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The Re-Occupation of Fort Sumter - A Mission on Sacred Ground

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  • The Re-Occupation of Fort Sumter - A Mission on Sacred Ground

    Pictured Above - Mess No. 1 - February 18, 2005. Front Row, Left-to-Right - Steve Spohn, Eric Tipton, Tim Nye, Eric Grothaus. Back Row, Left-to-Right - Mike Davis, Ken Cornett, Joe Liechty, Alpheus Lewis and Jacob Dinkelaker.


    A Mission on Sacred Ground
    February 18-20, 2005
    By Eric Tipton

    Originally Published in the Civil War Historian Magazine - May/June 2005, Volume 1, Issue 3

    Hosted by the Palmetto Living History Association to benefit Charleston County Civil War battlefield preservation. Major contributors to the success of the event were David Chinnis, Neill Rose, Keith Bartsch, Cory Pharr, and Brian Hicks.

    Keith Bartsch, Palmetto Living History Association stated that there were three main objectives for the event: "To raise public awareness about the plight of Morris Island, raise funds for preservation of the island, and provide a high quality living history for the participants.”

    Many Americans remember the story of Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, but few remember the less dramatic end of Ft. Sumter’s Confederate occupation in February, 1865. Fewer still, remember Morris Island, Battery Wagner, Fort Johnston, Fort Moultrie, and Castle Pickney.

    In February, 1865, men of the 52nd Pennsylvania were garrisoned on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. They were coal miners, clerks, and shopkeepers from Northeastern Pennsylvania who had enlisted in 1861 to preserve the Union. They served in the Peninsula campaign of 1862 and had become a part of the Department of the South. They had been on Morris Island for several months and were stationed in the shadow of one of the enduring symbols of the war. The place where it all began – Fort Sumter.

    On the morning of February 18th, they noticed that the hulking shell of Ft. Sumter seemed unusually quiet. After four long years of shelling, it had been reduced, essentially, to a pile of rubble, but the Confederate flag still flew there as it had since April, 1861. It was ordered that they should investigate.

    Cautiously, the men, led by Major John Hennessy crossed the harbor. This must have been an exhilarating moment after watching and waiting for so long. When the men of the 52nd Pennsylvania reached the fort, they discovered that indeed, the Rebels were gone. Ft. Sumter was, for the first time since the war began, back in the hands of the Federals.

    On Friday, February 19th, 2005, a group of dedicated living historians descended upon Charleston. We came from Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, and from as far away as Nevada, Missouri, Illinois and Kansas. We were there not only to learn about the men of the 52nd and what they did, but to preserve the memory and to bring it alive, if only for a day or so, to remind people that these were real men and that some ground is worth more than the sum of its monetary value.

    After passing through registration at Patriot’s Point, we crossed the harbor from Fort Moultrie in the boats of the National Park Service. They graciously offered to ferry us out to Morris Island for this special occasion and seemed to sense that we were more than just a rag-tag collection of Civil War hobbyists out for a spin. We were on a mission that became all the more obvious as I looked around the harbor. Charleston is a great city and has grown each time I have been back to visit. As we motored out to the island, two immense cranes were busy constructing a new bridge. Traffic and all of the trappings of a modern city were apparent and abundant, even as we moved to the middle of the harbor.

    Maybe it was the overwhelming sound of the engine or the rush of the waves, but it seemed to me that everyone was quiet and solemn. We were definitely ready to be here. We had all waited for months for the opportunity to do what we were about to do. More than once, prior to the event, I heard that “this was a once in a lifetime opportunity”, and that “we were lucky to be here” I couldn’t have agreed more.

    We reached Morris Island and disembarked from our boat. A camp had been set up behind the sand dunes. The sun was setting and Ft. Sumter was close enough that if it were all on land, it might be only a ten minute walk to get there.

    This group of veteran campaigners is used to sleeping, eating and living in different conditions. This particular setting created new challenges. One of these was a nasty little thing called a sand bur. They stuck in your hands, on your pants and seemingly attached themselves to every soft part of the body. As I write here, three days after returning, I still have the remnants of the nasty little things in my hands and the scars to prove their existence.

    We quickly established the camp and I ventured to the top of the dunes to see the silhouettes of men practicing their rowing in the harbor. Other men were moving around, busily gathering fire wood for the night. The men of the commissary were preparing the meal for the evening - field peas and rice. The rice was grown in South Carolina and from what I heard, became a staple of the diet of the original men of the 52nd. I wonder if it ever crossed their minds that 140 years later, another group of men would choose to re-create what probably seemed to them at the time to be a most mundane existence.

    After our sections were organized, pickets were assigned by shifts and our section was to be on from three a.m. to six a.m. We were provided with our dinner ration, and sat down around the fire, probably much as they did. For the next two hours or so, we engaged in some of the most humorous and vile discourse ever heard in one sitting. We smoked our pipes and reveled in the scenery around us. On this particular night, the sights and sounds of camp life were punctuated by the smell of salt water.

    Following dinner, we were led on a walking tour by Mr. Blake Hallman, president of the Morris Island Coalition, a grassroots group of folks committed to the preservation of the Island. ( We walked the beaches, which he told us, still contained literally tons of shrapnel from the almost constant artillery exchanges throughout the war. We stopped several times, and Blake drew large maps in the sand to illustrate the positions of the troops and forts. He pointed out the erosion and changing location of the island and indicated the location that had been slated for residential development. The group listened intently. Across the harbor, the twinkling lights of Charleston were just beginning to shine and the large unlit darkness of Sumter began to fade into the foreground of the bright lights.

    After returning from our walk, we bedded down for a few hours. The sounds of camp slowly quieted. Sleep came, but only after the initial excitement began to wear off. The prospect of late night picket duty has a way of doing that. I drifted off to sleep.

    Around 1:30 AM, I awoke, and as is usual on a cold evening such as this, it was impossible to return to bed. The fire beckoned me over to brew up a quick, hot cup of coffee and prepare for our night post. It was dark and the only sound was that of snoring soldiers and smoldering, crackling camp fires.

    We were escorted to our post at precisely three o’clock a.m. I was assigned to post #1, marked only by dark footprints in the sand. I counted off sixty-seven steps to a point on the beach that marked the end of my post and the beginning of post #2.

    As I stood there in the stark stillness of the night, I wondered how many men had been here, exactly where I was now standing and looking into the harbor. I tried to make out the shape of Sumter, which looked like the back of a very large whale that had been beached on the sand bar. Occasionally, my reverie was stirred by the sound of the dolphins. Looking into the dead calm water, I could hear the sound of their blow holes and their chatter, which in my tired state almost sounded like children frolicking in the surf. Certainly, the men from Pennsylvania heard these sounds, which at first seemed quite exotic and foreign, but later, probably seemed almost re-assuring to them.

    We were relieved from picket at six a.m. and returned to our sandy bivouac to drink some needed coffee and prepare ourselves for what would certainly be one of the highlights of the event. At eight a.m., we were to cross roughly 1,000 yards to Sumter by boat; lower the Confederate flag and replace it with Old Glory*, just as the men of the 52nd did. The real thrill here was that, not only would we be rowing over, and we would do it in replica boats of the period. There would be three waves – two boats in each and roughly ten men per boat.

    My group was in the second wave, which would physically lower the colors and raise our flag. We were told that the press was covering the event and there would be cameras on the beach when we arrived.

    After some initial fits and starts (I was the number six oarsmen and did not have a chance to practice), we started to get a rhythm and soon all oars were moving in unison as we were closed in on our target. It was low tide and as we drew to within four hundred yards of the fort, the oars were touching the sandy bottom. We moved along slowly now and at seventy yards out, we were beached. Men in both boats didn’t hesitate. We jumped over the sides and began a dead run to the walls. There were people on the beach and along the walls of the fort. The adrenaline was pumping hard as we ran. For a few seconds, time melted away and it was 1865 again. I thought about the exhilaration of the men 140 years ago after they had spent those many months staring at the impregnable Sumter.

    We clambered up the rocks and moved within the walls of the fort where we ascended the steps and were assembled at the main flag mast. It was a moment that will live in my memory for the rest of my life. As the Confederate colors were hauled down, you could hear the bugle faintly echoing from across the harbor on Morris Island, where the last group was cheering the occasion. A shiver went down my spine. Certainly the ghosts of the 52nd were looking down upon us and smiling.

    Once everyone made it to the fort, we were formed as a company on the parade grounds. The ruins were all around us and the sense that we were being watched was palatable. My chest swelled with pride as I looked around at the group that was assembled here. In the months leading up to the event, I could hardly contain the anticipation to be here for this special weekend. Some of the best living historians were here and at this moment you could feel the pride of sixty-five soldiers. We weren’t living historians. We were Federals taking back something that we felt belonged to us.

    It wasn’t long after we were situated that the first wave of boats from the mainland visited the fort. We were told that almost every boat for the day would be full. The first one was, as were the boats for the remainder of the weekend. This was due to the hard work of the organizers to get the word out about our event

    We drilled for the remainder of the day on Saturday. The sun was shining; the fort was full of visitors and soldiers. Daniel Fodera of the Palmetto Living History Association summed up the attitude of the visitors nicely in a post on the Authentic Campaigner Forum ( “Seeing a woman, arms crossed, waiting on the dock for her husband to come out of the fort so they could catch the boat back. He comes running out the sally port down the dock and says, “But honey, they’re playing baseball!”

    On Saturday night, after the last boat left, we had the entire fort to ourselves. We were also permitted to build small fires on patches of bare ground around the fort. After we were dismissed, everyone scattered to find the best spot to camp for the night. We first looked at one of the casements before settling on the powder magazine where eleven men were killed in 1863. A large wall was braced by two concrete columns to keep it from falling over the rest of the way. All night, in the warmth of the magazine, ash from our fire fell upon us like gray snow.

    Once we were settled in, the members of Mess #1 did what we call our “ghostie tour”. We started by climbing to the top of the Spanish-American war Battery (now serving as the visitors’ center) and looked down upon the fires that had sprung up around the fort. It was an eerie to see the shadows of uniformed men walking about and listening to the sounds of the night. One group was reading Shaekspeare's Macbeth, right down to voice inflections for the different parts. Most were quietly enjoying the warmth of their fires on this cold night. The lights of modern Charleston loomed in the near distance as if surrounding this small remaining piece of history.

    On Sunday morning, we awoke and slowly began the routine of the day. There was more drill and many more visitors, who, again, came over on boats filled or almost filled to capacity. It was a little more overcast today, but still reasonably warm. When we were assembled as a company, orderly sergeant Brian Hicks did something that may seem small to some, but indicated to me that the organizers really had the attendees in mind when creating this event. He assembled all of the driving times of the participants and scheduled our departures from the island according to distances – longest distance leaving first. This encapsulated the feeling I had the entire weekend – that we were there to honor THEM, and at the same time, we were honored to be there.

    Our group departed at 11:30 AM on Sunday. As the boat accelerated across the harbor, we were on our way back to civilization. I stood up and looked back at Sumter, growing smaller in the distance. I thought about all of the things we had done in the last two days. I reflected upon the history of this place and the thriving modern city that surrounds it. While the fight will go on to preserve Morris Island, I felt, by being a part of such a special occasion, that at the very least, those of us who take living history seriously had done our small part in the effort. In the bargain, we had experienced a moment in history. I can only hope that those boys from the 52nd were watching, and if they were, I hope we did them proud.

    *Major Hennessy originally raised the State colors of the 52nd PVI over the ramparts of Sumter. We raised the 35 star US Flag at the request of the Park Service so that a flag was flying over Sumter.

    Special thanks to Keith Bartsch and David Chinnis for their assistance in editing this article and for all of their efforts in organizing a spectacular event.

    The total preservation donation for the event after expenses was $1,230.96. Preservation donation represents a per capita donation of approximately $18.94 per participant. The preservation donation figure represents 47% of the registration fee total. (Figures provided by David Chinnis).

    If you are interested in more information about the effort to save Morris Island, please visit the Website of the Morris Island Coalition at For the second year running, Morris Island has been on the Civil War Preservation Trust's (CWPT) Most Endangered Battlefield Report. In a news conference held February 24, 2005 this year's report was unveiled in Washington D.C.'s National Press Club. To view a copy of this report please visit CWPT's website at
    Last edited by Eric Tipton; 02-21-2019, 11:11 AM.
    Former AC Owner