Haunted by the ghosts of Charleston Harbor

Fort Sumter, viewed from Fort Johnson, in Charleston, S.C., where the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago.
Alice Keeney | AP
Fort Sumter, viewed from Fort Johnson, in Charleston, S.C., where the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago.
Posted April 15, 2011, at 9:19 p.m.

It had to be done. Even a brief visit to Charleston must include a visit to Fort Sumter, even in high winds.

After all, the visit was a week before the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, an avoidable war which killed more than 600,000 people. American fighting American.

To stand on the spot where the war started on April 12, 1861, surrounded by all those ghosts was a moving experience.

It’s amazing how little I knew. I relied on the tour guides and the national monument’s own website for information.

First of all, the famous Charleston Harbor fort was built on a sand bar with Maine granite.

Surprisingly, no one was killed in the famous barrage of Fort Sumter from the surrounding islands. Instead, the first two Yankees died by their own cannon in the celebration that lowered the American flag and surrendered the fort.

The second in command at the fort when the barrage started that fateful morning was none other than Abner Doubleday, who some credit with “inventing” baseball. Others deny that claim vociferously.

Capt. Doubleday served under admitted Southern sympathizer Maj. Robert Anderson. Anderson hailed from Kentucky, owned a plantation and slaves and was reluctant to return fire, even after the barrage started from the surrounding islands.

Once they took control, the Confederates then held on to Fort Sumter for four years, despite furious Union attacks from the shore. The shelling of the captured fort from Union batteries totaled 7 million tons, if that can be imagined. The fort was rebuilt again and again by the rebels, using slaves and cotton bales, two mighty symbols of the war.

Once the war started, the Union navy tried mightily to blockade southern ports, including Charleston, to no avail. Both sides admit that 70 percent of those speedy blockade runners got through. It was a profitable exercise, bringing as much as $100,000 to the successful crews, a fortune at the time. It is surprising that a few movies have not been made on the subject.

Charleston drips with history. One of the bombarders of Fort Sumter was Fort Wagner, another historic site. Later in the Civil War, this fort was attacked by a famous Massachusetts regiment.

Since I attended Robert Gould Shaw Junior High School in Boston, I was always fascinated by this Union colonel. His exploits were captured, of course, in the movie “Glory.”

Shaw led the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, composed entirely of black soldiers, which was a first at the time because black soldiers were not considered dependable. On July 18, 1863, along with two brigades of white troops, the Massachusetts unit assaulted Fort Wagner on Morris Island, overlooking Fort Sumter.

It was a suicide mission and Shaw and his troops were slaughtered. Shaw was shot through the heart and died almost instantly. The rebels returned the bodies of other officers to the Union but buried Shaw in a mass grave with his black troops, a carefully intended insult.

Fort Wagner Cmdr. Johnson Hagood said, “Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench with the Negroes that fell with him.”

Shaw’s father publicly proclaimed that he was proud to know that his son was interred with his troops, befitting his role as a soldier and a crusader for social justice.

I always thought that Fort Sumter held out for weeks, possibly even months, before surrender. But the fort was surrendered two days later, on April 14, 1861, after an estimated 3,000 shells from more than 40 cannons and mortars shattered it.

The battle of Fort Sumter was over. But the disastrous war had just begun.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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