350 years in Charleston's military history

Charleston's military history dates back centuries but takes on special recognition in 2020, which is the 350th year of the founding of the city⁠ — something the region will be celebrating all year long.

From the arrival of the first Europeans, military considerations have dominated the decision-making process right up to the present day as Joint Base Charleston with its massive Air Force installation and C-17 cargo jet fleet is a keystone of the Lowcountry.

Going back in time, Charleston played vital roles in the Yemassee War, American Revolution, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam and modern conflicts, including the still continuing War on Terror.

Here are some of the area’s highlights:

Fort Sumter

Visible from most points of the harbor, this island fortress was home to federal forces that were targeted by Confederate guns fired from around Charleston Harbor, launching the Civil War on April 12, 1861. The site is operated by the National Park Service, and tour boats leave throughout the day.

The visitor’s center at Liberty Square on the Cooper River in Charleston is a good starting point. Nearby will be the Charleston-planned International African American Museum that's close to the site of the former Gadsden’s Wharf, the nation’s largest terminal during the slave trade.

Fort Moultrie

On Sullivan’s Island, the fort replaced the Revolutionary War's Fort Sullivan. The modern-day version is a mix of old brick and 20th-century defensive upgrades. It was here that federal troops abandoned their post in December 1861 for the safety of Fort Sumter.

Seminole Indian leader Osceola is buried near the gate. It is also part of the NPS.

The H.L. Hunley

The nearly 40-foot vessel became the world’s first successful attack sub when it sank the USS Housatonic, a Union ship, off Sullivan’s Island on Feb. 17, 1864. The Confederate sub then mysteriously disappeared.

In 2000, the ship, and the remains of its nine crewmen, was recovered four miles offshore. It is being conserved at the Clemson University-run Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, on the grounds of the former Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard. The site is open for tours only on weekends.

Morris Island

Only accessible by boat or organized nature tour, the island at the southern mouth of Charleston Harbor was part of the Confederate defensive line of forts and batteries designed to hold off Union troops. Battery Wagner once stood on Morris Island.

This fort was made famous by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all-black troop, during the siege of Charleston. This history was later depicted in the film "Glory." Erosion has changed much of the island’s appearance, but beachcombing is encouraged. The Charleston/Morris Island Lighthouse is visible just offshore.

Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon

Originally built in 1771 at East Bay and Broad streets, the site known as the Exchange and Custom House became the center of economic activity for the emerging Colony of South Carolina as trade and the merchant society took off. The state’s delegation for the First Continental Congress was elected here in 1774. Two years later, the Declaration of Independence was read to the city residents here. South Carolinians caught up in the rebellion were imprisoned here.

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Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum

The central attraction at the Mount Pleasant waterfront site is the Yorktown, a World War II-era aircraft carrier named for another carrier lost in the Battle of Midway. On board the vessel is the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum, which includes several well-curated exhibits that take you through various areas of the ship. 

The site also includes the destroyer Laffey, survivor of vicious Pacific Theater kamikaze attacks, and the Vietnam Experience Exhibit of a U.S. outpost from the era. Cold War buffs can stop and visit the Cold War Submarine Memorial on the drive in. Operated by the state of South Carolina.

Battle of Secessionville

On June 16, 1862, Union forces made a push to capture James Island and Fort Lamar, where Confederate defenses protected the marshy southern path to the city of Charleston. Elements of the battlefield are now part of a historic area containing monuments and earthworks. 

Military dates of note

1670: English settlers arriving form Charles Towne on the Ashley River north and across the river from the current city center on the peninsula. Within two years the fortified town is as big as 30 houses with up to 300 settlers.

June 28, 1776: Forces on Sullivan's Island repel an invasion attempt by British troops by sea as cannonballs bounce off palmetto log fortifications. The date would later be known as Carolina Day. More than 130 military engagements would be recorded in the state during the Revolution.

May 12, 1780: After a more than month-long siege, Charleston falls to the British. 

April 12, 1861: Confederate forces fire on Union troops in Fort Sumter, igniting the Civil War.

Aug. 29, 1863: Union forces on Morris Island begin shelling city of Charleston. Siege will last 545 days.

Feb. 17, 1864: Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sinks blockade ship Housatonic off Sullivan's Island, becoming world's first successful attack sub.

Feb. 18, 1865: Confederate forces abandon Charleston to Union forces. Civil War would end two months later.

1901: The federal government founds the Charleston Naval Base a few miles up the Cooper River from downtown.

1941-45: War comes to Charleston, but the city is slow to react. German submarines begin appearing off the harbor hunting merchant ships. One U-boat captain notes city was lit up and easy to find.

April 1, 1996: After 95 years of service through World Wars I and II, Korea, the Cold War and Vietnam, the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard is closed in a Pentagon cost-saving move.

Sept. 11, 2001: As the War on Terror takes off, Charleston's Air Force Base, port and military installations ramp up to take part in the global reaction. The base becomes such an important cog for the Pentagon it is eventually reconstituted as Joint Base Charleston, with more than 50 commands of all sizes uniting under the management mission.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

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