Take the kids to Fort Sumter for an adventure-filled day

By:Megan Sexton


It’s a perfect outing for kids: A boat trip to an island with a fort filled with secret rooms and lined with more than 20 cannons.

For parents, it‘s a chance to sneak in a little education and history on a half-day trip.

Fort Su​mter, the island in Cha​rleston Harbor where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, offers the opportunity to combine both.

Getting started

The only way to get to the Fort Sumter National Monument is by boat, and Spirit Line Cruis​es is the only authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service.

Our family recently departed on a ferry from Liberty Square in Charleston. (Ferries also leave from Patriots Point in​ Mount Pleasant.) There is plenty of parking at the garage that serves both the Fort Sumter tours and the South Caro​lina Aquarium next door. It’s a short walk from the parking garage to the National Park Service Visitor Education Center, where you buy your tickets and board the boat.

The walk takes you through Liberty Square, which contains benches, shady shelters, a fountain and green space -- a great place for kids to run around before heading into the museum and onto the ferry.

Leave yourself about a half hour to take in the new visitor education center, which offers an overview of the history of Charleston and Fort Sumter. It‘s a good way to get a feel for what you are about to experience. Rangers are available and eager to answer any questions you have about Fort Sumter and the Civil War, and kids can soak up the facts about the state’s history by looking at the visual exhibits, including old uniforms, newspapers and other artifacts.

You can also get information about the Junior Ranger program, a National Park Service program geared for kids which lets them learn about the history of America’s National Parks. Through Junior Ranger activities, games and puzzles, kids ages 6-14 learn all about a specific national park and earn badges, patches, pins, and stickers.

Also at the education center, there’s a bookstore where you can find hats, T-shirts, books and trinkets, along with some games like Tabletop Ninepins, played by kids in the colonies as early as 1636, and Civil War jigsaw puzzles.

The boat ride

Part of the experience of Fort Sumter is getting there.

The ferry starts boarding about 15 minutes before departure. The cruise company recommends you allow 25 minutes for ticketing and boarding. The ride to Fort Sumter offers a great view of Charleston from the water, including the historic Battery. During the ride, you’ll hear a recording telling you about the founding of Charleston, its history and the events leading up to the firing on the fort.

There are restrooms on the ferry, and a snack bar with drinks, candy, chips and hot dogs for sale.

At the fort

Once you leave the ferry, you have about an hour to tour and explore the 2.5-acre fort. A park ranger (ours was Jennifer Zoebelein), offers a great overview of the fort’s history and is available to answer questions. She said the fort is a big hit with kits, who love exploring the grounds and checking out the flags and the cannons.

About those cannons: Every kid out there wants to climb on the fort’s walls or cannons. Don’t let them. Ninety percent of the brick is original and it’s fragile. The cannons are historic objects, not toys. It’s really tempting for kids, so keep an eye on them.

The second level of the fort, which was added in 1898 during the Spanish American War, features a bookstore and museum.

In between there are places to walk around, check out passageways and imagine what life was like for the men stationed there 150 years ago.

Back to land

After exploring the fort, you’ll board the ferry for the ride back. Again, a recording will tell you more history about South Carolina and Charleston. Back on shore, you are just steps away from the South Carolina​ Aquarium, or a short ride from the rest Charleston has to offer.

About Fort Sumter

The fort is named for South Carolinian Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War patriot.

Construction on the fort began in 1829, one of a series of coastal forts built by the United States after the War of 1812. Enslaved laborers and craftsmen were among those who worked on this structure. It was still unfinished when Maj. Robert Anderson moved his 85-man garrison into the fort on Dec. 26, 1860. On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina delegates met in a special convention and voted to break away from the Federal Union.

After Anderson moved his men to Fort Sumter, the South demanded the Union leave. The Union refused. On April 12, 1861, South Carolina Confederate troops from nearby Fort Johnson fired on the fort. The two-day bombardment resulted in the Union surrendering the fort.

On April 14, Maj. Anderson and his men marched out of the fort and boarded ships bound for New York. They had defended Sumter for 34 hours, until “the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire, the gorge walls seriously injured, the magazines surrounded by flames.”

The Civil War had begun.

The South held the fort until Feb. 17, 1865, when Confederates evacuated. With Charleston now in Union hands, the U.S. flag that was lowered when the fort was surrendered in 1861, was raised above Fort Sumter. For almost two years leading up to that date, more than 7 million pounds of metal were fired at Fort Sumter. It is considered among the most significant historic monuments in the United States.

If you’re going

By boat: Ferries depart Liberty Square and Patriots Point every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and Jan. 1. From March 15-Aug. 20 and Labor Day Weekend, boats leave Liberty Square at 9:30 a.m., noon and 2:30 p.m.; boats depart Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant at 10:45 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Cost: Adults, $17; seniors, $15; children 6-11, $10; children 5 and younger are free.
Tour: Tour lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Click h​ere for more information or call (843) 722-2628;

Other Civil War sites to visit in South Carolina

Fort Moultrie

Where: 1214 Middle St., Sullivan's Island, near Charleston

History: This fort has a rich history, located on this oceanfront site guarding Charleston Harbor since the Revolutionary War. Union forces left Fort Moultrie after South Carolina seceded in December 1860 and moved to Fort Sumter. A few months later, Confederates occupying Fort Moultrie joined in the bombardment of Fort Sumter that opened the Civil War.

If you visit: The site is administered by the Fort Sumter National Monument. It offers self-guided tours. Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.

Cost: $3 adults; children 15 and younger, free.

More info: Click ​here or call 843-883-3123

The Hunley

Where: The Warren Lasch Conservation Center, 1250 Supply St., North Charleston (In the former U.S. Navy base north of Charleston)

History: On Feb. 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley slipped into Charleston Harbor, its crew hand-cranking the vessel toward Union ships blockading the port. Later that night the Hunley rammed the USS Housatonic with a torpedo, sinking the huge Union ship. The Hunley then disappeared, not to be seen for more than 130 years, when it was discovered and raised.

If you visit: Hunley tours are available every Saturday from 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon-5 p.m. The last tour begins at 4:40 p.m.

Cost: Tickets ordered in advance are $12 plus a service charge and can be purchased by either calling toll-free (877) 448-6539 or at ww​w.etix.com. Children younger than 5 are free.

Walk-up tickets are also available on a first come, first serve basis. These tickets do not have a service charge.

If you visit: Visitors to the Conservation Center see exhibits and films describing the history of the submarine and its recovery. Objects recovered from the wreck include the $20 gold piece carried by Lt. George Dixon, commander of the Hunley.

More info: C​lick here or call (843) 744-2186

Charleston​ Museum

Where: 360 Meeting St.., Charleston (across from the main Charleston Visitor Center)

History: Founded in the 1700s, this museum features exhibits covering a wide variety of Charleston and Lowcountry history.

Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1–5 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: $10, ages 13 and up; $5, ages 3-12; 2 and younger, free.

More info: Clic​k here or call (843) 722-2996.

Magnolia Cemetery

Where: 70 Cunningham Ave., Charleston

History: This 1850 cemetery is the location of the graves of more than 2,200 Civil War veterans, 14 signers of the Ordinance of Secession, and 84 Confederate soldiers moved here from the Gettysburg, Pa., battlefield. The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hours: Gates open 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. Office hours: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday–Friday.
Make note: A map is available at the office during business hours.

More info: (843) 722-8638

Walking tours:

A variety of Civil War-oriented guided walking tours is available. Check at the Charleston Visito​r Center for specific information.

Parris Island Museum

Where: Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Route 21/802 a short drive from Beaufort

History: The local history wing here offers an overview of the Civil War history of the entire Port Royal Sound area. Exhibits highlight the November 1861 battle, Union occupation and the rich African-American wartime experience.

Make note: Pick up a driving tour map of the base, which includes a stop at the far southern tip of the island where visitors get a view of the site of the naval battle.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Cost: Free

More info: (843) 228-2951

Also: You must pass security at the depot gate. Be sure to have driver's license, registration and insurance card.

Rivers Bridge State Historic Site

Where: 325 State Park Road, Ehrhardt

History: The battle here marked the first and last major Confederate resistance in South Carolina. Confederates at the swampy Salkehatchie River held off Union Gen. William T. Sherman's advance into South Carolina for two days, Feb. 2–3, 1865. Part of the state park here commemorates the battle and features a trail that circles Confederate earthworks just above the river.

If you visit: Free guided tours of the battlefield the first Saturday of each month at 10 am.. Tours also available by appointment. Park is open daily, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Cost: Free

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.

To get there: The park is located 7 miles southwest of Ehrhardt and 13 miles east of Allendale off Route 641. Follow the signs to the battlefield area.

More info: (803) 267-3675

South Carolina State House

Where: 1101 Gervais St., Columbia.

History: This state’s capital building was under construction (begun in 1855) when Union Gen. William T. Sherman's troops arrived. Sherman's artillery caused some damage to the new building. Six bronze stars mark the spots where shells struck the building Feb. 16, 1865.

More info: Call (803) 734-2430

South Carolina C​onfederate Relic Room & Military Museum
and South Carolina State Museu​m

Where: 301 Gervais St., Columbia

History: Each museum offers Civil War material.

Hours: Both museums are open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday. The State Museum also is open 1–5 p.m. Sundays and Mondays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The Relic Room is open the first Sunday of each month, 1–5 p.m..

Cost: $5 Relic Room only, $7 State Museum only, $9 combo ticket.

More info: Relic R​oom, 803-737-8095
State Muse​um, 803-898-4921

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