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Charleston: The City Where the War Began

By Jay Wertz
8/23/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Although the conquest of Charleston, South Carolina, commanded nearly as much of the Union war effort as the capture of Richmond in 1862-65, the conflict is relegated to the back pages of many Civil War studies. That isn’t fair. The port city where the war began was more than just a symbolic target for the North; it was a critical gateway for the flow of Confederate war materiel and supplies.

Fort Sumter was the chief obstacle in the Union’s three-year campaign to recapture the city and its daunting harbor, and is a must for any Civil War buff today. This column, however, will provide tips on visiting the lesser-known landmarks in the so-called Cradle of the Secession.

A number of places in downtown Charleston have Civil War significance. Many are on Meeting Street, the principal north-south street in old Charleston. Located here are the Civil War–era city hall, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (a Confederate observation post) and the Charleston Museum at 360 Meeting Street. The Charleston Museum is among the oldest in the United States, dating from 1773, and has an extensive Civil War collection. Nearby is the Visitor Center at 375 Meeting Street, where a wealth of information is on offer, as well as access to harbor tours. Although Fort Sumter is accessible by private watercraft, commercial service is also available at a reasonable price. Get information at the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at 340 Concord Street, on the waterfront.

At the foot of Meeting Street is Battery Park, also called White Point Gardens, home to the downtown batteries that fired upon Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861. From the park you can see Castle Pinckney, used as a battery and, after the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, a prison for Federal POWs. Farther in the distance, Fort Sumter is visible. Today there are several mounted Civil War guns in the park, including one recovered in the famous Rebel salvage of USS Keokuk. Most of the homes facing the park are antebellum— the house at 9 East Battery still has lodged in its roof a portion of a cannon tube from an exploding gun.

Other downtown buildings with links to the war include the U.S. Customs building on Concord Street and the Exchange Building on Market Street. Although Federal shelling of the city, which began in August 1863, did little damage to Charleston, some antebellum buildings, including Secession Hall, did not escape a devastating fire in December 1861.

For a historic lodging experience, try the Embassy Suites hotel on Market Street. The inn occupies the original building of the Military College of South Carolina, the Citadel. The museum at the Citadel’s present location, 171 Moultrie Street next to Hampton Park, boasts an exemplary Civil War collection.

The next series of stops is south of downtown. Take U.S. Route 17 south from Charleston across the Ashley River and turn left on S.C. 171 to James Island. There are several sites here related to unsuccessful Federal operations that can be visited on the return trip. Continue east on S.C. 171, Folly Road, until it ends on Folly Island. A popular recreation area and beach, Folly Island was taken by the Federals unopposed. Although there are no landmarks on this island, you can drive to its north end on East Ashley Avenue for a view of Morris Island.

Morris Island was the site of extensive Federal siege operations, in addition to unsuccessful Union assaults on Fort Wagner, including the July 18, 1863, attack spearheaded by the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The island can be seen from Folly Island, though none of the Civil War features are visible from here. An experienced guide can conduct parties by private boat to the island, which is now supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers. Fort Wagner, a sand and rock fort during the war, has eroded away, but Battery Gregg and other period features remain.

The Charleston Lighthouse, which is still visible here, was a landmark for attackers and defenders, and on the island near Cummings Point, Citadel cadets fired on the Federal ship Star of the West in January 1861. Check with the Visitor Reception Center in Charleston for private guided tour information.

Return to James Island, and in a little more than a mile turn right on Old Military Road, then right again on Fort Lamar Road. Where the road meets the inlet is Secessionville, an antebellum resort. There are historical markers identifying Fort Lamar and describing the June 1862 Confederate victory here. Return to Folly Road and continue north. Turn right on Fort Johnson Road and drive until the roadway ends at the harbor.

The first signal shot in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter was fired from Fort Johnson. It was a pre–Revolutionary War fort, and today there are an 18th-century powder magazine as well as interpretive markers at the site. Fort Johnson is now home to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Retrace your route back to Folly Road, S.C. 171, and continue north. You can visit Battery Pringle to the west of S.C. 171 by taking S.C. 700 (Maybank Highway) to the east bank of the Stono River. The battery dueled with Union gunboats in 1863 and was the focus of a Federal infantry assault in 1864. This and other preserved earthworks here are in the Charleston Museum’s Dill Sanctuary. Continuing south on Maybank Highway will lead you to Johns Island, where several failed Federal assaults occurred in 1864. There are currently no interpretive markers on this island.

The other tour points are north of Charleston and include Patriot’s Point, Sullivan’s Island and the current home of the Confederate submarine Hunley. Return north on U.S. 17 through Charleston. Patriot’s Point is home to the Naval & Maritime Museum, the World War II aircraft carrier Yorktown and shuttle boats to Fort Sumter. As you drive to Sullivan’s Island on S.C. 703, you may want to stop by one of the waterside dining spots on Shem Creek. Continue on S.C. 703 to Middle Street on Sullivan’s Island and turn left.

Fort Moultrie, at 1214 Middle Street, has exhibits covering its history in wars from the American Revolution on, including its role in the bombardment of Fort Sumter and Federal attempts to enter Charleston Harbor. Sullivan’s Island was reinforced with additional batteries, including a floating ironclad battery and two others west of Fort Moultrie and five more to the east, among them Battery Beauregard. Fort Marshall faced the Atlantic Ocean. Interpretive markers on Middle Street mark the location of some of these. Boone Hall Plantation, established in 1681, is five miles north of Mount Pleasant on U.S. 17. It has original and rebuilt buildings, and is home to a reenactment of the Battle of Secessionville.

The Hunley site is a recently developed Civil War attraction. The submarine was discovered at the bottom of the harbor in the late 20th century and brought to the surface in 2000. It is now on display in a special environmentally controlled tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, exit 216-B from I-26, Cosgrove Avenue North to Sprull Avenue West, then north on McMillian to the Charleston Public Works on Supply Street.

Archaeological study of the sub continues during the week, but tours are available on weekends. Check the contact information below on how to arrange to see this one-of-a-kind naval treasure.

 

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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