Yorktown Metro

The sun sets over Charleston harbor and the Yorktown.

File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff 

Charleston's military history dates to the early days of the North American continent as indigenous populations banded together to defend their way of life. In the centuries to come, that history would expand as the first Europeans arrived. The Yamasee War, American Revolution, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam and the modern age all left a footprint at multiple sites around the region. Here are some of the area’s highlights:

— Schuyler Kropf,


Fort Sumter

Visible from most all points of the harbor and operated by the National Park Service, it became the target when Confederate guns opened up on federal forces to launch the Civil War on April 12, 1861. Tour boats leave for the island throughout the day.

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

Fort Moultrie

Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, run by the National Park Service.

File/Leroy Burnell/Staff 

Fort Moultrie

On Sullivan’s Island, the modern version of the fort is a mix of old brick and 20th-century defensive upgrades. The fort replaced the Revolutionary War’s Fort Sullivan. 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. Also part of the NPS.

The Hunley

The nearly 40-foot vessel became the world’s first successful attack sub by sinking the USS Housatonic off Sullivan’s Island on Feb. 17, 1864, as Confederates targeted the Union port blockade. The sub then disappeared. Recovered four miles offshore in 2000, it is being conserved at the Clemson University-run Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, on the grounds of the former Navy Base and Shipyard. The site is open for tours but only on weekends.

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum

The Mount Pleasant waterfront site features a collection of 20th-century Navy military ships and other offerings. The central attraction is the USS 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. 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 and break the Confederate defenses guarding the marshy southern path to the city of Charleston. Elements of the battlefield are now part of a historic area containing monuments and earthworks.

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 charge of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the siege of Charleston that was later depicted in the movie “Glory.” Erosion has changed much of the island’s appearance but beachcombing is encouraged and the Charleston/Morris Island Lighthouse is visible just offshore.

The 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 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 and two years later, the Declaration of Independence was read to the city residents here. South Carolinians caught up in the rebellion were imprisoned here.

Military dates of note

1670 — English settlers arriving form Charles Town 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 repeal 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 footing 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. 

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.