John Grindrod: For me, it was a so-so Sumter

Last week, I detailed some of the familiar and the different aspects of what was easily my tenth visit to Hilton Head Island and its surrounding areas. Lady Jane and I were comfortable with the familiar — like walking the beach and cycling — but we also wanted a new experience.

So, we made the commitment to make the 200-mile round trip from the island to Charleston. In addition to admiring the venerable architecture that the historic city offers, which we’ve done before, we decided to take the boat out to Fort Sumter, which we’d never done.

It’s another historical site under the auspices of the National Park Service. I would advise, if you’re interested in getting out to Fort Sumter, to call ahead and reserve tickets. Despite the fact that we were told on the phone that reserving them wouldn’t be necessary, I’m glad we did. When we arrived for our experience, the boat was indeed completely booked.

With the senior discount of four dollars, our tickets were 28 dollars per. As for a choice to be made, Jane and I had to decide between two different embarkation points. The one we chose was in Charleston itself near the city’s aquarium at Liberty Square. The other departure site was in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of the city about six miles out, at a location called Patriot’s Point.

We selected the one in the city because we also wanted to do some walking to admire the historic houses. Typical of the way things are done in the very techie 21st century, the tickets were on our cell phones and were scanned as we waited in the long serpentine line to board the Spirit of the Low Country for the approximate 30-minute cruise to the fort.

On the trip out, we listened to a very accomplished National Park volunteer discuss the historical significances of Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. During our trip out, both Jane and I were very impressed by the look of the nearby Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

The speaker told of the forts that were constructed following the War of 1812, ones designed to protect Charleston Harbor. One of those forts was Sumter, begun in 1829 but still not fully completed over three decades later when Major Robert Anderson moved his 85-man US Army garrison into the fort on December 26, 1860. As for why it took so long to build the fort, the speaker explained the difficulty of getting enough large stone blocks out there to provide a solid enough base on what was a sand bar to build the fortification. The fort was named for Revolutionary War hero Thomas Sumter, a native South Carolinian.

During the excellent historical presentation, I was amazed at the number of people I saw on the boat who paid a pretty hefty price for their tickets to learn about the beginnings of our country’s most costly war — with over 620,000 casualties — and paid almost no attention to the speaker. While some around me dozed, the majority of them did what so many cannot resist doing for so much of their waking hours, fiddling with their phones.

To be honest, the inattentiveness actually irritated me even though I know people have a right to pay for admission and do what they want. After all, I’ve seen enough people over the years pay to enter a movie theater and then fall asleep during the flick.

While keeping both ears on the speaker, I also kept an eye on the water for possible dolphin sightings. While I’m a confirmed hydrophobic — probably for good reason given the fact that as a kid I almost drowned twice when observant lifeguards had to pull me out of the water at Springbrook Pool and again at Silver Springs Lake — I actually rather enjoy boat rides. However, we had no luck with dolphin sightings.

Once at the fort we listened to a ranger make a nice ten-minute presentation on the fort and its importance to the Confederate goal of protecting the harbor and, therefore, Charleston from attack by sea. One interesting fact I picked up was the Civil War’s first casualty was actually an accidental one. Union soldier Daniel Howe was killed during a 100-gun salute to the Union flag that featured that distinctive diamond-shaped pattern of what was then 33 stars as it was being lowered moments before Major Anderson’s evacuation following 34 hours of Confederate bombing of Sumter. A replica of that flag flies today at the fort on the upper parade grounds.

The rest of our time before the return boat ride was spent exploring what we could. Sadly there wasn’t enough time to read much in the museum, and that was my major complaint. The hour time allotment, which was actually closer to 45 minutes, was not at all sufficient.

The volunteer speaker again was very interesting on the return cruise as his talk focused more on the Confederate bombing that compelled Anderson’s evacuation — shelling that came from nearby Forts Johnson, Moultrie, Cummings and other locations.

Following our time adding to our knowledge base of America’s bloodiest conflict, Jane and I headed back to Hilton Head. For those at the National Park Service who may be interested in improving the Sumter experience, how about adding at least another half hour to the time visitors spend at the fort? I’ll give this new experience a C.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected]