Civil War gem to be preserved

Doug Bostick of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, explains that the parapet at Battery Wilkes is 8 to 10 feet tall and more than 150 feet long. The trust is buying the historic site off Savannah Highway from a private owner.

The Union Army never tested Battery Wilkes, but the passage of time sure has.

The 1862 earthen fortification was built to protect a strategic intersection of a road and the Charleston-Savannah railroad at Long Branch Creek.

Half of the defense work was razed about 50 years ago, when Savannah Highway was widened.

The surviving portion eventually became someone’s backyard, but when the homeowner passed away, his heirs put the property up for sale. Among the first to call was a hotel developer.

But as understanding of the site’s historical importance spread, the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust got involved and was able to raise enough money to buy the 1.7-acre site. Once the deal closes, it plans to convert the property into a small park.

Doug Bostick, the trust’s director, said he has driven by the site for years and asked his passengers if they knew what stood behind the brick wall.

None ever did.

“They’re just blown away by it all,” he said. “This is a critical site. It was the anchor of the end of the defense for Charleston on this side of town.”

Battery Wilkes features a parapet about 8 to 10 feet tall with two gun platforms, as well as a powder magazine that’s about 15 feet tall.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“(It’s) important as one of two St. Andrew’s Parish batteries that remain largely unaltered and represent the best examples of the exterior defense line defending the western approach to Charleston.”

Battery Wilkes originally was enclosed, but the late Edward Boinest, who lived on the property for years, built a gravel driveway between the parapet and the magazine. A low brick retaining wall spans the front of the parapet, along Savannah Highway.

A stand of trees has grown up, obscuring the earthworks from passing motorists. The only clue that the site has historic value is a small granite post with the National Register plaque.

Bostick said the battery is in good shape, particularly its powder magazine, a tall mound of earth concealing a framed storage space.

The battery never saw action because most Civil War battles occurred around the entrance to Charleston Harbor — as well as on James and Morris islands.

About two-thirds of Charleston County’s Civil War-era fortifications are gone, lost to a mix of benign neglect and willful destruction.

After he became director of the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust, Bostick came up with a list of about 60 surviving sites that lack any form of permanent protection. He calls it his “high alert list,” and Battery Wilkes was on it.

Bostick said he waited two months after Boinest’s death to contact one of his heirs, but they were unable to donate the property or an easement.

However, they did agree to work with the Preservation Trust — and the S.C. Conservation Bank.

The bank voted recently to give the trust $345,000 to buy the property. The family agreed to the sum, which reflected an appraised sum for residential use — not a higher amount that the land could have been worth if converted to commercial use.

“That put it at a price that was palatable to the Conservation Bank,” Bostick said, “so we were able to make the deal work.”

Bostick said he looked at the Conservation Bank application as “a long shot,” but the vote was unanimous. “We don’t normally buy sites, but in this case, we thought it was important enough.”

The bank’s vice chairman, Bill Snow, had driven by the site daily en route to his business, Palmetto Gunite Construction Co. Inc. But he never knew about its history, despite his own deep interest in the Civil War and his involvement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Snow said the bank was established to promote pure land conservation projects, to help family farms and to protect historic and cultural sites.

The Battery Wilkes application gave the bank a chance to protect a historic site — the one part of its mandate where it had done relatively little, he said.

The property is currently outside the city, but Bostick said the trust plans to annex it in and work with the city’s parks department to create a public park there.

Those plans are still in the works, but the two homes on the property — both of which date from the 1950s — likely will be removed, he said. The large trees will remain, but the vines and other undergrowth will be removed. Bostick said the old gravel driveway that follows the parapet will be converted into a walking trail.

Access to the new park likely will be from Etiwan Avenue, a small street that runs parallel to Savannah Highway.

“West Ashley deserves more park space and historic sites,” Bostick said. “I think it’s going to be a wonderful park.”

Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation Inc., helped survey Battery Wilkes more than a decade ago, and he recently grew alarmed when it was listed for sale.

While its purchase and conversion into a park will be a welcome success, Trinkley said the state should have a more proactive plan for identifying and preserving similar sites facing uncertain futures.

According to Bostick’s figures, less than a third of Charleston County’s surviving Civil War era fortifications benefit from any some sort of permanent protection.

Trinkley said every battery can’t be saved, but there should be an effort to identify and prioritize preservation for the ones that have the most to offer for understanding the Lowcountry’s history.

“I continue to find it sad that we react instead of proactively plan for preservation,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.