The Charm of Charleston

December 12-15 — Back on the road after four relaxing days and nights with Daddy and Joan, we headed further down the Carolina coast, crossing into South Carolina, where we made our first stop, Charleston.  We had four nights of camping here and little on our agenda; our main goal was to visit Fort Sumter.  As it turned out, our relaxing came to an abrupt end, for with so much to do and see, we were on the go just about every minute of the time we spent here!

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site
Charles Pinckney National Historic Site

Once in Charleston, we realized that Fort Sumter isn’t the only National Park Unit here.  The Charles Pinckney National Historic Site preserves a proud remnant of the prominent Pinckney family’s Snee Farm that once was a 700+ acre rice and indigo plantation.  Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) was a member of an important Lowcountry family.  As was common practice in those days, wealthy families felt a sense of obligation to serve in the government of this young, emerging nation, thus Charles began his public service career at the tender age of 22, and served until he was 64.  Considered one of our country’s Founding Fathers, he represented state and national legislatures, was a four-term Governor of South Carolina, authored parts of the U.S. Constitution, and, appointed by our country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, served as the Ambassador to Spain.  Who knew this guy did all that?  We sure didn’t!  This is why it’s so interesting and wonderful to visit these lesser-known / unknown park units as well as the big ones!

Grand Oaks at the Charleston Tea Plantation

Also celebrated at the Pinckney NHS as well as all around Charleston and the Carolina Lowcountry is the Gullah culture.  The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans who live in the Lowcountry regions and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.  The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee.  The Pinckney home showcased the lovely traditions, creole-based language, and culture of the many generations of the Gullah.  And yet it’s difficult not to forget the great disparity in incredible wealth of families like the Pinckneys who owned several plantations, and the crushing hardship of slavery that made such southern life possible.

Sweetgrass basket weaving is a Gullah tradition that traces back hundreds of years to the people and settlements in Africa. Today all around Charleston women can be found weaving and selling their baskets and other sweetgrass wares, keeping up this lovely artform.

Sweetgrass basket stand and weavers
Sweetgrass basket stand and weavers
The Civil War Begins

As I mentioned, the one place we knew we wanted to visit while in Charleston was Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the Civil War were fired.  We had visited Appomattox Court House in Virginia back in November – the place where the Civil War effectively ended – and now our travels brought us here.

Fort Sumter was one of a series of coastal fortifications built by the United States after the War of 1812.  During this time, Charleston was a large, important port city; home to many plantation owners made wealthy off the backs, literally, of enslaved African Americans.  By the mid 18th century, most of the northern states had moved to restrict slavery, but South Carolina and other southern states, heavily dependent on slave labor to fuel their agriculture-based economy, felt that the Federal government was encroaching on states rights, constitutional rights, human rights and property rights.  Slavery was at the heart of issues involving economics, politics and sectional power.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 further heightened tensions between the North and the South.  In December 1860, after a half-century of growing sectionalism, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, with Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana soon following.  By early 1861, the Confederate States of America elected Jefferson Davis as their president.  Texas joined the Confederacy in early March, and by then nearly all the Federal forts and navy yards in the seven seceding states had been seized by the new government of the South.  Fort Sumter was one of the few that remained in Federal hands.

Fort Sumter 1861-1865
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When South Carolina seceded, there were four Federal installations around Charleston, but only one, Fort Moultrie, had more than a nominal number of soldiers.  There, Federal Major Robert Anderson commanded two companies; 85 men in total.  Six days after South Carolina seceded, Anderson concluded that Fort Moultrie was indefensible and secretly transferred his command to Fort Sumter, a mile away in the heart of Charleston’s harbor.  South Carolina regarded Anderson’s move as a breach of faith and demanded that the U.S. Government evacuate.  President James Buchanan refused.

Lincoln took office in March 1861, and vowed he would not consent to a division of the Union.  On April 4th, he ordered the resupply of Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  Confederate forces demanded Anderson surrender, but despite his limited personnel and supplies, he refused.  As Union resupply ships approached, Confederate forces made the decision to attack.  At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, a mortal shell was sent up from nearby Fort Johnson as a signal for the other surrounding forts to begin their fire.  Confederate artillery bombarded Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter for 34 hours, after which time Anderson surrendered the now-decimated fort.  The long-dreaded Civil War had begun.

Fort Sumter remained in Confederate hands until February 1865 when southern forces abandoned Charleston.  By then Union bombardment had left Fort Sumter in ruins.  After the Civil War, Fort Sumter was used as a lighthouse island at the entrance to Charlotte harbor.  During the Spanish-American War in 1898, a new concrete artillery battery was built.  In 1947, this historic fort was deactivated and turned over to the National Park Service to be run as a National Monument.

Fort Sumter National Monument
Fort Sumter National Monument

The Civil War would be fought in 10,000 places once it got started here in Fort Sumter.  Three million men fought in this four-year war, and over 600,000 men died in it.  Our visit to the Visitor Center along the Charleston waterfront, ferry ride out to the fort, and time spent out there was a meaningful way to recall this most important event in the life of our nation.

USS Yorktown at Patriots Point
USS YORKTOWN at Patriots Point
In the briefing room of the USS Yorktown
Briefing Room on the USS YORKTOWN
Fred reliving his old US Navy days - he served on the USS Albany
Reliving Navy days aboard USS ALBANY

If that wasn’t enough military history, we spent most of another day at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.  The centerpiece of this museum is the World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown.  Known as “The Fighting Lady,” Yorktown played a significant role in the Pacific offensive in late 1943 and ended with the defeat of Japan in 1945.  Also at Patriots Point are a destroyer and a submarine, a brand new Vietnam Experience Exhibit, and the inspiring Medal of Honor Museum.  We both really enjoyed touring all around the exhibits, but perhaps most fun was seeing the groups of Boy Scouts who had spent the previous night on Yorktown through what is evidently one of the nation’s top educational adventures.  The special energy and enthusiasm of these boys, ranging in age from about six to around 18 was contagious.  Or perhaps theirs was an over-tired energy because they had spent the night probably not sleeping in the berthing areas where heroic sailors once slept, and watched movies where these brave men once did the same.  Whatever the reason for their enthusiasm and joy, it was a treat being there when they were there at this special place that honors our heroes.  It’s a must-see place when in the Charleston area.

In addition to the sites that we visited, we thoroughly enjoyed just walking around in this old, storied city known for its well-preserved architecture. Known also for its distinguished restaurants, we couldn’t pass up eating out a couple of times. We had seafood, of course, including delicious she-crab soup; and for Sunday brunch I just had to order a soul food specialty: pecan-encrusted fried chicken & waffles, both topped with Vermont Maple Syrup – a tribute to our Vermont friends, Pam and Stan! We strolled in the sunshine along East Bay Street and in Battery Park, and visited the historic City Market. Established in the 1790s, this old historic landmark stretches four blocks long, and today hosts vendors selling all kinds of wares. After spending four charming days in Charleston, we can see why Conde Nast magazine voted it the #1 City in the U.S. for the past four years! Do come down here y’all!