South Carolina was important to the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The first state to leave the Union, South Carolina, put itself front and center at the start of the conflict. So it’s no surprise that Charleston Harbor was the first target of aggression. When the militia fired on Fort Sumter, the local (free) population cheered.
Today, this island and the ferry to reach it provide excellent views of the harbor and downtown Charleston.
It’s a perfect way to spend a relaxing afternoon riding the waves, watching for dolphins, and scrambling over historic rocks.
A Brief History of Civil War Battles in South Carolina and Civil War Sites to Visit in South Carolina
Political figures such as Preston Brooks and John Calhoun fueled pro-slavery sentiments. And pro-slavery voices in the South advocated secession long before the Civil War began.
So South Carolina, and the city built on the wealth of owning slaves (Charleston) were vehement supporters of slavery. As such, some claim that South Carolina was where the war began, with the firing of Fort Sumter, and where it ended.
More on that later.
There were several Civil War battles in South Carolina of note to Civil War buffs, starting at Fort Sumter. The firing on Fort Sumter marked the start of a long and bloody Civil War.
Fort Sumter is, for South Carolina, the start of what many had perceived would be a short and bloodless war. But it proved long and painful. And now there are several different Civil War sites to visit in South Carolina, including some marking the final wind-down of the war.
The Battle of Fort Sumter
The Fort Sumter battle was significant as the start of the most trying period in the history of the American democratic movement.
First, a few Fort Sumter facts to help understand the significance of this American landmark.
What happened at Fort Sumter? A Short History of Fort Sumter
General P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederate States of America army ordered the firing on Fort Sumter on the evening of April 12, 1861. According to Charleston tradition, Citadel Military University cadets fired the first shots. The citizens of Charleston treated the bombardment, done by cannons firing shells and mortars from James Island, as a party. Many residents came to White Point Gardens with party accoutrements to celebrate what appeared to be a fireworks display. The next day, Major Robert Anderson, the Union garrison commander, surrendered the fort and evacuated it the next day. All the Union troops that surrendered boarded a ship out in the harbor and headed back up north.
Who won the Fort Sumter Battle?
The Confederates won the Fort Sumter battle when Union troops surrendered the fort to the Confederacy. The Fort Sumter surrender was preceded by a 33-hour bombardment, which reduced the 50 foot high walls to rubble. While the Confederacy rebuilt the walls of the fort, they would never return to their previous height.
Holding Fort Sumter proved useful to Confederate war efforts. After rebuilding the fort, Southern forces used it to defend Charleston Harbor and maintain a hole in the Union’s blockade of the South. Despite the North’s best efforts, Confederate forces held Fort Sumter for much of the war. Their hold only ended when Confederate troops dissipated as General Sherman approached Charleston.
Fort Sumter’s Battle Significance
The attack on Fort Sumter was enough to encourage the secession of:
- and North Carolina
To leave the Union and officially dissolve the Union. No lives were lost on the day of the surrender. And yet it was the start of a long and bloody battle for the American Democratic Republic.
According to various sources, about 620,000 people died in the course of the American Civil War. That was about 2.5% of the entire population at the time. If the same population percentage were to die in the United States today, the death toll would total about 6,200,000 people.
Post Civil War history of Fort Sumter
After the Civil War, the United States military rebuilt Fort Sumter. Troops stationed here during:
- The Spanish-American War of 1898
- World War I (1914–1918)
- And World War II (1939–1945).
The federal government decommissioned Fort Sumter after World War II. It became a Charleston tourist attraction with national significance after that.
Planning Fort Sumter tours in SC
Fort Sumter tour packages show where the first shots of the war were taken in Fort Sumter and give a sailing trip around Charleston Harbor. While Fort Sumter tickets are not needed to visit the fort, the only way to access Fort Sumter is via a ferry, which obviously requires a paid admission. Spirit Line Cruises Fort Sumter provides tours of the harbor, leaving from Patriots Point and downtown. Liberty Square Charleston is the departure point for Fort Sumter from downtown Charleston. It also features a museum for the African American experience and military exhibits.
How long is the Fort Sumter tour? How long is the ferry ride to Fort Sumter?
The tour lasts for about two and a half hours. The ferry ride is just about one hour to and from the land, and visitors to Fort Sumter can spend about an hour exploring the fort at their own pace.
6 More Civil War and Military Attractions in Charleston, SC, and Nearby
There are several more historic attractions in Charleston and nearby that may be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about them:
- The Antebellum South
- The Civil War
- And afterwards
1. Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie was originally a fort made of palmetto logs. Construction started in 1776 on Sullivan’s Island. It was only partially completed when British warships attacked.
British cannons bounced off of the flexible palmetto logs. Their elasticity helped the fort and militia survive the onslaught. And thanks to that little added benefit, Charlestonians won one of the first Revolutionary War battles.
The state flag of South Carolina features a palmetto due to this battle, as well as the state moniker of the Palmetto State. The current fort was completed in 1809. The interior of Fort Moultrie highlights the story of the American seacoast from the Revolutionary War to modern times. The visitor center near the fort helps provide more historical context.
2. The Old Slave Mart of Ryan’s Mart
South Carolina banned public slave auctions in 1856. So, private dealers constructed facilities in downtown Charleston, along with:
- Queen Street
- State Street
- and Chalmers Streets
The Old Slave Mart Museum was the former auction gallery of Ryan’s Mart, one of these auction compounds. Other structures that also made up Ryan’s Mart were a slave barracks, or slave jail, a morgue, and a kitchen. Occupying Union troops closed Ryan’s Mart in 1865. While the rest of Ryan’s Mart is gone, the Old Slave Mart has served as a museum on and off since 1938.
3. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum
This is an embarkation point in Mount Pleasant, SC, for Fort Sumter tour boats. And Patriots Point is home to several vessels now used as museums, making it a great entry on the list of Charleston museums itself. Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is just five minutes away from downtown Charleston over the Ravenel Bridge.
The USS Yorktown is an aircraft carrier launched on January 21st, 1943, from Newport News, Virginia. It is the fourth vessel named after the American Battle of Yorktown. The third eponymous ship sank at the Battle of Midway shortly before this one was commissioned. The USS Yorktown participated in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of World War II. After the war, the federal government decommissioned it to become a ship museum in Charleston Harbor.
The USS Clamagore is a Balao-class submarine and is now a museum ship at the Patriot’s Point Naval Station in Charleston, South Carolina. The ship was built in 1945, at the end of the Second World War.
USS Laffey, DD-724
The USS Laffey, DD-724, was launched in November 1943 and decommissioned on March 29, 1975.
4. Rivers Bridge State Park
This park marks the venue of one of the Confederacy’s last-ditch efforts to halt General William T. Sherman’s attack on the South. The Rivers Bridge Battlefield is the only well-preserved battlefield in the state of South Carolina.
The Battle of Rivers Bridge
This battle was a Union victory fought on February 3, 1865, during the Campaign of the Carolinas at the end of the American Civil War. Major General Lafayette McLaws of the Confederacy attempted to slow the advance of Union General Sherman’s troops. They entered the state from Georgia on February 1st. Despite McLaw’s efforts, the Union troops went around and flanked the Confederate army, only stalling their move by a day. In the end, McLaws retreated and left the Union troops free to continue their push through the state.
5. The Battle of Aiken
The Battle of Aiken happened a few days later, on February 11th, 1865, as General Sherman and his troops moved through South Carolina. The Confederacy feared that Union troops were marching towards Augusta, Georgia. The city was a vital gunpowder manufacturer for the Confederate War efforts.
The main commanders were Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler and Union Maj. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. Critics and supporters called Kilpatrick “Kill Cav” due to his sometimes reckless decisions that resulted in the deaths of his men.
Major General Wheeler attempted to halt the progress of the troops towards Augusta by routing them in Aiken. Wheeler scored a minor victory over Kilpatrick, though this obviously did not deter troop movements.
In the end, the Union force’s movements were aimed at Columbia, South Carolina (and not Augusta). Troops summarily burned South Carolina’s state capital to the ground shortly after capture.
As General William Tecumseh Sherman was quoted as saying,
“When I go through South Carolina, it will be one of the most horrible things in the history of the world. The devil himself couldn’t restrain my men in that state.”
While Sherman’s troops’ treatment of Georgia made it into the history books, the Union forces were actually harsher in South Carolina. Some claim this was punishment for South Carolina starting the war, with secession and the firing on Fort Sumter.
Regardless of the reason, the devastation of Georgia and South Carolina was the first example of total war. That is, the destruction of both military and civilian property to destroy a country’s capability to make war.
6. Magnolia Plantation
The Drayton family founded the famous Magnolia Plantation in 1676. This Charleston plantation has been open to visitors since 1870. That was when the family discovered a creative (and, much to their luck, lucrative) way of making money after the devastation of the Civil War. Curious visitors were delighted to pay whatever price they could to explore their property. Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC, touts itself as the oldest public garden in the U.S.
7. Boone Hall Plantation
The Boone Hall Plantation occupies 783 acres of land and was first established in 1681. Boone Hall Plantation has been open to the public since 1956. This property has been a filming location for:
- TV series
- And documentaries
And its old slave cabins and several of its historic buildings are still perfectly intact.
8. McLeod Plantation
The previous two Charleston plantations were more focused on how the owners families survived the loss of their property.
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site, meanwhile, focuses on the experiences of the African American population. Both as slaves and navigating their newly freed state after the war.
Find even more things to do in Charleston, SC
This list of Civil War and historic sites barely scratches the surface of the many things to do here in Charleston, SC.
Be sure to read our full guide before you get ready to visit!
Updated and republished: April 23, 2023