Although the British would take and occupy Charleston four years later, Fort Moultrie, with its unparalleled views of Charleston Harbor, suffered most during times of peace from neglect, saltwater and hurricanes.
After war broke out between England and France, Congress decided to shore up the young country’s coastal defenses and a new Fort Moultrie was built. It lasted from 1798 until a hurricane destroyed it in 1804. A third fort, made of brick, was built on Sullivan’s by 1809.
For the next 50 years, Moultrie stood as a silent sentinel, guarding Charleston Harbor. It was during this time that a new fort was built in the middle of the harbor, Fort Sumter. It was thought that Sumter, along with a collection of forts surrounding the harbor, would provide coordinated protection.
But those forts fired the first shots of the Civil War against Fort Sumter in April 1861, just a few months after South Carolina seceded from the United States and US troops abandoned Fort Moultrie for the larger Sumter.
Once under Confederate control, Moultrie and Sumter were put to the test for nearly two years starting in 1863 as US warships bombed the forts. When the Confederate army evacuated Charleston in February 1865, both forts lay in ruins. What remained of Moultrie was beneath a protective layer of sand.
Back under US control, Fort Moultrie was rebuilt in the next decade and looked more like a bunker, with thick concrete walls covered with earth to absorb shell explosions. The fort also got new, modern cannons. About 10 years later, a newer, larger fort was built around that with additional batteries of concrete and steel and more guns.
With the new century came new threats of attack from submarine and airplane. And although no one knew it at the time, the Confederate submarine Hunley, which had been the first sub to sink an enemy warship in battle, lay just off the coast of Sullivan’s where it sank with its final crew during the Civil War.
After World War II, the nuclear era began and old-style forts no longer were a first line of defense.
Moultrie is still controlled by the federal government, only it’s the National Park Service that preserves the fort and tells its story as a defender of South Carolina for more than 170 years.
If you’re going:
Fort Moultrie is on Sullivan’s Island, just north of the Charleston peninsula. The island is home to some of South Carolina’s most beautiful beaches, so expect a bit of traffic if you visit during the summer months.
Once you’re at the fort, however, be prepared to step into another place and time. Start with the 20-minute orientation film inside; it starts on the hour and half-hour from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This is a good stop if you’re traveling with children as there is plenty of outdoor open space leading down to the historic shoreline. Bring a picnic and make a day of it.
Fort Moultrie is at 1214 Middle St., Sullivan’s Island, 843.883.3123. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is $3 for adults ages 15–62, $1 for seniors and free for children.