Traveler's Checklist: Fort Sumter National Monument
Fort Sumter National Monument, where the first salvos of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, has become an even more popular tourist destination now that the Civil War 150th anniversary commemoration is underway. Here is information that will help you plan your visit.
Fort Sumter National Monument consists of three sites situated on or in the busy harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center, the park's main visitor center, occupies a waterfront location in Charleston's Liberty Square. Fort Sumter itself is situated a little over three watery miles from downtown Charleston on a man-made island at the mouth of Charleston harbor. Fort Moultrie is at the south end of Sullivan's Island directly across from Fort Sumter. (Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in nearby Mount Pleasant is administered by Fort Sumter National Monument, but is a separate unit of the National Park System.)
Click to the
Fort Sumter overview video and staff commentary for a personal invitation to visit this extraordinary park.
BEFORE YOU GO
Understand this from the outset: while it's possible to visit all three of the park's sites on the same day, it's not recommended. This is especially true if you have limited time available and want to schedule a same-day visit to a nearby attraction such as Charleston's renowned historic district, the Patriots Point Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant (where you can tour the World War II carrier USS Yorktown), or the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley (Saturdays and Sundays only; closed Easter).
Keep That Ferry Ride in Mind
Fort Sumter is situated on an island and is accessible only by boat. Unless you have your own boat, getting to the historic fort is going to entail a ferry boat trip -- about 25-30 minutes each way -- that is available on a limited schedule (several daily trips) and not available at all from Fort Moultrie. Since you have to plan your visit around that ferry schedule, and since the boats are sometimes filled to capacity during Charleston's lengthy tourist season, consider making your ferry reservations early. If you plan to purchase tickets the walkup way, buy them immediately upon arrival.
You need to make a fundamental choice of ferry landings. The concessionaire-operated (Spirit Line) ferry service to Fort Sumter is offered from two locations: the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center on Liberty Square in Charleston and the Patriot's Point Maritime Museum in the city of Mount Pleasant. The Patriot's Point ferry landing is located about a 15-minute drive from Fort Moultrie and a 10-minute or so drive (via the spectacular Ravenel Bridge) from downtown Charleston on the other side of the harbor. If you want to do a same-day tour of both the Patriot's Point maritime museum and Fort Moultrie, choose the Patriot's Point ferry. Otherwise, choose the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center ferry.
Plan to arrive early. You're supposed to be on hand 30 minutes before the ferry's scheduled departure, but arriving even earlier can make good sense during the busy months, especially if you haven't made a reservation. There are no reserved seats on the ferry, so you don't want to be at the back of the line if getting choice seats is important to you.
You may want to bring along a sweater or windbreaker. Most seats on the boat are in an area that is covered, but not enclosed. Once the ferry gets underway, the breeze that sweeps through the boat can be surprisingly chilly, even on warm afternoons.
There is a very reasonably-priced snack bar on the ferry. Picnicking is not permitted inside Fort Sumter, but there is a water fountain inside the fort.
A Word About Parking
While the supply of parking spaces is generally adequate at Fort Moultrie, and downright generous at Patriot's Point, it is notoriously tight in the Liberty Square vicinity. For peace of mind, when you visit the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center plan to use the parking garage on Calhoun Street adjacent to Liberty Square
Charleston's CARTA bus system has a Downtown Area Shuttles (DASH) stop at the Calhoun/Concord intersection that serves Liberty Square/Aquarium Wharf/Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center & Tour Dock. The DASH service ($1.50 per ride, $5 for an All Day Pass) provides connections to the major tourist attractions and shopping areas throughout the downtown area and to some other areas of the peninsula.
FORT SUMTER VISITOR EDUCATION CENTER
The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center -- open 8:30 to 5:00 daily (except New Years, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Days); no admission charge -- is ensconced in a handsome multi-level brick building at 340 Concord Street on the Liberty Square waterfront. The lower level of the visitor center is the wharf level where visitors queue up to board Fort Sumter ferry. The upper level is occupied by a visitor center that has, in addition to an exhibit area and bookstore, an observation deck that affords views of the Cooper river waterfront and Charleston harbor. There is also a ferry ticket sales window at the entrance.
** The exhibit area has fairly extensive museum exhibits that tell the story of growing sectionalism and strife between the North and the South and how these problems ultimately erupted into civil war at Fort Sumter. The feature exhibit is the flag that flew over Fort Sumter during the 1861 bombardment, and again on April 14, 1865 after the fort was reclaimed by Union forces. What visitors actually see in the sealed display case are tattered remains of the this powerful patriotic symbol, which suffered badly during many decades of improper storage. The Visitor Education Center exhibit text is available online.
** The VEC's bookstore, which is operated by Eastern National, is attractive and well stocked. As you might expect, there is a noteworthy selection of Civil War books and educational items relating to the park's interpretive themes.
FORT SUMTER TOUR
The Fort Sumter tour normally lasts about two hours and 15 minutes. About one hour of that is spent touring the fort itself and the rest of the time is spent on the ferry.
** The ferry ride to the historic fort is a significant part of the recreational-educational experience. A recorded narrative ( click to this site for the script) provides basic information about the fort and various places and activities of interest. Among the visible highlights are the Charleston waterfront, the majestic Ravenel Bridge, Patriot's Point (and the WW II aircraft carrier Yorktown), Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Sumter. (From this vantage point it's easy to see that Fort Sumter's mission was to work in close partnership with Fort Moultrie on the other side of the shipping channel to bring a lethal crossfire to bear on any enemy vessel attempting to enter the mouth of the harbor.) Since Charleston is the third-busiest port on the Atlantic Coast, and has a bustling cruise ship terminal, you're likely to see a ship on the move. If you look carefully, you may catch fleeting glimpses of dolphins.
** The modern dock serving as the ferry landing is a replacement for one that Hurricane Hugo destroyed in 1989. Visitors can view the Confederate Defenders Plaque (erected in 1929) and then enter the fort through a sally port that was built in the 1870s in the fort's left face, which is the wall that faces Charleston. The original sally port provided entry at the fort's rear wall (gorge) and was served by a 171-foot long granite wharf.
** Each newly arrived group of visitors is gathered in a sheltered area of the left flank casements for a 10-minute orientation talk that provides historical background and other essential information. Visitors are reminded that the modern fort bears little resemblance to the original. About 90% complete in April 1861, the five-sided fort was designed with three tiers of gun emplacements -- the bottom two protected by heavy casements -- mounting 135 guns in all. The fort's thick brick masonry walls once loomed 50 feet above low tide, but then the 1863-1865 Union siege -- longest of the Civil War -- pounded the fort with 44,000 projectiles and reduced the fort's two upper gun tiers to rubble. The low-profile structure that visitors see today also has extensive modifications made during the fort's subsequent service as a light station (1876-1897) and coastal artillery installation (1898-1948).
** Warnings are an essential part of the orientation. Visitors are reminded that everything in the fort is protected, and nothing is to be removed or disturbed. Parents are told to keep a close eye on their children and make sure they don't climb on the cannons or brickworks and don't run afoul of the fort's numerous hazards . These "history can hurt" include uneven historic surfaces that can make for tricky walking, steps and other surfaces that are often damp and slippery, and interior areas that are lit poorly or not at all. Some particularly dangerous areas of the fort are closed with chains or other barriers.
** Guided tours are normally not available. The normal procedure is to turn visitors loose after the orientation and let them use the rest of their hour at the fort for self-guided tours. The visitor guide has a walking tour section with 12 points of interest. Wayside exhibits interpret historic resources throughout the fort as well as the observation level vistas. Rangers or volunteers are usually available to answer questions, and can sometimes be prevailed upon to give impromptu talks.
** The huge reinforced concrete structure that visually dominates the fort's interior is Battery Huger. Prompted by the Spanish American War, the Army constructed Battery Huger (yu-GEE) in 1898 to bolster Charleston's harbor defenses. It was manned during World War I and World War II.
** The parade ground is a grassy open space that occupies roughly one third of the fort's interior. It is actually the remnant of a much larger parade ground, the bulk of which is now covered by Battery Huger and the flag-bedecked observation level. The remnant parade ground that we see today was buried when Battery Huger was built in 1898, but revealed again in the 1950s after the Park Service removed some 20 feet of fill.
** An artillery exhibit on the parade ground in front of the left flank casements is a major attraction . Mounted on white blocks are two 15-inch Rodmans, an 8-inch Columbiad, and a 10-inch mortar. This display is an outstanding "photo op."
** Look for the three large projectiles imbedded in the left face casements. Two are imbedded in the wall in front of the parade ground artillery pieces described above. You'll find a third one a bit further to the right. These particular rounds were fired from Union rifled guns on Morris Island that were able to destroy the left face casements by hitting them from their unprotected rear.
** In the 1870s, eleven 100-pounder Parrott rifles were moved from Morris Island and mounted in the right face casements where you can see them today. Some of the rifled cannons that the Union used to bombard Fort Sumter during the 1863-1865 siege were considerably larger than these.
** A powder magazine located near the left-gorge angle was the site of a December 11, 1863 explosion that killed 11 Confederates and injured 41. The sturdily constructed magazine absorbed much of the force of the blast, just as it was designed to do, but the power of the explosion is evidenced by a massive brick wall that now bulges and leans precariously enough to require support. This offers a good "photo op."
** The Union Garrison Monument (erected in 1932) is situated near the stairs to the museum and restrooms. Although Fort Sumter was designed for a 650-man garrison, only 87 Union officers and enlisted men were on hand to defend the fort when the Confederate bombardment began on April 12, 1861. Because Confederates had stymied resupply efforts, this undersized garrison was nearly out of food when the bombardment began and quickly ran so low on cartridge bags that they could only fire a few guns at a time.
** Visit the Fort Sumter Museum, which is situated in the Battery Huger complex. In this small museum you will find exhibits that tell the story of the fort's construction, the April 12-13, 1861 bombardment, the 1863-1865 Union siege, and the post-Civil War history of the fort. Two of the original flags that flew over the Fort are on display. For additional details, click to the exhibit text.
** The highest level of the fort, which is reached by stairways ascending to the top of Battery Huger, was created by dumping fill into the former parade ground area between Battery Huger and the fort's seaward-facing right flank. On this level there is a walkway/observation area, several cannons, and an impressive array of flags. The main flag is a huge 50-star U.S. flag (garrison flag) that can be seen for miles. Facing it in an arc is an array of five flags including the 33-star flag of the U.S. (1861), the first national flag of the Confederacy (1861), the South Carolina state flag, the second national flag of the Confederacy (1863), and the 35-star flag of the U.S. (1865). Among the views to be enjoyed from the observation level are the Charleston peninsula and waterfront, Castle Pinckney, the harbor and its seaward approaches, and Sullivan's Island (including Fort Moultrie and a Park service-administered lighthouse that is now for sale).
** Displayed at the right-gorge angle of this upper level is a 12-pounder mountain howitzer like the Confederate defenders deployed against landings by Union troops. It was from a gun in the right-gorge angle's first tier casements -- long ago rendered inaccessible -- that Capt. Abner Doubleday fired the first shot from Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.
** The return trip on the ferry affords additional opportunities to enjoy great scenery (and in the summer, refreshing breezes). If it's important to get the seat you prefer, remember to queue up early.
** Fort Moultrie is located at 1214 Middle Street on Sullivan's Island (see accompanying map). It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (except New Year's, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Days) and an entrance fee is charged.
** The visitor center is modern and well designed. Take time to enjoy the excellent exhibits that trace the story of American seacoast defenses from 1776-1947. A 20-minute orientation film is offered on the hour and half-hour from 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. A bookstore has lots of books and other interpretive items relating to Fort Moultrie's history.
** The fort is across the street from the visitor center. As you approach the entrance to the fort you will have the chance to visit the final resting place of the great Seminole Indian chief Osceola, who was imprisoned at Fort Moultrie and died there of scarlet fever on January 30, 1838. His grave marker simply reads "Osceola, Warrior and Patriot."
** Tour the fort. Interpretive wayside exhibits are posted throughout the fort. You can use the self-guided brochure to tour the fort on your own. From March to November, guided ranger programs are offered every Saturday and Sunday at 11:00 and 2:30. During June 1 - August 15, guided ranger programs are also offered several times daily on weekdays. Space for each guided program is limited and offered on a first-come first-served basis.
** What you see is the modern version of the third fort built on this site. The first one, built of palmetto logs in 1776, became famous for repelling an attack by British warships in the June 28, 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island, an early Patriot victory in the Revolutionary War. A replacement fort built in 1798 was destroyed by a hurricane. The third Fort Moultrie, which mounted 50 cannons, was completed in 1809 and remained little changed until the beginning of the Civil War. During the postbellum era it was repeatedly renovated for coastal defense , eventually being equipped with modern rifled guns and massive earth-covered concrete bunkers and magazines as part of Fort Moultrie Military Reservation, an installation that sprawled over much of Sullivan's Island. Partnered with Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie continued to protect Charleston harbor during the age of submarine and aerial warfare until it was decommissioned in 1947.
** This is a great place to explore the history of coastal artillery. Fort Moultrie is the only National Park System unit that has weaponry exhibits tracing the entire 171-year history of American seacoast defense (1776-1947).
** One of the most interesting exhibits is a section of parapet built with palmetto logs in the manner of the original fort. Since palmetto logs are spongy and resist splintering, parapets constructed of palmetto logs and sand stood up very well against British naval gunfire during the 1776 Battle of Sullivan's Island.