Ask most people where the Civil War started, and they'll say Fort Sumter in Charleston. It was at this US Army fort at the mouth of Charleston harbor that the first shots of the war rang out, starting one of the bloodiest and most tragic episodes of American history.
But the root causes of the Civil War stretch back far beyond that fateful early morning of April 12, 1861, and the consequences of that day extend far beyond the skirmish that saw Confederate troops overtake the small but highly strategic fort on a tiny windswept island. The Fort Sumter National Monument, part of the National Park System, attempts to tell that complicated and fascinating history. It also just happens to be one of the most lovely places in all of Charleston.
Start your visit at the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square, located on the spot where Gadsden's Wharf once stood, right next to the South Carolina Aquarium. Gadsden's Wharf was once the place where enslaved Africans entered South Carolina. The visitor center tells the story of their journey, and of the economic, social and political history of slavery in the US that led up to those first shots fired at Fort Sumter. Make sure you give yourself an hour or even more to explore the exhibits. They give a context and history to the trip out to the fort that makes the experience even richer.
Admission to the fort and visitor center is free, but you'll need to buy ferry tickets to get out to the island. Fort Sumter is one of the most popular attractions in Charleston, and ferry tickets do regularly sell out, so be sure to buy your tickets in advance.
There are two places to get the ferry to Fort Sumter. One is the visitor center and the other is Patriots Point, the naval museum across the harbor in Mount Pleasant. The trip out to the island is one of the best parts of the day. There's a good chance you'll see dolphins out in the harbor, and you'll definitely get the best view of the beautiful Battery and iconic Charleston skyline, the Holy City dotted with steeples. Tour guides point out important landmarks along the way.
Once at Fort Sumter, you'll have the chance to walk and wander through the remains of the fort. Fort Sumter is now a historic site, not a working fort. Much of it is now in ruins, but it wasn't actually decommissioned until 1948. Between the Civil War and the end of World War II, various additions and changes were made to Fort Sumter, and these layers of change are visible to visitors today. Rangers are available to give overviews and answer questions. Tours aren't regularly scheduled but are often available if you ask, depending on how busy the fort is that day.
Make sure you search for the Civil War era projectiles still lodged in the five foot thick walls, the crooked arch and leaning brick walls where a powder keg accidentally exploded. Don't miss the enormous and ancient cannons still standing ready and pointing out to sea, and just know that any kids with you will want to climb onto them. Don't let them. Most things at Fort Sumter, including the bricks and cannons, are fragile and historic, and the kids could get hurt or damage the cannons without meaning to.
Before you board the ferry to return to Charleston, take a few minutes to walk out to the beach just outside the rough, thick walls and along the sandy spit into the harbor. It's possibly the most beautiful view in all of Charleston.
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 US 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.
Things to Know While Visiting
Check ahead on the weather forecast. While the exhibits inside tell the story of the fort and its famous battle, the rest of the cool things to see and do are outside. If it's warm, bring sunscreen and insect repellent.
While picnics aren't allowed at the fort, there's a snack bar on the ferry. It's also smart to bring a refillable water bottle and snacks to eat while enjoying the great view. There's also a small bookstore that sells history books, Civil War memorabilia and other Fort Sumter keepsakes.