Charleston’s Civil War legacy: Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter

The American Civil War began long before Confederates fired the first salvo at Fort Sumter. But that is not the only national monument visible from the sea walls of Charleston, South Carolina: the other is Castle Pinckney.

Long before Abraham Lincoln was elected President in March 1861, many citizens of the slaveholding States considered themselves independent Southerners rather than Americans. Already ties to the Union had been severed emotionally, which is why they were so quickly broken politically. In the 1850s “popular sovereignty” in several States had placed the future of slavery in the hands of their residents instead of the federal government. The Fugitive Slave Act had led to slave-catchers roaming the countryside in the hope of reward, abolitionists were becoming more vocal, and in 1852 Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened the eyes of millions of Americans to the evils of slavery.

However, in 1861 South Carolina led the way to secession, voting 169 to 0 to render “the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States” null and void. Ten more States quickly followed suit. Facing rebellion on the day he was sworn into office, Lincoln drew a line in the sand, pledging to exert his executive powers to keep possession of all government property. When Fort Sumter was threatened, Lincoln ordered a fleet of ships to supply and relieve it. The Confederates seized the initiative and fired first. Walt Whitman, America’s pre-eminent civil war poet, lamented:

“Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force…”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERANot far from Fort Sumter and located on Shutes’ Folly, an island one mile offshore from Charleston, stands Castle Pinckney, built on the ruins of an older fortification. The original log and earthen structure was started in 1797 and was intended to protect the city from naval attack when war with France seemed imminent. Completed in 1804, it saw no hostilities and was all but destroyed by a severe hurricane later that year. A replacement brick and mortar building called “Castle Pinckney” was erected in 1809-10 and garrisoned throughout the War of 1812, but it saw no action. Afterwards, Castle Pinckney was abandoned.

By the late 1850s, the castle formed part of a network of defensive positions in the harbour, which included the larger and more strategically placed Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and other earthworks and fortifications. In 1860, Castle Pinckney’s armament consisted of fourteen 24-pounders, four 42-pounders, four 8-inch howitzers, one 10-inch and one 8-inch mortar and four light fieldpieces to protect its flanks. But just one week after secession from the Union, the fort was surrendered to South Carolina militia by its small garrison, which retired to Fort Sumter. Castle Pinckney was the first Federal military position to be seized by force by a Southern State.

Pinckney(2)In 1861 Castle Pinckney was intended to protect Charleston from Union attacks and became a Civil War Prison. Its first prisoners were captured at the 1st Battle of Bull Run. Makeshift barracks were built and inmates experienced comfortable and clean conditions compared to other internment camps. Later, when the prisoners had left, the small fort on its tiny island stood guard against attacks on Charleston by Federal ships.

After the Civil War, the fort was modernized for possible use during the Spanish-American War but again it was not needed and some sources suggest that it never fired a hostile shot during its long existence. Parts of the old brick walls and casemates were dismantled in 1890 to make way for a harbour lighthouse and in 1924 Castle Pinckney was declared a National Monument. Today, the island and fort can be visited by boat, although no one can set foot and whatever ghosts remain are left in peace.


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