Earthen Confederate fortifications hide in plain sight

Kevin Byrd steps carefully around the base of Fort Bull, an earthen mound that was a Confederate defensive site in West Ashley. It extends across the left side of the photo.

The earth mounds can turn up anywhere in the Lowcountry, it seems — odd-shaped crowns or crooked rows, a little too large and too strange to be natural.

They are haunts of the past.

Kevin Byrd was a kid playing in the West Ashley woods near the Ashley River when he came upon the first one to catch his eye, a circle of humps twice as tall as a man. He knew it was something but had no idea what. Even as an adult he keeps looking for it when driving past. He’s now 54 years old.

The mounds he played on are what remains of Fort Bull, an earthworks fortification dug a century earlier by Confederate soldiers as part of a defense network for Charleston that has been described as genius. They are among more than 200 such earthwork forts in Charleston County alone.

And they’re not the only haunts out there. Indian mounds — mysterious snakes of dirt rising along the river floodplains — are burial grounds of native peoples. A lot of the rumpled, mound-and-ditch works found throughout river bottoms were cut during phosphate mining in the late 19th and early 20th century.

What was Fort Bull now is just big bumps in the sweet gum trees, crossed and crisscrossed by dirt paths, littered with bottles and cans. The leaves of one small bush along a path have been spray-painted white for no apparent reason.

That’s not unusual. Overgrown, eroded and overrun by humans, a lot of the forts are virtually unrecognizable, known to historians but few others. Some are so vulnerable that historians are reluctant to locate them specifically. The acreage is in private hands or squeezed by developments. Fort Bull is one of those.

The little money available to preserve that sort of thing tends to go to higher profile sites, usually where battles were fought. No known skirmishes were fought at Fort Bull.

The fort briefly snared some public attention when a 2000 study was publicized partly to promote the sites, in order to try to preserve them. But little has come of it so far.

The South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, maybe the lead preservation group for the sites, is in the process of identifying the earthworks in Charleston County. The trust has taken on preservation efforts but, constricted by costs, has made a priority of sites most vulnerable to being lost. Bull is not a top priority yet.

Only about 50 sites identified so far can still be seen, in one form or another. Only about half are protected, said Douglas Bostick, trust executive director.

An obscure, virtually unused earthwork wouldn’t appear to have much historic value at first glance, but they could teach important historic and environmental lessons. You have to look not at the individual sites, but the grand scheme of them across the countryside, said Steven Smith, S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology director.

“What you see today, you would find them in some of the oddest places,” Smith said. But that’s because the landscape has changed, after years of draining and development. They sit at what were pivotal “choke points” for rivers, roads or railroads in what once were swamps.

They were the work of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, and Gen. Robert E. Lee had an early hand in the design, Smith said. The fortifications usually were left vacant, but their position along travel paths such as railroads meant they could quickly be manned if Union forces were reported headed that way.

It was a way of fortifying a lot of wetlands with relatively few troops.

“Using the railroad to protect itself, it was quite innovative. It tells the story of the Civil War in the Lowcountry,” Smith said.

“It was the genius of Beauregard,” Bostick said. “It’s the deep history of the city. It pieces together the history of the community in which we live.”

The sites were so critical that the earthen forts often were built on top of earlier, sometimes Revolutionary War-era earthworks.

And today they really do sit in odd places, one of them along the 11th tee at the Country Club of Charleston, Bostick said.

For Byrd, a history buff, the mounds are riveting. He’d like to see what’s left of Fort Bull preserved.

“I imagine this was pretty squared off then, and look at it now,” he said. “The important thing is that people know they are here, and the people who live nearby take on a stewardship role.”

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