This post is a companion to our first LIVE mini-tour, which features Castle Pinckney. You can watch our live mini-tour cast by following us on Persicope @chastaverntour You can find the Periscope site and mobile app at: https://www.periscope.tv
“Is that Fort Sumter?”
This is probably one of the most common questions asked to tour guides in Charleston. And it’s a good question. There is no marker, no plaque or any sort of sign to indicate the identity of the ruined fortification out on the island close to Waterfront Park.
The island itself is called Shute’s Folly. A Quaker gentleman by the name of Joseph Shute once owned the island, and tried to grow a grove of orange trees in its soil. Not being Florida, the crop withered and died. Some people will tell you that this was Shute’s Folly; his mishap with the orange trees. Not so; folly is an old English word for a small copse of trees (hence the name Folly Island).
Erosion has washed out away about half of the islands original mass. When it was larger, ships coming and going out to the Atlantic from Charleston wharves would tip the top of their masts onto the island, and expose the bottom to air. Crews would scrape the barnacles and sea-growth from the wood; also replacing any damaged or rotting planks. This process, called careening, was a necessary maintenance to the sailing ships of old.
An old newspaper account lists that some executed men were hung in metal cages, hanging from wooden arms, called gibbets out on Shute’. It would be hard to miss such a scene from visible locale, which is exactly what the authorities were counting on, that word would spread from port to port of the reward awaiting criminals who prey on Charleston.
It is roughly a mile for the city proper, so it was deemed a vital spot for fortifications. A horseshoe fort was in existence by 1742, but seems to have fallen into disuse by the time of Shute’s ownership in 1746. No one less than President Washington remarked upon the military significance of the fallow spot during his 1791 visit to the area. A fort of palisades and sand was constructed in 1797, but destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. In 1808 a masonry fortification was built from the ruins, and much of this early 19th century structure remains today. Its namesake was the hero of the “XYZ Affair” Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
Although it saw no action, its very existence gave the citizens of Charleston a sense of security during the War of 1812. By the time of the Civil War, artillery advancements and the construction of Fort Sumter had relegated Castle Pinckney to a secondary defensive status. It was one of the first places seized by SC forces after secession and became an early POW site. Prisoners from the Battle of Bull Run would be held inside the fort, forming the “Castle Pinckney Brotherhood.” In 1863 members of the famed 54th MA regiment were detained in Pinckney after their assault on Battery Wagner.
Post-war it was used as a lighthouse station and supply depot until 1916. Over the years ownership transferred to the National Park Service to the State Ports Authority to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans (SCV), back to the State Ports Authority in finally in 2011 returned back to the SCV. The heritage group flies a variety of historic flags from the Castle Pinckney post and has long-term plans to operate a museum.
No, it’s not Fort Sumter, but there is a whole lot of history at Castle Pinckney, too.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.