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A Confederate monument, a Union fort and a sea rising

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A Confederate monument erected in 1961 is seen on the former site of Fort Johnson at the end of James Island on Thursday, April 6, 2023. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

They've been toppled by crowds, plucked by cranes and stolen for ransom. Now, the South's remaining Confederate monuments face another force of erasure: climate change.

Some see that as a good thing. For others, it's an educational opportunity.

"Sure, there's poetic justice in these things just fading away," said Adam Domby, an associate professor of history at Auburn University. "But there's something bigger. … What gets protected, what gets saved, it's a value call we need to ask about all of these historical sites now."

A 5-foot-tall monument that marks where the "first shot" of the Civil War was fired on April 12, 1861, sits on James Island, just a stone's throw from the waters of Charleston Harbor, with Fort Sumter visible in the distance.

Look closely and the words "the Confederate States of America" are engraved, along with an explanation that the monument was erected in 1961 to celebrate 100 years since the founding of the Confederacy. There are practically no other plaques at what remains of Fort Johnson, no factual context about who was there during the Civil War and, ultimately, why.

No one has called for the monument to be removed. The more urgent question is whether it should be saved. 

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A brick "magazine" used for storing gun powder during the Civil War is seen on the former site of Fort Johnson at the end of James Island on Thursday, April 6, 2023. After a century of storms and neglect, the 19th century building is in peril. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

State officials say the site and everything on it — the Colonial-era fortifications, a garage-sized brick building used as a gun powder magazine in the Civil War, the 20th century monument and the state's research buildings — are all severely threatened by sea level rise. Driven by both flooding concerns and a new land acquisition, the state of South Carolina has commissioned a new master plan for Fort Johnson to protect its buildings and the historical artifacts. Across the harbor, Fort Sumter just completed its own resiliency project last year to fight erosion from increasing sea level rise.

It has been 162 years since Confederate soldiers first fired their canons across the harbor at the Union-held Fort Sumter. To commemorate the anniversary on April 15, Fort Sumter, which sits on National Park Service land, will host living historians dressed in period clothes, retelling and interpreting the events that led up to that historic day. At Fort Jefferson, the more forgotten of the two forts engaged in the battle, there will be no fanfare.

Fort Johnson sits on land owned by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the College of Charleston. These institutions are now grappling with a rising sea and trying to reckon with the past. 

A monument born of the 1960s 

The front page of the April 14, 1961, edition of The News and Courier featured the monument's unveiling on Fort Johnson with a picture of a 5-year-old boy wearing a seersucker suit and a little Confederate hat, silver guns crossed and all. The boy is standing next to the monument, which is about twice his height. The caption reads, "Descendent of Confederate hero unveils monument, Charles Pinckey Darby III at Fort Johnson."

"I was just a prop, I believe!" laughed Darby, 67, who still lives in the Charleston area in a house that overlooks both Fort Sumter and Fort Johnson. His great-grandfather was Judge Andrew Gordon McGrath, South Carolina's governor during the Civil War. "I probably got bribed with a bunch of candy."

His jovial tone turned solemn, as if his mind was suddenly elsewhere: "Yeah, that photo sticks around."

The photo was framed on the wall of his house for many years. He doesn't remember much else from that day. He does remember his grandmother being there, who ran the Charleston Confederate Centennial Commission and, as he recalled, "surely made me do it."

The commission dedicated the monument, one of many Confederate monuments erected during the 1960s.

"It's almost impossible to divorce the centennial from the civil rights movement going on at that same time," said Robert Greene II, an assistant professor of history at Claflin University. "Especially in South Carolina."

Greene pointed to the flying of the Confederate battle flag that flew over the Statehouse. That only started in 1961 when state lawmakers said the waving flag would commemorate the centennial. Many saw it, even then, as a backlash to civil rights.  

"During that time, there were many Black Americans in South Carolina who repeatedly insisted that it be taken down," Greene said. 

The battle flag would fly above the dome until 2000.

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A monument is seen dedicated to the "first shot" of the Civil War at the former Fort Johnson site on Thursday, April 6, 2023, on James Island. Historians have taken issue with the monument's accuracy and lack of historical context. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Confederate iconography has a long history of sidelining Black communities and Black history.

"That monument (on Fort Johnson) is not aiming to inform us, it's a whitewashing of history," said Domby, who says the critical role of Black Americans during the war is completely ignored by the civil war's most famous sites. 

According to Domby, who used to be a faculty member at the College of Charleston and is the author of the book "The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory," there were more Black enslaved laborers living and working at Fort Johnson than Confederate soldiers. Using slave payrolls housed at the National Archives, Domby has researched the overlooked role of enslaved laborers compelled to work for the Confederates. 

Slave Payroll for Fort Johnson

A Confederate Slave Payroll documents the names of enslaved laborers compelled to work at Fort Johnson at the behest of the Confederate Army from December 1861 to March 1862. Similar documents have recorded the work of enslaved laborers at Fort Sumter around the same time. National Archives/Provided

In fact, enslaved laborers rebuilt Fort Sumter after the Confederates took hold. Thanks to new research, we now know their names.

Two forts, surrounded by water

On April 14, 1861, 17 enslaved laborers arrived at Fort Sumter to repair the damage done by the Confederates: Francis, Moses, James, Harry, Jim Edwards, Damon, Sam, Josh, Daniel, Prince, Reuben, Ned, Lewis, Joe, Lewis, Stephen and Andrew. According to the National Park Service, these men labored three to 18 days and received no compensation. Their enslaver, John Hinton Lopez, received $282 for their work, paid for by the Confederate Army. 

Two years later, 48 enslaved laborers working and continuously rebuilding Fort Sumter would die or be hospitalized because of the Union shelling. 

This information in now on the National Park Service's website. According to Brett Spaulding, chief of interpretation at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park, rangers are exploring ways to integrate this new research into the oral and visual interpretation of the fort.

Black history has been slowly introduced at the federally managed site for years. Visitors on guided tours can see and touch the 19th century brick foundations that still bear the fingerprints of Black hands that formed the clay bricks at Lowcountry plantations.

"It's powerful to see those fingerprints right in front of you," Spaulding said. 

Climate history is part of the visitor experience, too. There's even a placard on the fort's dock titled "Climate Change."

Right where visitors disembark the ferry, the sign explains that from 1863 to 1865, Fort Sumter endured continuous bombardment by Union forces but, in modern times, the fort's biggest threat is climate change: "As the earth's climate changes, rising seas could inundate most of the fort's walls and flood the historic parade ground … if the mean sea level of the harbor were to rise just four feet, the historic parade ground would be constantly submerged." 

The sign includes the government's sea level rise projections for Charleston harbor: by 2062, the seas could rise as much a 2.28 feet, and by 2100, as much as 5 feet.  

But even that information, printed for public display within the past five years, is outdated. 

Two new studies published in the past two weeks suggest that the site, and rest of the Southeast, is in the middle of 10- to 25-year quickening of sea level rise, a pace much that previously predicted. 

The Gulf of Mexico has been warming faster than the rest of the ocean. When warm water naturally expands, it causes sea levels to rise. The warmer waters then ride currents out of the gulf and along the East Coast, affecting places like the Lowcountry.

"We not only detected acceleration from Cape Hatteras all the way to the the Gulf of Mexico," said Sönke Dangendorf, an assistant professor at Tulane University, who led one of the studies. "But the high tide flooding that has doubled or tripled during that past decade in places like South Carolina … that can be explained by this acceleration."

The researchers linked 40 percent of the acceleration to greenhouse gas emissions and 60 percent to "natural temporal variably." In other words, this quickening is somewhat temporary and the pace of sea level rise in South Carolina should return to previously predicted rates soon. Although the researchers don't know exactly know how soon. 

In 2018, the park service completed the very first sea level rise assessment for Fort Sumter and 117 other park-managed sites. It directly linked dramatic sea level rise projections for 2030, 2050 and 2100 to "human activities" and the pace of climate change. The report noted that the "highest storm surges" predicted for its parks and historic sites would occur in the Southeast. 

"It's important to keep in mind that sea level rise will not stop in the coming decades," Dangendorf said.

He added that this surprise discovery of a temporary quickening shows just how little we know about the behavior of rising waters in the Southeast. It's tricky and certainly not a steady march. The only steady march is time. 

Fort Johnson, reimagined

The historical significance of Fort Johnson dates back to Colonial times and even pre-Colonial times. It was the first fortification outside of the Charleston peninsula. It was the first place where the Palmetto flag was raised. Its role in the Revolutionary War was almost as significant as its more popularly known role in the Civil War. 

"Certainly there's going to be a focus on Revolutionary War history, but really the interpretive plan will focus on everything historically related to Fort Johnson," said Doug Bostick, executive diretor of the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust. His organization has received federal funds to digitally interpret Fort Johnson and other Revolutionary War sites. If the new Fort Johnson masterplan is approved, the trust will be in charge of all new historical interpretation for the redeveloped area, which will involve moving buildings to higher ground and creating a new waterfront park for the public. 

"We would like to buy it," Bostick said of the College of Charleston's property where the Confederate monument and powder magazine now stand. "But the (powder magazine) definitely needs restoration."

Asked if the preservation trust would put money into restoring the magazine, the fort's only Civil War building still standing, Bostick didn't hesitate: "Absolutely."

As for the Confederate monument, Bostick said, "it would stay."

Both the monument and the powder magazine would receive additional interpretation, said Bostick, like a physical plaque or a digital waypoint. 

"This is a golden opportunity to give (the monument) greater context," said Greene, the Claflin professor, who is Black. He would like to see the monument's 20th century origins — as part of the cultural backlash to civil rights — better told through interpretation. 

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Norma Salcedo catches sunlight while on a break from working at the College of Charleston's Grice Marine Laboratory at the former Fort Johnson site on Thursday, April 6, 2023. A Confederate monument sits on the same piece of college-owned property. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Darby, the little boy who unveiled the marker 62 years ago, also thinks the monument should stay. He said his grandmother either paid for the monument herself or raised the money. Probably both.

"Back then, my grandmother and others looked at things differently … but, if you remove everything, then there's no reminder of historical events," he said. 

Darby didn't agree with the removal of the John C. Calhoun monument from Marion Square in downtown Charleston, one of 168 Confederate-related icons removed in 2020 across the United States. About 70 more were removed or renamed in 2021, according to the latest report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center estimates about 723 Confederate monuments remain.

Darby agreed with Greene on one point: instead of removal, there should be a lot more information on Fort Johnson than what is currently provided to give more context to anyone walking through.

"You've got to have more markers on everything," Darby said. "But it's like Vietnam: We don't need to talk about why there was a war, but we need to say there was a war … an unpopular war."

Historians, like Domby, think the "why" is the most important part of educating the public about Civil War sites like Fort Sumter and Fort Johnson.

"What do we want people to think when they leave?" said Domby. "Are they leaving saying, 'Wow, this country fought an entire war about whether people would be enslaved. And we still haven't dealt with that legacy fully' … that! Then we're doing education."

Doomby said the ongoing debates about whether schools in Florida can teach African American history is a direct result of a collective "forgetting" that the Civil War was a fight over slavery. 

Bostick said he understands the arguments made by historians who want the monument better interpreted in the wider context of white supremacy and the struggle for civil rights, but couldn't comment on how the Confederate monument itself would be interpreted beyond the words engraved on it now: "It's way too premature … we're still in the research phase."

What's not too premature is thinking about sea level rise.

The 2022 master plan for Fort Johnson commissioned by state lawmakers includes 100-year sea level rise projections, including a map with large blue blobs covering the locations where the monument and powder magazine stand today. With 3 feet of sea level encroachment, both structures would be underwater.

Again, these projections are already outdated. The new Tulane study suggests that increasing rates of sea-level rise in the next 10 years could result in three feet encroachment of sea levels arriving before the end of the century, not after. 

"If we thought the powder magazine would be lost to sea level rise … we would obviously relocate it with some method," said Bostick. "We would not let the powder magazine just fall into the marsh."

Bostick made no mention of relocating the giant granite stone, engraved with a seal of the Confederate States of America, standing right next to it. 

Domby argues that if and when Confederate battle structures get relocated, it should go hand in hand with other relocations.

"Historical African American neighborhoods are drowning on James island, too," Domby said. "Let's not forget."

Each Friday, the Rising Waters newsletter offers insight into the latest environmental issues impacting the Lowcountry and the rest of the South.

Follow Clare Fieseler on Twitter @clarefieseler.

Clare Fieseler, PhD is the climate and environment reporter at The Post and Courier. Fieseler previously served as a reporting fellow at The Washington Post. She earned a PhD in ecology from UNC Chapel Hill and holds a research appointment at the Smithsonian Institution. 

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