Retracing The Water Battles Of The Civil War

By Chris Landers
Published: August/September 2011

Perhaps one of the best ways to see some of the most important sites of the Civil War may be from the deck of your boat, where your imagination can take you back in time.

Civil War map
Historical Map & Chart Collection Office of Coast Survey/NOAA

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and visitors and reenactors are gathering at historical sites to commemorate important events in the conflict that so dramatically shaped our young nation. Extraordinary battlefields such as Gettysburg draw most of the attention, but some of the most important and moving sites may be best seen and experienced from the water. The naval battles of the Civil War, fought between Union blockade forces and Confederate navies, had a lasting impact on the way wars are fought, and an immediate effect on the lives of those caught up in the conflict. Here are a few of the major events of the Civil War — as seen from the water. If you visit them this summer, aboard your boat with your family, it's a great time to imagine and reflect upon what happened there, only a few generations ago, in what historians have called "The War Between Brothers."

Charleston, South Carolina

In December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to vote to secede from the Union, and a month later turned away a Union ship trying to resupply the Federal forces stationed at Fort Sumter, where Major Robert Anderson had taken his men after departing the mainland. The Union flag flying over the island fortress was a constant symbol of Federal oppression to Charleston's rebels, and in April 1861, they decided to do something about it.

Historic photo of mortars aimed at Fort Sumter
Photo: Library of Congress
Mortars aimed at Fort Sumter.

A signal shot from nearby Fort Jackson began the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, and it ended 34 hours later with a Union surrender. As Abner Doubleday, then a captain stationed at Sumter but later more famous for his association with baseball, wrote in his memoir of the event: "The first contest of the war was over, and had ended as a substantial victory for the Secessionists. ... We had permitted ourselves to be surrounded with a ring of fire, from which there was no escape."

The only human casualty from the battle of Fort Sumter was a Union gunner killed when his gun exploded during a salute as the fort was abandoned, but Sumter became a rallying symbol for both sides after the battle. Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander of the Sumter forces, took down the Union flag as they withdrew, and Charleston would stay in Confederate hands for the duration of the conflict. In 1864, Anderson, by then a general, returned with the flag to hoist it once again over the fort.

Two years after the fall of Fort Sumter, in July 1863, Union forces returned to Charleston to attack Fort Wagner, one of the harbor's land-based defenses located on Morris Island to the south of the harbor entrance. The charge was led by the 54th Massachusetts, America's first all-black military unit. The assault was unsuccessful, but the 54th pressed onward in the face of overwhelming casualties, including their white commander, Colonel Robert Shaw. Union forces lost more than 1,500 men in the assault. After the battle, Shaw was buried in a mass grave with his soldiers, a gesture meant as an insult by the victorious Confederates. Shaw's father responded in a letter, writing, "We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company."

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