When traveling in the east, especially the southeastern portion of the United States, one would be hard-pressed not to come across a National Park or Historic Site of some sort commemorating the bloody history of America known as the American Civil War. Such was the case for “Me and Mr. Jones” as we spent time exploring this part of the country. And two of our favorite, if not the most meaningful spots, were the locations of the BEGINNING and the ENDING of this historic war – Fort Sumter National Monument and Appomattox Court House National Historic Park.
Fort Sumter National Monument – the BEGINNING …
It was 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861 when Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the firing on Fort Sumter – the shots that started the Civil War. This early morning onslaught would lead to the costliest war, in terms of human life, that our country has ever seen – around 620,000 lives over the course of four years.
Fort Sumter is located in Charleston Harbor right off of Charleston, South Carolina. It was one of 50 forts built along the eastern and southern coasts, following the War of 1812, in an effort to protect the country’s harbors. At the time, the range of firepower by cannon was only 1 – 2 miles so Fort Sumter was built right in the middle of the harbor – about a mile from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the north and about a mile from Fort Johnson on John’s Island to the south.
By 1861, following the secession of South Carolina, Major Robert Anderson moved his point of command from nearby Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in order to protect the interests of the U.S. government. This infuriated the newly-seceded South Carolina who believed that they should control this strategically-located military installation. After all, it was in their own state! General Beauregard approached Anderson to surrender the fort on two occasions before ordering the attack on Fort Sumter.
So why was Fort Sumter considered to be strategically located? It was the South’s most important seaport. If you controlled Fort Sumter – you controlled all access to Charleston. The rebels hammered the fort for 34 long hours forcing the Union forces to surrender and the victorious Beauregard and his Southern troops took over. About a week later President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade of the coast, preventing the new Confederacy of participating in foreign trade that would aid them in their war efforts. Yep – the Civil War was ON!
The Confederacy held Fort Sumter for most of the war in spite of numerous attempts by the north to regain its position. In February of 1865, shortly before the end of the war, the South finally lost control of the nearly demolished fort. It remained in disrepair until around 1900 when attempts were made to restore the fort. The fort was decommissioned in 1947 and became part of the National Park Service in 1948.
When you visit the fort you can explore on your own and learn about the points of interest via interpretive signs. There is a museum with general information about the construction and history of the fort, as well as a small bookstore. The various observation levels provide a range of perspectives of the coastline and nice views of the horizon. And the original flag flown at the fort is on display in the museum.
There are park interpreters on hand to answer questions and make time to listen to any ranger “talks” that are offered. Ours shared an overview of the fort and suggested to view the park with an objective eye rather than a subjective eye, meaning, rather than taking it all in through the lens of our own experiences and perspectives – attempt to digest it as someone quite different from yourself might. Perhaps like one of the enslaved Charlestonians that made the bricks to build the fort – the same bricks that are still there today.
The fort is accessible only by boat. You can embark on a round-trip tour from either Liberty Square in downtown Charleston or from Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant. Various times are available for your tour and the pleasant thirty minute ride takes you past the coastline of Charleston, near the iconic Ravenel Bridge, by the decaying Castle Pinckney and if you’re lucky you might spy dolphins cavorting in the harbor – we did!
Contact Info: Fort Sumter National Monument / www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm. Liberty Square – 340 Concord St., Charleston, SC 29401 / Patriot’s Point – 40 Patriot’s Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, SC 29464. Tour phone – 800 789-3678 / www.fortsumtertours.com.
(Fast forward FOUR years.)
Appomattox Court House National Historic Park – the END …
It was midday on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee climbed the stairs leading to the porch of the home of Wilmer McLean. Lee was there to meet with opponent, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, to draft and sign documents surrendering the cause of the Confederacy, thus ending the American Civil War.
It had been a tough week for Lee – he had lost half of his army and just that morning had lost the nearby Battle of Appomattox Court House. He was hugely outnumbered, they were low on supplies and his men were starving. Lee’s famous quote that day … “there is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” summed up not only their physical condition but their spirit, as well.
The McLean house was the best house in Appomattox and thus chosen for this momentous event. Interestingly enough, Wilmer McLean originally lived in Manassas, Virginia and in the summer of 1861 his house was taken over as the Confederate headquarters for none other than General P.G.T. Beauregard. Wanting nothing to do with the fighting, (although he was all about the commerce and sold sugar to the Confederate army), he moved his family to Appomattox to avoid the war. He, too, was famously quoted following the war as saying, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
My favorite part about the surrender at Appomattox is the honor and respect the two Generals had for one another. After the documents were signed and the terms were official, General Lee mounted his horse to ride back to inform his defeated Army of the surrender. The Union soldiers offered silent salutes as he rode through their lines.
General Grant could easily have taken the rebel troops as prisoners of war but instead allowed them to return to their homes. Upon the condition of laying down their arms and abiding by Federal law, they were permitted to keep their swords and horses. Grant even gave the starving troops rations of food.
Soldiers on both sides were relieved that the war was over. They cheered and many cried over the news. It took a while for the news of the surrender to spread and it was nearly two weeks later before Major General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army of nearly 90,000 men in Tennessee. And the final battle of the Civil War took place nearly a month later, on May 11 – 12, 1861, at Palmito Ranch – east of Brownsville, Texas.
Today the National Historic Park sits on nearly 1,700 acres and includes a portion of the battlefield, cemeteries, the Court House, Lee’s headquarters and the reconstructed McLean home. The structure is a full replica down to the furnishings, wall hangings and rugs. Following the surrender, the soldiers bought the original furnishings as mementos of the war and all they had endured. Very little of the furnishings in the home today are original.
A true highlight of our day at Appomattox Court House was a ranger-led interpretative talk. We were approached by a young man dressed in period attire who invited us to have a seat on the porch of the tavern while he shared his experiences in the war. He explained with authentic energy the enthusiasm that he and his chums felt when they left to fight for the newly formed Confederacy. He regaled us with tales and stories – both historic and of a personal nature. By the time he was finished I was actually shedding tears at his description of the state of demoralization and starvation the young men in the rebel army endured. Truly an outstanding account!
Contact Info: Appomattox Court House National Historic Park / 111 National Park Dr., Appamattox, VA 24522 / 434 352-8987 x226 / www.nps.gov/apco/index.htm.
Visiting both of these sites – places that commemorate the beginning and end of a war between fellow countrymen – provoked so many feelings. These were brothers who fell apart so drastically that they resorted to killing one another over ideals and differing perspectives of what they each viewed as a moral way to live life. Makes you pause, right? Looking back it is easy to see, and even understand, some of the motives and reasoning for the righteous stances that were taken by BOTH sides. Unfortunately, it’s much, much harder to see the other side when in the midst of turmoil and “right” fighting. I’m troubled by the similarities of things I learned about this time in history and what I know and see in the media today. That’s one of the reasons why we study history, right? So we don’t make the same mistakes that were made in the past. Hmmm. Perhaps it’s time for everyone to open up their history books again.
Do you enjoy learning about and visiting military and war memorials? Check out these posts about a couple more: The D-Day Memorial – Operation Overlord (WWII) and Boston’s Freedom Trail (Revolutionary War).
Have you visited Ft Sumter in Charleston or the Appomattox Court House in Virginia? Share what you liked about these interesting sites in the comments below – we would love to hear from you!