Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park | HISTORY OF FORT MOULTRIE

Fort Moultrie

Fort Moultrie

While Fort Sumter is mostly known for its role in the Civil War, a fort on Sullivans Island bearing the name of Moultrie has been around since the American Revolution. The original fort was built by South Carolina Patriots to protect Charleston harbor from attack by the British. It was constructed of two walls of Palmetto tree logs and sand, which doesn’t sound like much of a defense, but the combination of materials was very adept at absorbing cannonballs fired at it by British ships.

At the time the fort first saw combat—June 28, 1776—it was unfinished and had no official name. British warships entered the harbor and exchanged artillery fire with Patriots at the fort, who were commanded by William Moultrie. The battle lasted a good part of the day and resulted in damage to the British ships, which eventually left the harbor. As you may have already figured out, the fort was eventually named after Moultrie.

For the first few years of the revolution, the British focused their efforts in the north. However, in 1780, with progress in the north at a stalemate, the British changed their strategy and shifted to stopping the rebellion in the south, counting on support from the large base of Loyalists in the region (Loyalists were colonists who were loyal to England). One of the first orders of duty was to take control of Charleston, which was done in the spring of 1780. Charleston and Fort Moultrie remained in British hands until the end of the war.

After the war was over in 1783, Fort Moultrie was left to be battered by storms and other natural elements. By 1791, very little of the original fort remained. When war broke out between England and France in 1793, the U. S. government decided that it would be wise to modernize the country’s coastal defenses. Prior to World War II, when airplanes and amphibious landing craft changed warfare, the only way for an enemy to invade another country that it was not physically connected to was by water. Thus, the best way to defend your country was to defend the coast at the places most likely to attract an enemy’s attention, such as the harbors of major cities. Because of this, the First American System of coastal defenses was authorized, and money was poured into the forts.

Twenty new forts were built on the Atlantic coast, including a new Fort Moultrie. The fort was in the shape of a pentagon and again made of wood and sand. It was completed in 1798, but since war never came to the area, it again fell into disrepair and was eventually destroyed by a hurricane in 1804.

By the early 1800s, the forts that were built during the First American System were by now outdated and in great need of new renovations. Funds were authorized for the Second American System and a third Fort Moultrie, this time made of brick, was completed in 1809. This is the basis of the fort that stands today. From its completion in 1809 up until the Civil War, not much changed other than outfitting the fort with new guns.

When South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, Fort Moultrie was under the command of Major Robert Anderson. Five days later Anderson made a decision to move his 85 Federal soldiers from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, which was situated on a man-made island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Reading the writing on the wall, Anderson knew that a South Carolina militia would soon form and would most likely attempt to remove his troops from Fort Moultrie. Though Moultrie was on an island, South Carolina troops could easily come ashore at the far end of the island and then march to Fort Moultrie. Furthermore, because Fort Moultrie was a coastal defense fort, its guns were all facing the harbor and not meant to defend the fort from a rear, land-based attack, where the unlimited stream of militia men would certainly come from. By moving his men to Fort Sumter, Anderson would have a better chance of defending his men from attack, which would be an artillery bombardment from the mainland. Neither situation was ideal, but the move to Fort Sumter might give Anderson more time to await possible help from the Union army.

In the meantime, South Carolina militia took control of all forts in the area. To prepare for possible fire from Fort Sumter, the walls of Fort Moultrie were covered with sand bags to a thickness of nearly ten feet. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in an attempt to obtain the surrender of Anderson and his men, the last group of Union troops in the area. The first shot was fired from Fort Johnson, but soon all forts and batteries in the area, including Fort Moultrie, opened fire on Sumter. Thirty-four hours later, Anderson surrendered, and Fort Sumter fell into Confederate hands for the remainder of the war.

Union troops knew the only way to take Charleston was to take Fort Sumter, as it controlled the destiny of any ship entering into the harbor. When naval assaults on the fort failed, the Union decided to set up guns in the marshes of Morris Island, southwest of Fort Sumter but within range of the 100-pounder Parrott guns the Union army brought with them. Since Fort Sumter was itself a coastal defense fort, most of its guns were facing the open sea, not toward Morris Island. As a result, Sumter relied on the surrounding forts for its defense, and particularly on Fort Moultrie, for its guns naturally faced in the direction of Morris Island.

While history focuses on the Union’s 20-month bombardment of Fort Sumter, this bombardment was not solely aimed at Sumter. Fort Moultrie and the other Charleston coastal defenses were also subject to Union artillery shells. By the time the Confederates abandoned Charleston in February 1865, Fort Sumter was nothing but a pile of rubble, and the walls of Fort Moultrie were buried in sand.

In the 1870s, the latest wave of coastal defense modernization was underway, this one called the Endicott System, named for Secretary of War William Endicott. Batteries of concrete and steel were installed within the walls of Fort Moultrie, and the fort was outfitted with the latest weapons. This construction remains today.

Battery McCorkle, one of two batteries built at Fort Moultrie

Battery McCorkle, one of two batteries built at Fort Moultrie

During World War II, Fort Moultrie’s main objective was to defend the mines laid in the harbor from minesweepers. The mines were meant to keep German and Japanese submarines out of the area. A control tower and underground bunker were installed, and these were the backbone of the Harbor Entrance Control Post and the Harbor Entrance Command Post. All traffic in and out of the harbor was monitored from here.

Harbor Entrance Control Post

Harbor Entrance Control Post

Despite all of the renovations and modernizations done to the fort after the Civil War, Fort Moultrie never saw action again. By the end of World War II, coastal fortifications had become a thing of the past. Using airplanes and amphibious landing craft, invading enemies could go right around or over any coastal forts. Both Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, along with the rest of Charleston’s coastal forts, were decommissioned after World War II. Sumter became a National Monument in 1948, while Moultrie sat empty until South Carolina donated it to the National Park Service in 1960. It opened to the public on April 1, 1963.

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Last updated on March 23, 2020
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