Fort Sumter

Dad was a chaplain in the US Navy and we moved around somewhat. So in my four years of high school, I attended four different schools: two in Southern California, the third near Boston, and I graduated in Charleston, South Carolina in 1964.

In April of 2016, the USS Yorktown, CV-5 Survivor’s Reunion was held in Charleston, and I was chaplain for the group. One day, Carol and I drove over to James Island to locate the house my parents rented and the high school I attended. This was the first time I had returned to the Charleston area since May of 1964, but I located both house and school without a hitch. They hadn’t moved.

Memories flooded my mind, and I verbally relived many of them while Carol listened. (I met Carol in Southern California in late August of 1964.) When my parents lived in the Charleston area, we didn’t visit Fort Sumter which is situated in Charleston Bay. Perhaps that was because renovations, beginning in 1961, had not been completed. But now I was looking forward to visiting the fort.

Fort Sumter was named after General Thomas Sumter – a hero in the Revolutionary War. Built primarily by slave labor, construction of the fort was started in 1829 but was still incomplete in 1861 when the War Between the States began.

There are several names for that war, and each name reflects the feelings of various groups through history. A well-accepted name is The War Between the States. Many northern folk called it The War of the Rebellion, while many Southerners called it The War of Northern Aggression. Some Europeans called it The War of Secession, but the common name here in modern America is the American Civil War. But as Colonel Butch Quick said, “There was nothing civil about it!” Well over 625,000 Americans died in that hellish conflict.

Many believe that the war was not primarily about slavery. As an example: South Carolina’s General James Longstreet is quoted as saying, “We should have freed the slaves, THEN fired on Fort Sumter.”

Understanding that South Carolina was thinking about seceding from the brand-new Union as early as 1827, Fort Sumter was not built to keep South Carolina in line; the fort was one of a series of fortresses built along our eastern coastline to protect our major ports from potential European aggression.

Our tour boat backed away from the wharf and sailed around the bow of the USS Yorktown, CV-10, that was docked nearby. The Yorktown (built to replace the USS Yorktown, CV-5 that sunk in the Battle of Midway in June of 1942) was commissioned in 1943 and is huge; but with its flight deck looming 50 feet above our heads, it looked enormous.

A twenty-minute cruise toward the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Sumter looked small with walls currently about 15 feet high. However, seventy thousand tons of New England granite had originally been imported to build the 5-sided Fort Sumter on the harbor sandbar; and the walls in 1861 were 5 feet thick and 50 feet high. It was designed to house 650 men with 135 canons.

South Carolina had officially withdrawn from the fledgling United States of America, and Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard ordered Union Major Robert Anderson to surrender Fort Sumter. When Anderson refused, the Confederate forces began firing on April 12, 1861.

The fort was built to withstand a naval assault using small, ship-mounted guns, but it could not long endure the massive bombardment from the shore-based gun batteries. Even though there were no casualties during the 36-hour bombardment, Major Anderson finally realized that the situation was hopeless.

Therefore, to save the lives of his men, Major Anderson raised a white flag. Deciding not to capture the Union forces, General Beauregard provided a boat and personnel to take the Union soldiers to a Union ship waiting off shore. Note: two years later in the heat of the war, on September 8, 1863, Union naval forces, using larger guns, attempted to regain control, but failed. Again, the fort was severely damaged.

Ninety-eight years later, South Carolina and the US Government agreed to restore Fort Sumter and make it a National Monument with a Visitor Education Center. This was being completed as I graduated from high school just across the harbor on James Island.

Fifty-two years later, I returned with Carol and the USS Yorktown CV-5 Survivor’s group, and finally had the privilege of touring the fort. I was impressed with the history and the restoration. If you have the opportunity, I would encourage you to visit Fort Sumter.

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