Forts are a dime-a-dozen in the U.S. Crawl around the eastern seaboard and you’re bound to find dozens of them scattered about that harken back to the Civil War, Revolutionary War or even earlier. There is so much history at these places that it can be a little bit overwhelming, not to mention the minutiae that – to the uninitiated – tends to be the only thing distinguishing one fort from the other.
I’m not really a war buff. I appreciate my history – I minored in it in college (also known as memorizing “useless facts, names and dates” to those outside the field), but I don’t obsess over it. I’ve been to a handful of American battlefields, from Gettysburg to Little Big Horn, but I almost always pass those up in favor of another historic landmark or national park. I didn’t follow that rule two weeks ago…
With a whole mid-February day to spend in Charleston, S.C., I wasn’t about to pass on Fort Sumter, the historic home of the first shot of the American Civil War. I also wanted to salute my Polish heritage with a visit to Fort Pulaski near Tybee Island, GA (near Savannah, two hours south of Charleston). With a quick weekend road trip, we’d knock two Civil War forts right outta the park – and get a few stamps for the ol’ park passport to boot.
We ended up visiting both sides on arguably the coldest days of the year for each area. At Fort Sumter, rain turned to snow flurries which whirled around in the frigid, wind-blown harbor. Fort Pulaski wasn’t much warmer as temperatures in the low 40s (remember, this is coastal Georgia!) had us all bundling up for the hour-long tour.
Fun facts from the visit…
- You’ll need to book a tour to Fort Sumter through Spirit Line Cruises. It isn’t the cheapest deal in the world, but it is the only deal. I accidentally booked for the prior Saturday, but the clerk was kind enough to issue us the tickets for that day for no added charge. Despite the blustery conditions, the ship was very full and I’d recommend getting on board as soon as possible if you want to grab a seat.
- The guide was very informative, but, maybe because of the conditions (or the sheer amount of people visiting) they didn’t conduct a true “tour”. While the fort is quite small, we all huddled up as a group and listened to the ranger’s spiel for a good half hour. This only gave us about 30 minutes to wander the rest of the fort and the museum (hardly enough for anyone who really wants to dive into the history here). I don’t really regret it, since I needed the Sumter primer anyway (it’s been a few years since my last history class), but I can see some people seeing it as a waste of valuable time. It’s completely optional, though, so feel free to spend more time wandering if you want.
- There were TWO battles of Fort Sumter. The first – in which the confederates took the fort from the Union – kicked off four years of bloody battle (there were only two casualties in the first battle). The second battle took place halfway through the war and involved a few hundred men on each side (and more casualties). The south maintained control of Sumter and held Charleston for the duration of the war.
- Fort Pulaski was taken by the Union in April 1862 after a long siege originating from neighboring Tybee Island. This effectively cut off Savannah as a viable port for the Confederacy and was a major gain for the Union as the war hit its first anniversary.
- Fort Pulaski is named after Polish Commander Casimir Pulaski, arguably the most famous Pole in American history and is a beloved figure in areas heavy with Polish hertiage (some places in the U.S. celebrate Pulaski Day – in Illinois it falls on the first Monday in March).
- Two recent movies involving Abraham Lincoln were shot at Fort Pulaski, namely Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (2009) and (on a completely different spectrum) the 2012 “mockbuster” Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.
- Robert E. Lee’s first assignment in the Army was on Cockspur Island (the home of Fort Pulaski) involved dredging the drainage system to better suit the island for the building of a fort.
- John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, made his first American landing on Cockspur in 1736.
On to the photos…