Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fort Sumter – 150 years later

Charleston, South Carolina, might be home to more Revolutionary War sites than Civil War sites, but 150 years ago, the first shots of the Civil War were fired in the harbor, at a place called Fort Sumter.

The fort was one of the must-see stops on my trip to Charleston in December. As a kid, I had always been interested in the Civil War, and while some of my friends could tell you how many home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career, I could tell you a trained soldier was expected to fire three shots per minute out of a muzzleloading musket, and other minutiae and historical trivia.

Riding a ferry to the fort takes the better part of 30 minutes, and my first sight of it was just a low dark spot on the horizon, splitting sea and sky on a nice day.

The walls used to be much taller, mounting guns that protected the harbor from seaborne attack.

But it wouldn’t be seaborne attack on April 12, 1861, that would eventually lead to the fort’s downfall.

Confederate gunners opened fire from other nearby fortifications after a signal shot that exploded over Fort Sumter. When I stood in the fort’s courtyard, surrounded by ruined walls and the evidence of the shelling and fire that ensued, I tried to imagine what the fort must have been like back then.

Once the fort had been shelled for 34 hours, a fire broke out, and Maj. Robert Anderson, the fort’s commander, surrendered his garrison rather than let it be slaughtered.

Today, visitors can walk around the fort, climb atop the remains and visit the museum inside, which contains numerous artifacts from the era as well as putting the site into the greater context of the conflict.

Since the fort is a national park, it is well-kept, and guides give free talks and answer questions.

Old forts aren’t at the top of everyone’s travel list, and Charleston has much to offer outside of historical sites (though it has plenty of those). However, Fort Sumter was the first battle in a long war that ended up killing more Americans than any other war in history. If you're at all interested in American history, the site is a must-see.

For up-to-date directions on how to get to the fort, click the link at the top of the article, which will take you to the official site.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Walking with the Dead

Below the streets, I walked alone through darkened chambers lined with the bones of the dead. Hollow eye sockets gazed out at me as I passed by skulls that were artfully arranged.

I was deep in the Paris catacombs, having passed the iconic sign letting me know I was entering the realm of the dead.

The experience was at once spooky, fascinating and fun. I was surrounded by thousands of dead Parisians. We’d all walked the same part of the world, but what a different world it must have looked to them.

I looked at a couple of skulls, wondering who they might have belonged to. There’s no way to tell – the catacombs contain the remains of noble and pauper alike, and no one’s bones are marked.

What was the Louvre to these people? To me, it’s the world’s best art museum. To them, it might have been during its time as a royal palace. Were they with the revolutionaries who burned a wing of it? Or were they older? It’s possible they saw the Louvre further back, as a fortress on the Seine to prevent waterborne attack.

They probably walked on the same lawns of the Champs de Mars where I spent so much time, but they were never there to see the Eiffel Tower – built long after they died.

The catacombs themselves were made when workers needed stone to build some of Paris’ magnificent buildings. Not the Haussmann buildings you see today, but the older buildings.

In the late 1700s, the French had a problem: cemeteries in Paris were full to bursting – literally. Occasionally, an overloaded cemetery would, say, burst through a wall, filling a cellar next door with decaying bodies.

It was a public health nightmare.

So the French decided to reinter the remains in the existing catacombs. The process took several decades, and it has left us with one of the world’s macabre tourist attractions.

When I lived in Paris in 2009, the catacombs were closed due to vandalism. They’ve since reopened, but with added security measures.

When I walked out of the catacombs, my camera bag was searched to make sure I hadn’t stolen any bones.

To think someone would steal the bones doesn’t exactly surprise me, but it is disappointing. Walking among the dead, it’s clear that the bones were placed in their current location with some degree of reverence, and priests were on-hand during the relocation as well.

Many of France’s elites may be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, but so many others rest in the catacombs. Rumors of ghosts stalking the corridors are popular, and it’s easy to see why.

To reach the catacombs, take the Metro to the Denfert-Rochereau stop and exit to the street level, where you will see the entrance.