A remarkably detailed plan of Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor, likely dating to the Secession Crisis or soon thereafter.
The first Fort Moultrie (originally Fort Sullivan) was constructed of palmetto logs on the southern end of Sullivan’s Island in early 1776 to command the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Later that year this first, crude structure played a vital role in the defeat of a British attack on the city. It was replaced in 1798 by a new fort, constructed atop the ruins of the original as part of the U.S. Army’s so-called “First System of Fortifications”.
The third Fort Moultrie, which saw service in the Civil War and still exists today, was built in 1808-09 as part of the Army’s “Second system of Fortifications”, following a design by engineer Alexander Macomb. After South Carolina’s secession in December 1860, this third fort was deemed indefensible from the landward side evacuated, its garrison shifting to the more secure fortifications at Fort Sumter. On April 15, 1861 Fort Moultrie participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter, thus helping to kick off the Civil War. Moultrie was demolished by Union bombardment in 1863-64, and after the war it was redesigned and rebuilt with concrete and steel and armed with the latest weapons. It remained in service until 1947, and is today part of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park.
Offered here is a manuscript plan of the fort, likely dating to the Secession Crisis or the early months of the war. The plan depicts the curtain wall; major interior structures such as the magazine, officers’ quarters, enlisted mens’ barracks, and even sally ports; and the street and parade ground facing the fort’s entrance. Of even greater interest, the plan is thickly annotated to explain the armament and fields of fire of the fort’s various “faces,” demonstrating how these combine with those at Fort Sumter to yield control of the northern channel into Charleston.
Contemporary manuscript plans of Civil War-era fortifications of this quality and detail, much less of an installation as significant as Fort Moultrie, are vanishingly rare on the antiquarian market.
Dating the plan
I purchased the plan at auction many years ago, at which time it was lotted with a Jan. 1, 1861 report from Brig. James Simons to Governor Pickens, in which Simons argues for “the inexpediency of commencing… hostilities” with an attack on Fort Sumter. Though that report refers to “a map which accompanies this paper”, that was clearly a different map, one demonstrating Fort Sumter’s command of the entrances to Charleston Harbor (The report was recently sold to an American institution.)
The plan is unsigned and undated, but the paper, handwriting, spelling and above all content allow it to be dated between the mid-1840s and the early years of the Civil War: The plan includes flights of stairs leading to the “piazzas” in front of the officer’s quarters and enlisted mens’ barracks, all added in 1843 after the fort suffered damage in an 1842 hurricane. Allowing us to tighten the terminus post quem further, the plan repeatedly mentions Fort Sumter in a manner that implies that its gun batteries were operational; yet serious construction on Sumter did not begin until 1851, this was still in progress when South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and only a handful of the fort’s guns were mounted at the time. While not conclusive, this strongly suggests that the plan was drawn during the Secession Crisis or the early months or years of the Civil War. On the other end, chronologically, the plan depicts the fort prior to the severe damage inflicted by Union bombardment in 1863-64 and subsequent redesign and reconstruction in the post-war years. Thus a dating of early 1861-1863 seems most plausible.
The draftsman is not identified, but both the high quality of execution and detailed content indicate that he was a military man or a talented and well-informed civilian… though whether a Confederate or Union man, I cannot say. That said, though well executed, the plan appears to have been produced without the benefit of actual survey: A number of the notes are approximate in nature, such as “a dead angle of about 15 or 20 [degrees]” at the southwest face, raising the possibility that it was drawn in something of a hurry. This, along with the tactical content and the fact that it was originally lotted with the Simons report of January 1861, suggest the likelihood that it was drawn during the secession crisis or soon after the capture of Fort Sumter.
In all, a terrific artifact of a major American fortification, one which played an important role in the Civil War, and well worthy of further study.
Provenance and references
Forest G. Sweet auction at Parke-Bernet (Oct. 23, 1957), lot #333. Sothebys Auctions New York, sale N08037 (Dec. 3, 2004), lot #350; Chapel Hill Books; and Bloomsbury Auctions New York, sale 9 (Apr. 9, 2008), lot #25. Background on Forts Moultrie and Sumter from M. Patrick Hendrix, A History of Fort Sumter (Charleston: The History Press, 2014); “Fort Moultrie May 1860[:] Peacetime Federal Garrison”, at http://moultrie.battlefieldsinmotion.com/; and Brandi K. Oswald, “Building Fort Sumter”, posted April 6, 2018 on the web site of the National Archives. Both accessed October 2022.