where General Grant and General Lee meet to negotiate the terms of surrender between the Union and the Confederacy. Since visiting the location where the Civil War officially came to an end, we decided that we eventually needed to see the site where the Civil War began. So, last summer on a road trip to Florida, we stopped in the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina which is the location of Fort Sumter.
Fort Sumter, which was named after the Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter, was one of several defensive sites located along the eastern coast of the United States. Construction began in 1829 and continued for over thirty years until it was finally completed in 1861. Fort Sumter was built on a sand bar located at the entrance to the harbor in the Charleston, South Carolina. Several thousand tons of granite were used to create a five-sided 170 feet by 190 feet long structure made with walls that were five feet thick, it was an impressive fortress and an effective first line of defense against attacking forces in the region.
In the mid-1880s tensions between the northern and southern regions of America began to escalate over several important political and social issues and this lead to the state of South Carolina becoming the first state to succeed from the United States in December 1860. In response to this action, Major Robert Anderson made the critical decision to close Fort Moultrie and move the U.S. Army troops to nearby Fort Sumter. He felt that Fort Sumter would provide a stronger defensive position against the South Carolina militia despite the fact that construction was still not fully completed and the fort was armed with fewer than half of the cannons that should have been in place.
After South Carolina, several additional southern states quickly succeeded from the United States and formed the Confederacy of the South. The U.S. Army of the North, now known as the Union, prepared to send additional troops to defend Fort Sumter. As tensions continued to increase over the next few months, the Confederate General Beauregard demanded that the Union troops occupying Fort Sumter surrender, but Major Anderson refused and his troops continued to defend their position. By the time the “Star of the West”, an unarmed merchant ship carrying Union soldiers for reinforcements at Fort Sumter, arrived off the coast of South Carolina on January 9, 1861 the Confederate troops fired the first shot of the Civil War to prevent the ship from entering the Charleston Harbor, they were successful.
After a few more months the situation was becoming desperate for the Union troops at Fort Sumter and they were running out of food and other supplies. In early April 1961 newly elected President Lincoln dispatched more ships to the Charleston area with reinforcements, military equipment and supplies. When the ships arrived off the coast of South Carolina, General Beauregard sent his aides to Fort Sumter to demand a surrender but Major Anderson refused once again to negotiate. On April 12, 1861 in the early morning hours the Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter and the bombardment continued non-stop for the next 34 hours. The citizens of Charleston watched from the verandas of their homes overlooking the harbor throughout the day but when the night came the battle was finally over. The next morning, April 13, the Union forces surrendered to the Confederates and left Fort Sumter.
Throughout the Civil War, the Confederates occupied Fort Sumter and as Union ships repeatedly attempted to access the Charleston harbor the Confederates would fiercely defend their position and many Union ships were sunk near the entrance to the harbor. Under the cover of night, Confederates forces stationed at Fort Sumter would salvage the military canons of those ships and move them to the fort to increase their defensive arsenal. Finally in February 1865, as the Union forces were gaining an advantage in the war, the Union General William Sherman successfully invaded the region and was creating a path of destruction across the south as he made his famous march to the Atlantic and by the time he reached the coast of South Carolina, the Confederate troops had abandoned Fort Sumter.
After the Civil War had ended with the surrender at Appomottax, extensive work was needed to repair the severe damage caused by the numerous military battles and attacks on Fort Sumter. The battered walls of the fort were rebuilt and eleven of the original gun rooms were restored. For the next 30 years after the war, the facility was only used as an unmanned lighthouse. Then in 1898, Fort Sumter again became an important defensive site along the coast of the United States during the Spanish-American war and reconstruction was needed to fortify the fort and a large concrete blockhouse was built within the walls of the original structure, it was named the “Battery Huger” in honor of the Revolutionary War General Isaac Huger.
But Fort Sumter was never to be involved in another battle and over the following decades it remained abandoned until the National Park Services took over its management and maintenance.
Fort Sumter Travel Information
Today, the Fort Sumter National Monument includes the restored Fort Sumter located in Charleston Harbor and two additional sites, the Fort Sumter Visitor and Education Center located at Liberty Square in the city of Charleston and Fort Moultrie located on Sullivan’s Island.
For most visitors, access to Fort Sumter is restricted to special ferries that depart from Liberty Square to Fort Sumter; the ride is approximately 30 minutes and a convenient car parking facility is located at Liberty Square. Please be advised that there is limited parking available in downtown Charleston for over-sized vehicles, such an RV or bus. It is recommended that visitors traveling to see Fort Sumter in larger vehicles take the ferry from Patriots Point where there is ample parking for oversized vehicles with no height restrictions. For more information and directions to Fort Sumter, please see the NPS website at www.nps.gov/fosu (There is additional access to Fort Sumter by private boat or other water vehicles and for more information and restrictions check out the NPS website)
Advanced ticket reservations for the ferries to Fort Sumter are highly recommended prior to the date of your visit especially during the busy summer months when tickets can sell out quickly. For more information regarding prices, hours of operation and departure times, please check out www.FortSumterTours.com
The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center located at Liberty square offers a museum featuring exhibits about the history of the Civil War and Fort Sumter for visitors to view while they are waiting for their ferry departure times. The ferries to Fort Sumter are very comfortable and there is ample passenger seating available both inside an air conditioned cabin and outside on deck. Be sure to take in the wonderful views of the city of Charleston during the 30-minute ferry ride from the dock at Liberty Square to Fort Sumter. (During our trip we were able to see dolphins in the harbor!)
Once visitors arrive at Fort Sumter, there are NP rangers available which provide visitors with a brief history of the battle of Fort Sumter and there are also several interpretive exhibits located throughout the grounds. There is also a small museum on site featuring information about Fort Sumter’s involvement in the Civil War and some interesting exhibits featuring the original flag used at Fort Sumter and other Civil War artifacts.
Important Travel Note: Please be advised that there are safety restrictions at Fort Sumter, such as climbing on the canons, and it is important if you are traveling with small children to watch them closely to avoid injuries.