The first thing that attracted the eye of the stranger upon approaching Charleston from the sea, was Fort Sumter,” wrote Abner Doubleday, second in command of the fort during its brief occupation by Union troops in 1861. “It was built on an artificial island made of large blocks of stone. The walls were of dark brick and designed for three tiers of guns. The whole structure, as it rose abruptly out of the water, had a gloomy, prison-like appearance. It was situated on the edge of the channel, in the narrowest part of the harbor, between Fort Moultrie and Cummings Point, distant about a mile from the former place, and twelve hundred yards from the latter.”
Named for General Thomas Sumter, the “gamecock” of Revolutionary War fame, the name “Sumter” would become permanently etched in America’s memory for its historic role as the site of the first shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861.
The genesis of Fort Sumter began with the War of 1812. That conflict (especially the burning of Washington) showed the gross inadequacies of the Atlantic seaboard defenses. In 1815, President James Madison called for a new system of coastal defenses but it was not until 1826 that a report called for the erection of a fort in Charleston harbor, glibly stating that building it would be “an easy and simple problem.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Work began in 1829. Since it was to be built on nothing more than a sand bar in the harbor known as the “middle shoal,” the first step was to strengthen the foundation with the placing of rocks around the base where the fort was to be erected.
Progress was slow. Massive stones, tons of them, had to be hauled over land and water. By 1834, this rock foundation or “mole” was no more than 2-feet above low water and still open on one side to allow the supply ships to pass into the interior.
In 1834, a land ownership dispute suspended operations. Charlestonian William Laval, with a grant showing that he owned 870 acres of “land” in Charleston harbor, laid claim to the site. Simultaneously, the S. C. legislature launched an inquiry into whether “the creation of an Island on a shoal in the channel, may not injuriously affect the navigation and commerce” in the harbor.
Not only had the federal government begun work without consulting the state of South Carolina, but they had also done so without clearing a formal deed of land, believing it was unnecessary when that “land” was covered by water.
It wasn’t until 1841 that these problems were cleared and work resumed, guided by Captain A. H. Bowman of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Politics and land ownership were replaced by the very real problem of building a fort in the middle of a channel with a rushing tidal flow.
Bowman was a pioneer in understanding the natural give and take between man’s use of land and the indomitable strength of the sea. He had already overseen the erection of the rock jetties on the south end of Sullivan’s Island called Bowman’s Jetty, known colloquially as the Grillage. Bowman came up with a more durable way to create Sumter’s stone foundation, laying granite blocks in courses rather than using wooden timbers which could rot for a base.
Still, problems abounded. At times, the tides permitted no work at all. Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever suspended operations. Above all, there was the sheer magnitude of the task.
Over 10,000 tons of granite had to be hauled in, some of it brought all the way from Maine. Well over 60,000 tons of rock was imported from other sites. Bricks, shells and sand could be obtained locally, but the capacity of local brickyards was inadequate to supply the millions of bricks required to build the fort. Hundreds of thousands of oyster shells were required for the lime to make concrete. Transporting all by water against tides and weather was a constant battle.
By 1860, the Fort Sumter which Abner Doubleday described was an immense and imposing fortification. It stood 50-feet above the water, a five-sided, three-tiered fort designed to hold 135 guns. Its outer walls were 5-feet thick. Inside, there was a one-acre parade ground and three-story brick barracks for enlisted men. Along four walls were two tiers of arched gunrooms, while the fifth side, a 316.7-foot gorge, housed officers’ quarters. In the center of this gorge was the sally port which opened onto a 25.5-foot-wide stone esplanade that extended the length of that wall onto a 171-foot wharf.
This truly monumental task was never completely finished. When Union troops under Major Robert Anderson secretly occupied the fort on Christmas night 1860, even after three decades and some 7 million bricks later, the fort was still only 90% complete.
The fort saw only four months of service in this near-complete state before the war began. Wrote Doubleday of the first bombardment, “Showers of balls... poured into the fort in one incessant stream, causing great flakes of masonry to fall in all directions. When the immense mortar shells, after sailing high in the air, came down in a vertical direction and buried themselves in the parade ground, their explosion shook the fort like an earthquake.”
By the end of the war, incessant bombardments had left Sumter in ruins. It had taken thirty years to build Fort Sumter. It took only four years to almost completely destroy this work.
The fort lay dormant until the 1870’s when there was a brief period of rebuilding and the outer walls were leveled to approximately one-half of their original height. This work halted in 1876 when a shortage of funds suspended operations. For twenty years the fort stood neglected except as a lighthouse station. It wasn’t until 1898 and the onset of the Spanish-American War that the fort was reactivated.
In 1899, Battery Huger was erected within the fort, named for Revolutionary War hero, General Isaac Huger. Built in the central portion of the fort, this reinforced-concrete emplacement held a battery of 12-inch breech-loading guns. During World War II, this armament was replaced with 90-mm anti-aircraft guns.
Finally, at the close of World War II, the fort was decommissioned. In 1948, Congress declared it a national monument.
Less than one century after it gained fame as the starting place for America’s most brutal conflict, Fort Sumter saw peace.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people visit Fort Sumter annually to pay homage to the fort’s military past. Yet respect is equally due to those who were instrumental in the design and erection of this truly great edifice. Fort Sumter is a place that lives in history as one of the great construction feats of all time.
Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.
Since the Mother Emanuel shooting, the fort only flies one flag now (U.S.) and there is only one flagpole.