Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie

Fort Sumter, A pile of stone on a Sandy Shoal
Fort Sumter, A pile of stone on a Sandy Shoal

The bombardment of Fort Sumter from Fort Moultrie began at dawn of April 12, 1861, and continued without remission for about 36 hours, or until noon of the second day. During that time, though shot and shell played havoc with the walls of both the besiegers and the besieged, no human being was hurt, – a strange preliminary, indeed, to the most murderous civil war since the invention of gunpowder in the history of the world. This has been called the first time in history that two forts waged battle against each other. It was like two strong men, tied by the feet, almost beyond reach of each other, being allowed to strike at each other until one or the other should fall.

To understand something of the conditions, which governed this very historic bout between Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, one must have some idea of the lay of the land at Charleston. Charleston, itself, it may be pointed out, is situated on a long narrow spit of land at the juncture of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The arrowhead formed by these two rivers points almost directly toward the mouth of Charleston Bay; where the waters of the two rivers joined mingle with the Atlantic Ocean. Let us go to the point of the arrowhead upon which Charleston is situated, to the Battery, that is, Charleston’s most famous public park, and gaze seaward: Five miles away, across a shimmering blue, we see a little geometrical dot almost midway between the jaws which hold Charleston Bay. This is Fort Sumter, a little stonework built by the United States Government in 1828 on a sandy shallow. Fort Moultrie is situated on Sullivan’s Island, on the northern one of the two jaws of the bay, a body of land really distinct from the mainland but which seems from this distance to be a part of that land. Of the two fortifications. Fort Moultrie is the older and by long odds the more interesting as to past.

Wise heads of both sections in 1860 saw that war was inevitable between the North and the South, though patriots did their best to prevent armed conflict. But the doctrine of State individualism or State’s Rights was too firmly established to be gotten from the body corporate without a purging of blood, just as individual rights in the social structure can never be enforced to the last limit without conflicting with the community purpose. So when, on Christmas night, 1860, Major Anderson, commanding at Fort Moultrie, moved his whole force secretly over to the subpost. Fort Sumter, and sent his women and children to Charleston, with the request that they be sent north, the citizens of Charleston, at least, knew that the issue had been squarely met, to be settled at the court of last resort.


Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel, in her delightful reminiscences of Charleston, writes:

Doubt and delay were gone. Then came the call to arms . . . January, February, and March were so full of crowded life that they seemed an eternity, yet one dreaded lest eternity should end. End it did when one night at eleven o’clock seven guns thundered out over the town and every man sprang up, seized his rifle and ran to the wharves. It was the signal that the relieving fleet (from the north) was on its way south, and that the whole reserve must hurry to the islands.

During all this time Fort Sumter had been supplied with provisions and necessaries by the citizens of Charleston.

When Major Anderson in command at Fort Sumter accepted Beauregard’s terms of surrender and saluted the new flag, he was conveyed, with all the honors of war, in the steamer Isabel to the United States fleet, which had lain idle in the offing.

From this time until the end of the Civil War Charleston was in a state of siege. There was a short period of preparation on both sides before the Federal fleet appeared, November 1861, outside the quaint old city. The city maintained its integrity complete against attacks by water, and finally fell to a move in force by land in the last year of the war, when the defenders of Charleston were withdrawn and all of the men of the remnants of the armies of the Confederacy were being concentrated for one last desperate protest against the inevitable.

After the Civil War Fort Sumter was repaired and strengthened and is still a seat of military power as a subpost of Fort Moultrie.

“To reach Fort Moultrie one goes from Charleston by ferry to the northern side of the Cooper River and takes a trolley which leads seaward along the coast across an inlet to Sullivan’s Island, which has become a popular summer place with many people of Charleston.

Fort Moultrie, when once it is reached, is not a pretentious place, the old works, that is, being simply a star shaped fort of brownish red brick on which the hot southern sun pours down in quantity. It overlooks a rumpled beach and the sea on one side and flat uninteresting land on the other. To the seaward one can gaze upon Fort Sumter and find it not more interesting of aspect close at hand than it is at a distance. Beside the gate of Fort Moultrie is a small marble shaft, which marks the grave of Osceola, the Seminole chieftain. If one has devoured Indian tales in his youth he will no doubt be more interested in this simple memorial than in the immediate aspect of military things around him. It was in Fort Moultrie that Osceola was jailed after his capture in Florida and it was here that he died, from a broken heart, if one is still interested in Indian stories!

The present Fort Moultrie was started in 1841 on the site of a famous old palmetto structure of the same name, which had stood since early Revolutionary days. In 1903, with the exquisite tact which it displays occasionally, army headquarters in Washington decided to change the name of the fort to Fort Getty in honor of some deserving soldier whose career is recorded in the files of the Army Department, but the loud chorus of indignation that greeted this move carried all the way from Charleston to Washington, and the name of that delightful old Revolutionary character, William H. Moultrie, is still preserved at the spot where his first battle was fought.

The foundations of Fort Moultrie were laid in January 1776, when a Mr. Dewees, owner of the island which bears his name, was ordered to deliver at Sullivan’s Island palmetto logs eighteen to twenty feet long and not less than ten inches in diameter in the middle; and Colonel Moultrie was ordered to superintend the erection of a fort from this material. It was not completed in June when the British came into view. In design a double square pen it was built of palmetto logs piled one upon the other and securely bolted together; the space between the outer and inner pen was about sixteen feet and this was filled in with sand; there were square bastions. The walls were intended to be ten feet high above the gun platforms where were mounted 64 guns.

The British fleet bearing a land force was under the command of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, and reached Cape Fear early in May, where it was joined by Sir Henry Clinton from New York with a portion of the troops, which had participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Clinton assumed command of all the land forces. On the 4th of June the fleet appeared off Charleston bar and a small force of men was landed on Long Island, the island just north of Sullivan’s Island, and on the 28th of June advanced under Sir Peter Parker to give battle to Fort Sullivan, as Moultrie was then known. There were brought into action in this engagement the following English vessels: The Bristol and Experiment of 50 guns each; the frigates Active, Solebay, Act eon. Siren, and Sphinx of 28 guns each; the Thunderbomb and Ranger, sloops, of 28 guns; and the Friendship of 22 guns, in all, a very powerful squadron. The Americans had their unfinished palmetto fort, 64 guns and 1200 men. Several days before the battle the fussy General Charles Lee, whom Washington afterwards in his only recorded uncontrolled exhibition of temper called, at the battle of Monmouth, “a damned poltroon,” had removed to another defense of the city half of the small quantity of gunpowder which Moultrie had been given for the defense of his fort.

The command of the defense of Charleston had been given to General Lee by the Continental Congress, and General Lee had appeared in the city on the same day that the British fleet was sighted off the bar. From the first he seems to have been in conflict with Moultrie. Moultrie’s fort, he said, was poorly designed, and doubtless it was; Moultrie should provide a means of retreat for his men, and Moultrie replied that they would never use it; and Moultrie this and that. Moultrie himself, his admirers were forced to admit, was “a man of very easy manners, leaving to others many things which he had better have attended to himself.”

But the point is that Moultrie carried this same easiness of manner and mental poise into battle with him and was on this account an ideal officer to direct a fight. He had, moreover, the unlimited confidence and affection of his men and he knew the people he was working with.

The British appeared off Fort Sullivan just when the feeling between General Lee and Moultrie was at an acute stage. We find Moultrie now at face with the problem of defending his “slaughter pen” fort against an overwhelming force with the insufficient quantity of gunpowder which General Lee had left him.

The ships formed in double column and poured a terrific fire upon the fort. Moultrie feared that the concussion of the shells would rock his guns off their platforms. “Concentrate upon the Admiral, upon the fifty gun ships! ” This was Moultrie’s direction to his men. The Americans, expert marksmen that they were, obeyed his commands and the Bristol and the Experiment suffered fearfully, the captains of these two great ships being mortally wounded.

The Americans now began to run short of powder. Colonel Moultrie sent a despatch for more. He was in pressing need, but no one would have guessed it from his message, which read as follows:

I think we shall want more powder; at the rate we go on I think we shall. But you can see for yourself; pray send more if you think proper.

Rutledge sent 500 pounds, and Lee, who was at Haddrell’s with 5000 pounds he had taken from Fort Sullivan, sent no powder but the message:

If you should unfortunately expend your ammunition without driving off the enemy spike your guns and retreat with all the order you can. I know you will be careful not to expend your ammunition.

General Lee had an idea that battles were fought with bows and arrows and gunpowder kept to celebrate the victory afterwards with! And he was determined that that retreat should take place, because he had prophesied a retreat by all the laws of war some weeks before.

The cannonade went on, the fire from the fort being at a much slower tempo than that from the ships. And now a new fact was discovered in the art of war: The soft palmetto logs with sand in between were a better bulwark than solid stone. Cannon balls entered them easily and stopped just as easily without sending splinters all around. Shells threw the sand up in the air and the sand fell back again to the spot whence it had risen.

The Bristol, the flagship, suffered more than any other of the British vessels. At one time Sir Peter was the only man unwounded on the quarterdeck, and he, too, presently was hurt.

The Act eon went hard aground on the shoal where Fort Sumter was afterwards to be raised and had to be abandoned, being set on fire before she was deserted.

The rattlesnake flag flying over the American fort was shot down, and Sergeant Jasper, leaping over the parapet, braved the fire of the British to recover the emblem. Sergeant Jasper lost his life at Savannah in an effort to duplicate this same feat.

At length the British drew off beaten. They had lost heavily, on the flagship alone 104 men being killed. The American loss was 12 killed and 25 wounded. When the news of this defeat reached England, though the intelligence was given out by the Admiralty in the most politic fashion possible, it was a terrible blow to English pride. “That an English admiral with a well appointed fleet of 270 guns should be beaten off by a miserable little half built fort on an uninhabited sand bank was incomprehensible,” wrote a correspondent from London. Had Moultrie had powder enough the British loss must have been much heavier than it was.

On the 9th of April 1780, Fort Moultrie was again in action, when it opened upon Admiral Arbuthnot’s fleet, which was sailing into the harbor in the course of the operations against Charleston that year. It was unable to prevent the passage of the fleet but it inflicted some damage to the vessels and killed 27 of the enemy. Shortly after Fort Moultrie fell to an overwhelming force of British who attacked by land, and was not again in action during the Revolution.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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