When my nephew Brian Amtraked down from Michigan and paid us a visit at our South Carolina home, he saw an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. Brian is a hard core Civil War aficionado, you see, and like others of his kind he wants to visit all of the major CW sites so that he can die happy.
For as long as he could remember, Brian wanted to see the place where the shooting began. It was number one on his A-list. And so he dropped a broad hint. “Uncle Bob,” he said, “I would really, really like to see Fort Sumter National Monument.” And who better to see it with than me? (He didn’t say that last part out loud, but I could tell he was thinking that.)
“Brian,” I said, “you are going to see Fort Sumter, and you are going to remember it for the rest of your life.”
The very next morning we got up early, wolfed down an IHOP short stack in Columbia, and embarked for Charleston on Interstate 26. To keep from falling asleep on what has to be one of the most unrelentingly boring stretches of highway on the planet (it’s basically just a tunnel through the pine forest) we tried to one-up each other on Fort Sumter lore. In short order I realized that Brian knew at least as much about Fort Sumter as I did. That shouldn’t have surprised me. He had been studying up on the place all his life. He was ready, ready, ready to see Fort Sumter.
As we arrived in the Holy City, that fortunate peninsula situated where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean, I was growing increasingly nervous. Fort Sumter is located on an island in the harbor, and is accessible only by boat. The boat was due to leave very soon, and here we were crawling through crowded Charleston streets. I had checked the schedule before we left Columbia, so I knew that missing the boat would trigger a delay of several hours.
At last the marina hove into view. The car went into the very first parking space we came to. We grabbed our cameras, hats, guidebooks, and other necessaries before hotfooting it to the ticket office. I bought two tickets and we ran down the dock and got on the boat just minutes before they pulled the gangplank. Whew! That was close!
As the boat motored on down the river, Brian and I relaxed in our window seats and enjoyed the passing scene. Charleston’s Battery was too lovely for words. I pointed out Number One King Street, the Waterfront Park, Rainbow Row, and other delights. I talked about this and that, but mostly I talked about Fort Sumter.
We moved out of the river and into the harbor. “Look out over the bow,” I said. “Do you see that flag on that low-lying island? That’s Fort Sumter, Brian, and we’ll be there in just a few minutes.”
“In just a few minutes you’ll be standing where Major Anderson hauled down the Stars and Stripes in April 1861, and where that very same flag was triumphantly re-raised in 1865.” The bow slowly swung five degrees to port. A minor course correction, no doubt.
“Brian, remind me to show you where I took that picture of Danny and David standing next to a huge artillery shell lodged in a shattered brick casement.” The boat swung another ten degrees to port. Perhaps a sailboat has drifted into our path?
Brian said he could hardly stand to wait.
Now the bow was swinging, swinging, and swinging further to port. We were heading towards Patriot Point. Fort Sumter was receding in the distance. What the hell?!
Slowly, ever so slowly, it dawned on me. We were not on the Fort Sumter shuttle. We were on the harbor tour boat. Brian looked at me. I looked back at Brian. Alas, there are no rocks to crawl under in the middle of Charleston harbor.
In the next hour, Brian and I learned that Charleston is America's second busiest Atlantic seaport (after New York/New Jersey) and is a major receiving port for bananas shipped as far inland as Tennessee. We learned that the U.S.S. Yorktown, a WW II carrier now forever moored at Patriots Point, is almost three football fields long. We learned that a special cable stretched across the bottom of the Cooper River insured that nuclear submarines passing to and from the Charleston Naval Base were properly degaussed.
But we did not set foot on Fort Sumter that day, nor has Brian ever set foot on it as far as I know.
Postscript: This sorry episode happened over 20 years ago. The Fort Sumter boats now depart from two different locations, operating on schedules that are essentially moron-proof. The Charleston Naval Base closed in April 1996. And it has been a very long time since my nephew Brian has asked me to take him anywhere.