Many say to me, “The young aren’t interested in history.” These observers go on to explain, “The young people don’t collect...they rather have experiences.” In fact, one fellow even went so far as to cite the AM radio host, Rush Limbaugh, who had been talking about how Millenials (roughly defined as the consumer group that reached adulthood in the early 21st century having been born between 1982 and about 2000) value experiences over ownership of goods. So when I finally had a history “experience,” I thought I might be bucking the trend.
Recently, I attended my big brother’s wedding in North Carolina. Being a good Yankee, I assumed anything south of the Mason-Dixon Line had to have some Civil War connection. As I perused a map, I noticed that I wouldn’t be too far from Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of secession occurred in 1861. I figured, if nothing else, maybe I will spot a shop or two on the drive Charleston.
After several hours in the car and not a hint of a good relic shop along the way, I rolled into the historic port city of Charleston, South Carolina. For those not familiar, Charleston was founded in 1670, and today is defined by its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and rows of antebellum houses, particularly in the French Quarter and Battery districts. The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park both overlook Charleston Harbor where Fort Sumter occupies a small island at the mouth.
Because I have been an ardent buff from the first time my grandmother read the How and Why Book of the Civil War to me before I was in Kindergarten, I thought a visit to the famous Fort was in order. I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy any relics there, but what the heck, it is known for its role in the opening days of the American Civil War.
BUILT TO PROTECT THE HARBORS
Named after General Thomas Sumter, Revolutionary War hero, Fort Sumter was built after the War of 1812, as one of a series of fortifications on the southern U.S. coast to protect the harbors. Construction began in 1829 and was still unfinished in 1861 when the Civil War began. Seventy thousand tons of granite were transported from New England to build up a sandbar in the entrance to Charleston Harbor, which the site dominates. The fort was a five-sided brick structure, 170 to 190 feet (52 to 58 m) long, with walls five feet thick, standing 50 feet over the low tide mark. It was designed to house 650 men and 135 guns in three tiers of gun emplacements, although it was never filled near its full capacity. Most of the time it was manned just by the few soldiers who maintained the Fort’s ordnance.
Then in 1860, six days after South Carolina seceded from the Union, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson abandoned the nearby -- but indefensible Fort Moultrie -- on December 26. Without any orders from his superiors, he ferried Companies E and H (127 men, 13 of them musicians) of the 1st U.S. Artillery to Fort Sumter, believing the unfinished Fort would provide a stronger defense against an attack by South Carolina militia.
With the view that Anderson and his garrison were “occupiers,” South Carolinian tensions grew. Then, on January 9, 1861, cadets from the nearby military school, The Citadel, fired the first shots of the war when they tried to prevent the steamer Star of the West from resupplying the Fort.
A little more than a month after South Carolina seceded, then U.S. President James Buchanan received a letter from South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens on January 31, 1861. Pickens insisted that the President surrender Fort Sumter because “I regard that possession is not consistent with the dignity or safety of the State of South Carolina.” Over the next few months, Pickens and Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T Beauregard made repeated demands for the US to abandon the Fort -- all were ignored.
When Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency of the United States on March 4, 1861, his troubles were already apparent. During the 16 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day, seven slave states declared their secession from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln came to believe that Major Anderson’s command at Fort Sumter would run out of food and supplies by April 15, 1861. He ordered a fleet of ships, under the command of Gustavus V. Fox, to attempt entry into Charleston Harbor and supply Fort Sumter. The ships assigned were the steam sloops-of-war USS Pawnee and USS Powhatan, transporting motorized launches and about 300 sailors (secretly removed from the Charleston fleet to join in the forced reinforcement of Fort Pickens, Pensacola, FL), armed screw steamer USS Pocahontas, Revenue Cutter USRC Harriet Lane, steamer Baltic transporting about 200 troops, composed of companies C and D of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, and three hired tugboats with added protection against small arms fire to be used to tow troop and supply barges directly to Fort Sumter. By April 6, 1861, the first ships began to set sail for their rendezvous off the Charleston Bar. The first to arrive was Harriet Lane, docking on Thursday evening of April 11, 1861.
Earlier that day, Beauregard had sent three aides, Colonel James Chesnut, Jr., Captain Stephen D. Lee, and Lieutenant A. R. Chisolm to demand the surrender of the fort. Major Anderson declined.
After Beauregard consulted the Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, he sent the aides back to the fort and authorized Chesnut to decide whether the fort should be taken by force. The aides waited for hours while Anderson considered his alternatives and played for time.
When Anderson finally announced his conditions at about 3:00 a.m. on Friday morning, Colonel Chesnut, decided that they were “manifestly futile and not within the scope of the instructions verbally given to us”. The aides left the fort and proceeded to the nearby Fort Johnson., At 4:30 AM, Chesnut ordered the fort to open fire on Fort Sumter.
For the next 34 hours, Confederate batteries around the edge of Charleston Harbor fired on Fort Sumter. The Union slowly returned fired to conserve their ammunition. Finally, on Saturday, April 13, 1861, Anderson surrendered and evacuated the fort.
Though the battle raged for nearly 1-1/2 days, casualties were negligible. When Union colors fell during the attack, Lt. Norman J. Hall risked life and limb to put them back up, permanently burning off his eyebrows. A Confederate soldier bled to death having been wounded by a misfiring cannon. After the surrender, during a flag-lowering ceremony allowed by the Confederates, one Union soldier died and another was mortally wounded during the 47th shot of a 100-shot salute. With the flag lowered, Major Anderson kept it and returned north with it.
The Confederates took possession of the fort and held it for almost the entire war. In the face of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s advance through South Carolina, the Fort’s current commander, Major Thomas A. Huguenin, chose to abandon it on February 17, 1865.
Five days later, on February 22, 1865, the Federal government formally reclaimed possession of Fort Sumter. On April 14, 1865, mere hours before President Lincoln’s assassination, the Fort’s former Union commander, Anderson (now a major general), returned to Fort Sumter with the flag he had been forced to lower after his surrender four years earlier. He raised it in triumph over the ruined fort.
An Experience of a Lifetime
Even though I was trained to be a museum professional, I have always had the opinion that “the only museums I like are the ones where I can buy the collection.” Face it, I am a collector. Being able to own and hold pieces of history is what gets my mojo flowing. Going to museums is often a drag on my soul as I view walls covered with labels and very few artifacts on display.
And as for “experiences,” I was pretty sure I had had my fill. As a young man, I was very fortunate to work five days a week as a nineteenth-century farmer at an open-air museum. On my two days off, I spent my time living the life of a Union soldier as a Civil War reenactor. I thought I was getting a pretty good feel for history by building fences, plowing fields with horses, and boiling more beans and rice during the week, and then donning the blue suit to recreate the life of an enlisted soldier on the weekends. The dirt and stink in my clothes were very real. The farmer’s tan on my face and hands were the product of real farming. And the comprehension of nineteenth-century lifestyles was pretty deep. I was living the perfect “historical experience” long before Millenials were even conceived.
So, now 30 years later, the idea of an historical “experience” isn’t all that enticing to me. I would much rather own a Model 1841 Mississippi Rifle, original forage cap, and cartridge box full of 1860s paper cartridges than I would to carry or use all these items in the field. Like any good, old grouchy guy, I disparage the “young’ns who want to have "experiences” rather than collect relics.
This predisposition to grumpiness had not reared its ugly little presence as I sat on the Ferry over to Fort Sumter. Like an egghead kid in fourth grade, I took the front row seat next to the Park Ranger who gave a preliminary talk as we approached the Fort. When he finished, I struck up a light-hearted conversation with him. “So how are you this morning?” I asked to break the ice. “Living the dream!” was his reply, adding, “The weather is beautiful, and I am getting paid to work at Fort Sumter.” Immediately recalling the stories my Grandmother read to me so many years prior of Major Anderson lowering and then raising the US Flag over Fort Sumter, I replied, “Well, I would be living the dream, too, if I could assist you in raising the flag this morning!” He told me they generally meet at the flagpole to begin the tour, so if I wanted to participate to be there.
As soon as we disembarked from the ferry, my partner and I made a bee-line through the fort and up the stairs to where the tall, white -- and flagless -- pole stood above the brick walls of Sumter. Soon, a small crowd of tourists gathered and the Ranger came out of his office, carrying a large tri-corner, folded US flag. He asked, “Who will hold this flag while I give the orientation?” Without hesitation, I stepped forwarded and reached out for the flag.
At that moment, all of my Dad’s lessons flooded over me. “ When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, ‘In God We Trust’,” Dad told me when I was young. He showed me that after the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it has the appearance of a cocked hat -- reminding us of the soldiers who served under Gen. George Washington.
The Ranger handed me the flag, I rotated it so that the “point” of the flag was directed at my heart. My left hand was under the triangle and I placed my right hand on the top to steady it, just as Dad had shown me many years ago. The talk went on for some time, but it didn’t matter. I was holding Fort Sumter’s flag, waiting, just as Major Anderson had done during the Civil War, to raise it above the brick walls.
Finally, it was time to raise the flag. Any other guests who so desired were invited to keep the flag level as we unfolded in preparation to hoisting. Making sure two people had a grip of the reinforced heading, I began unfolding, recalling the tribute my Dad had taught me:
“The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
The second fold is a symbol of our belief in eternal life.
The third fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks, and who gave a portion of his or her life for the defense of our country to attain peace throughout the world.
The fourth fold represents our weaker nature; as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace, as well as in times of war, for His divine guidance.
The fifth fold is a tribute to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, “Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right, but it is still our country, right or wrong.”
The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The seventh fold is a tribute to our armed forces, for it is through the armed forces that we protect our country and our flag against all enemies, whether they be found within or without the boundaries of our republic.
The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor our mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.
The ninth fold is a tribute to womanhood, for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty, and devotion that the character of the men and women who have made this country great have been molded.
The 10th fold is a tribute to father, for he, too, has given his sons and daughters for the defense of our country since he or she was first born.
The 11th fold, in the eyes of Hebrew citizens, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The 12th fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.”
With flag unfolded and supported by the hands of 30-some guests from around the nation, we stood silently as the Ranger applied the snap hooks to the grommets on the flag's heading. Then, he handed the halyard to an elderly guest who was wearing a “US NAVY WWII VETERAN” cap, saying, “Sir, I think we all agree that it is fitting for you to raise the colors.” As the old man pulled the rope, one, two, and three times, the flag started to lift from our grasps. I held on to the last corner until I knew that the flag would fly freely without touching the ground. All of us stared at the flag as it slowly ascended the pole to take its place waving -- once again-- over Fort Sumter.
Okay, I am no millennial...but that was one of the coolest experiences I have ever “collected.”
Preserve the Memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine