Defending Charleston Harbor

Fort Moultrie isn't as famous as its neighbor, Fort Sumter, but it has played crucial roles over the centuries in defending Charleston Harbor.

Fort Moultrie isn’t as famous as the fort you can see a little way across the water–Fort Sumter–but it’s part of the same complex of defenses for the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

Built on a corner of Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie is now mostly buried under dirt. But that’s quite deliberate, and it hasn’t always been that way. The original fort’s walls were built of palmetto logs, but they don’t hold up so well to more powerful artillery that was later invented. So, over the centuries, the fortifications were built up with stone, cement, and low-tech but very effective piles of dirt.

Now it’s as much bunker as building and has been restored to reflect several stages in its history. Different sections depict how it looked for the World War II-era Harbor Defense Command, the defense batteries in place from 1898 to 1939, the 1870s modernization to accommodation massive 15-inch Rodman smoothbore cannons, the Civil War-era cannons, and other sections reflecting earlier iterations of the fort going back to the original fort built in 1776 to protect the port of Charleston from the British Navy.

The fort itself is mostly bare. Most of the buildings that housed the troops and that were related to everyday life on the fort are long gone. There is, however, a museum across the street in the National Park Service headquarters that is small but quite well done that focuses on the history of the fort and, to some extent, the slave-trade history of Sullivan’s Island (it was one of the largest slaving ports in the Americas).

The fort’s cannons have only been fired in anger on a handful of occasions, but when they were it mattered. The fort’s most famous engagement was on June 28, 1776, when the 30 cannons on the fort were used to fend off the approach of nine British ships that were collectively mounting 200 guns. After 9 hours of shelling, the ships were forced to retire and turned away from occupying Charleston. A week later, on July 4, delegates in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence less than a week later.

And it was that action that gave the fort it’s current the name. It was originally called Fort Sullivan. After the Revolutionary War it was renamed after Colonel William Moultrie, the fort’s victorious commander during that battle.

From the higher points of Fort Moultrie’s you can see Fort Sumter. It’s most famous for being the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. And on the other side of the channel is Fort Jackson, while a little upstream is Castle Pinckney. Immediately adjacent to Fort Moultrie is a long, black, industrial-looking building that is Battery Jasper, a crucial installation in the Endicott coastal defense system that was implemented in the 1880s along long stretches of the coastline.

Photos of Fort Moultrie

I have more photos of Fort Moultrie here.

Battery Jasper

Battery Jasper, in service from 1898 to 1943, was part of the Endicott defense system. It lies immediately adjacent to Fort Moultrie, facing out to sea.

What to Know Before You Go

  • Together with Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie is home to what is considered the most valuable collection of coastal artillery in the United States. If cannons or coastal defenses are your thing, you’re going to love it.
  • There are a lot of mounds and hills and parts that are exactly the kinds of areas that look very appealing to kids to climb, but the NPS warns that most of them are unsafe to climb, and there are signs everywhere about staying on the designated pathways.
  • There are a lot of unevenly paved surfaces, along with lots of places where water pools in the rain, so parts can get slippery.
  • South Carolina can get buggy in the warmer months, so insect repellent comes in handy. And mind the fire ants.
  • Most of the site is exposed to the elements. A hat helps, and they’ll shut it down temporarily if thunderstorm cells are moving through.
  • The Visitor Center includes some museum exhibits on the history of the fort and one on the slave trade on Sullivan’s Island. There’s also a gift shop and a movie theater that shows a 22-minute documentary every half hour. There’s plenty of free parking next to the Visitor Center (across the road from the fort itself).
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