This is it. Fort Sumter. The place that brought about the beginning of the Civil War. A Troy for modern times. Though many historians insist the war would have happened regardless of President Lincoln’s decision to keep Fort Sumter (843/883-3123, www.nps.gov/fosu, hours seasonal) in federal hands, nonetheless the stated causus belli was Major Robert Anderson’s refusal to surrender the fort when requested to do so in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861.
A few hours later came the first shot of the war, fired from Fort Johnson by Confederate Captain George James. That 10-inch mortar shell, a signal for the general bombardment to begin, exploded above Fort Sumter, and nothing in Charleston, or the South, or America, would ever be the same again.
Notorious secessionist Edmund Ruffin gets credit for firing the first shot in anger, only moments after James’s signal shell, from a battery at Cummings Point. Ruffin’s 64-pound projectile scored a direct hit, smashing into the fort’s southwest corner. The first return shot from Fort Sumter was fired by none other than Captain Abner Doubleday, the father of baseball.
The first death of the Civil War also happened at Fort Sumter, not from the Confederate bombardment but on the day after. U.S. Army Private Daniel Hough died when the cannon he was loading, to be fired as part of a 100-gun surrender salute to the Stars and Stripes, exploded prematurely.
Today the battered but still-standing Fort Sumter remains astride the entrance to Charleston Harbor on a man-made, 70,000-ton sandbar. Fort Sumter was part of the so-called Third System of fortifications ordered after the War of 1812. Interestingly, the fort was still not quite finished when the Confederate guns opened up on it 50 years later, and never enjoyed its intended full complement of 135 big guns.
As you might expect, you can only visit by boat, specifically the approved concessionaire Fort Sumter Tours (843/881-7337, www.fortsumtertours.com, $16 adults, $10 ages 6–11, $14.50 seniors). Once at the fort, there’s no charge for admission. Ferries leave from Liberty Square at Aquarium Wharf on the peninsula three times a day during the high season; call or check the website for times. Make sure to arrive about a half-hour before the ferry departs. You can also get to Fort Sumter by ferry from Patriots Point at Mount Pleasant through the same company.
Budget at least 2.5 hours for the whole trip, including an hour at Fort Sumter. At Liberty Square on the peninsula is the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center (340 Concord St., daily 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., free), so you can learn more about where you’re about to go. Once there, you can be enlightened by the regular ranger’s talks on the fort’s history and construction (generally at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.), take in the interpretive exhibits throughout the site, and enjoy the view of the spires of the Holy City from afar.
For many, though, the highlight is the boat trip itself, with beautiful views of Charleston Harbor and the islands of the Cooper River estuary. If you want to skip Fort Sumter, you can still take an enjoyable 90-minute ferry ride around the harbor and past the fort on the affiliated Spiritline Cruises (800/789-3678, www.spiritlinecruises.com, $16 adults, $10 ages 6–11).
Some visitors are disappointed to find many of the fort’s gun embrasures bricked over. This was done during the Spanish-American War, when the old fort was turned into an earthwork and the newer Battery Huger (pronounced “Huge-E”) was built on top of it.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition