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.

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