(Photo credit: Fort Sumter, courtesy Miles Tuttle, Flickr Creative Commons)
Fort Sumter in South Carolina is a good example of how times change in historical commemoration. Fifty years can make a lot of difference in terms of how we want to remember our history—in this case, the history of America’s Civil War. Just as surely as the Confederate bombardment of the Union fort marked the start of that war on April 12, 1861, the calendar marked Sumter’s position at the leading edge of Civil War centennial commemorations in 1961 and the sesquicentennial in 2011. And that most recent, 150th anniversary provided new opportunities for South Carolina, and the rest of the country, to reconsider the relationship between the catastrophic clash between North and South and the institution of slavery that propelled that clash.
In a 2011 interview Tim Stone, the park superintendent at Sumter, told NPR that the sesquicentennial commemorations at the park were more low-key than had been the case 50 years previously. Back in 1961, there had been fireworks and parades and the mood had been almost celebratory, even as the contentious issue of slavery had been suppressed from most official celebrations. This was still the era of segregation in America, three years before passage of the Civil Rights Act. The Gone With the Wind version of the Civil War still held sway in the (white) popular imagination, and the centennial was seen by many as a chance to celebrate a glorious struggle to preserve the Southern way of life in the face of Yankee tyranny. A half-century on, the pendulum has swung away somewhat from that historical interpretation, yet the Civil War is as capable as ever of sparking controversy and conflict. So park service commemorations were deliberately kept lower-key, with art exhibits, lectures, and a concert. There was also a poignant commemoration utilizing powerful spotlights punching into the night sky. “We’ll have two beams of light that will be one beam,” said Stone, speaking just prior to the 150th anniversary, “and then on April 12, those beams will split up, to symbolize the splitting of our country.”
Fort Sumter is burned into the memory banks of most Americans who possess even only a sketchy knowledge of the Civil War. It marked the real start of the shooting war, but more fundamentally it marked the final breakdown of Americans’ attempts to resolve their differences amicably, following decades of rising tension over the question of slavery.
My knowledge of all this was still a bit sketchy when I first visited Fort Sumter in 1995, but at the time I was being forced to start figuring it out. I was there as one of a group of Upward Bound tutors, leading about two dozen West Virginia high school kids on a weeklong trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Upward Bound is a federally financed program run with participating colleges that provides extra college preparation resources, including a summer residential program, for selected high school students from low-income or at-risk backgrounds. Our group was mostly white—they were from West Virginia, after all—but included a number of African-American and mixed-race students. This trip marked the end of a summer where I had been tutoring these students primarily in English and Math, but also a smattering of other subjects, including history. In the case of the history material I was rushing to catch up or keep up, often reading a few pages ahead of the students. This trip marked only my second time in the South and I was doing my best to get up to speed with the Civil War. I had to learn fast.
Our group had already visited two other important sites in the story of America’s road to Civil War. Not far from the West Virginia state college that was our home base lies Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown’s 1859 raid further polarized public opinion on slavery. Our visit there included the firehouse where Brown’s men had made their last stand; it was still standing, though much else from the period had been burned down. In contrast, Drayton Hall, an 18th century plantation and another site visit during our stay in Charleston, was pretty much unchanged from the antebellum era.
Fort Sumter and Drayton Hall are very different historic sites, but both have much to say about why the United States embarked on such a bloody path in the 1860s. And Charleston itself retains a powerful and at times divisive connection to the war that split the country and whose after-effects still, to some extent, divide the country to this day. In spite of its preserved antebellum charm—the city’s historic district has been used as a location for numerous Civil War dramas for film and television over the years—Charleston cannot forget the negative aspects of its history. That history includes its part in the slave trade and more generally in the institution of slavery. In the 1860s it was the largest city in a state, South Carolina, that was the most wedded to that institution in the Union. And the state became, on December 20, 1860, the first to secede from the Union, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. Within two months it had helped create a new Confederate States of America, consisting of South Carolina and six other seceded states. And less than two months after that, shore batteries belonging to the newly constituted army of that confederacy opened fire on the Union fort at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, forcing its surrender and making civil war between North and South all but inevitable.
Fort Sumter today is still recognizably the same structure that faced that fateful bombardment. Built on thousands of tons of granite dumped in the harbor to create a 2.4-acre man-made island, the five-sided sea fort sits low and squat just above the waterline, looking from some angles a bit like a Confederate-era ironclad that has run aground. Built following the War of 1812 as one of a series of fortifications for the Southern coast of the United States, Sumter was by 1860 regarded in South Carolina as an unacceptable symbol of federal sovereignty that had to be dislodged. Federal forces had already abandoned nearby Fort Moultrie but refused to vacate their position at Sumter. A final Confederate ultimatum on April 11th was rejected and the following morning Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard ordered his guns to open fire. A day and a half later, the fort, battered by thousands of rounds, surrendered.
Today the National Park Service runs the Fort Sumter National Monument and uses the site to convey as dispassionately as it can the events that led up to the bombardment and the consequences that followed. The unit includes other associated properties that once made up the defenses of Charleston Harbor, including Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island to the north. Moultrie is also worth a visit, as this was the site where, in the early stages of the Revolutionary War, Colonel William Moultrie built a makeshift fort of palmetto logs (the same tree that now graces the South Carolina state flag) and successfully defended the harbor from a British attack. That palmetto fort is long gone, and by 1809 a more permanent brick-and-masonry fort had taken its place. This Fort Moultrie, in Confederate hands, contributed its firepower to the April 12 bombardment of Sumter.
Inevitably, then, the focus of attention returns to the Civil War and to Fort Sumter itself. Still sitting on its artificial island, the fort is accessible only by concession-operated ferryboats from the Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square in downtown Charleston. Access to the fort itself is free but you still have to pay for the ferry trip.
Sumter has changed its look a bit since the 1860s, though not too much. The bombardment destroyed large sections of the structure. The U.S. Army rebuilt most of the damaged or destroyed walls and made other improvements in the decade after the Civil War. Further building took place in 1898, prompted by the Spanish-American War. Although the installation was again occupied for both World Wars I and II, it didn’t fire another shot in anger. Despite the alterations the fort is not too different from the way it looked in 1861, and the periodic military reactivations had prevented it from deteriorating too much. So when in 1948 the facility was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service, it was in reasonably good shape to take its place as a national monument. As park rangers lead you through the site today it’s still easy to imagine the claustrophobic terror that the Union soldiers must have experienced for 34 hours of unremitting bombardment.
Drayton Hall must have held terrors of its own for the slaves who were forced to work there, though these are harder to imagine when visiting the site today. It’s a beautiful example of an 18th century Palladian-style plantation house, complete with grand entrance hall, a double set of internal stairs, and ornamental ceilings. The mansion is missing its two original flanker buildings, both destroyed by natural forces in the late 1800s, but otherwise it has remained intact and in its original condition, which is excellent. The site has been run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1974, when it was acquired from the Drayton family.
When I was there with the Upward Bound group back in 1995 I remember the tour guide emphasizing the building’s architectural bona fides and having very little to say about the slave population of the plantation. This seemed odd to me even then, as I was under the impression that the term plantation in the South pretty much meant that slaves were a big part of the picture. Only when pressed did our guide point out that there were slaves working “out there” in the fields but they were never allowed near the mansion. Supposedly the only slaves allowed in the house were a few “trustees” who were allowed to work in the kitchen or serve food in the main house. She then too-quickly returned to discussion of the architecture and the social life of the Draytons in the antebellum South. Nothing more was said about the 45 or so slaves who worked on the rice plantation that was the source of the Draytons’ wealth. Our guide seemed uncomfortable even bringing up the issue. And in the absence of any slave quarters, which were long gone, there was nothing tangible to show us to remind us of the people whose blood and sweat had made this plantation work. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of the antebellum South at the time, I felt that history was being whitewashed here. We were being fed the Gone With the Wind version of things.
I haven’t had the opportunity to revisit Drayton Hall since 1995, but I hope that tours today cover the slavery issue with greater depth and insight. I imagine they might. At least the Drayton Hall web site now acknowledges in some depth the crucial role of slaves in the life of the plantation. Archeological digs on the property have uncovered the likely location of slave quarters. In 2010 Drayton Hall also created an African-American memorial at the site of a late 18th century burying ground for slaves. The web site stresses the research and educational missions of the National Trust property.
More broadly, Charleston has begun to embrace its slave legacy at numerous locations, including Drayton Hall and the city’s Old Slave Mart Museum, housed in a downtown structure that once held one of the South’s primary slave markets. It’s encouraging to see progress in the way South Carolina is commemorating its slave legacy in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial—although, like America itself, the state still has a long way to go.
Drayton Hall: From History to Preservation. Available at http://www.draytonhall.org/research/people/african.html
Fergus M. Bordewich (2011). Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins. Smithsonian magazine. April. Available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Fort-Sumter-The-Civil-War-Begins.html
Fort Sumter National Monument (1998). General Management Plan. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/fosu/parkmgmt/upload/FOSU_GMP_1998.pdf
Fort Sumter National Monument. National Park Service brochure. Available at http://www.nps.gov/fosu/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=124619
Kathy Lohr (2011). S.C. Marks The Day Cannons Roared At Fort Sumter. Morning Edition. National Public Radio. April 12. Available at http://www.npr.org/2011/04/12/135323959/s-c-marks-the-day-cannons-roared-at-fort-sumter
Edward Rothstein (2011). Emancipating History. New York Times, March 11. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/arts/design/charlestons-museums-finally-chronicle-history-of-slavery.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0