Sept/Oct 2007Field Trip: Fort Lamar Heritage Preserveby Brett Witt, photography by Phillip Jones
Charleston, and the surrounding area, has so many important and high-profile historic sites, it may come as no surprise that the area harbors a number of lesser-known historical gems. Of these, one important site often escapes attention: Fort Lamar. Located on 14 acres in Charleston County, Fort Lamar Heritage Preserve has been documented as one of the most important Civil War sites in the state. On June 16, 1862, Confederates, outnumbered three to one, defeated Union soldiers in the fierce battle of Secessionville. Tower Battery, as Fort Lamar was initially called, was being completed under the command of Col. Thomas G. Lamar when the battle took place. Construction of the battery works - named Fort Lamar in his memory - was not completed until the spring of 1864, after his death.
Getting to Fort Lamar is relatively easy. Take SC Highway 171 toward Folly Island, turn left onto Grimball Road and follow to Secessionville Road. Turn left onto Old Military Road and then turn left onto Fort Lamar Road. Soon you'll come to a large parking area where hikers can get detailed information about the site for the self-guided trail and an easy half-hour tour. Make note of the two prominent granite markers, one of which lists the number of dead and wounded during the Battle of Secessionville and admonishes visitors to " . . walk softly on this hallowed ground."
The self-guided trail to another time begins by crossing over Fort Lamar Road. There you will begin by walking parallel to the new magazine or "bombproof." It was constructed in 1863 using earth and timber from the original magazine, which was built in 1862. Both extended across what is now Fort Lamar Road - the original structure measured approximately 175 feet long, 50 feet deep and 15 feet high. You'll quickly notice the overgrown thickets that envelope the site. The prominent purple-black privet berries almost certainly escaped from a former homesite to overtake Fort Lamar. The area was cleared in January of 1997, but vegetation was left in place to help with erosion control. At the time of the original construction, there were few, if any, significant trees in the area.
Continue along the trail and stop between the original magazine and the new magazine. This area provides the best view of the bombproof's full mass.
You're now in the general area of the left leg of the M-shaped fort. Take a moment to look south across the expansive maze of marsh and creeks. The view is broken by a distant tree line, but the saltmarsh labyrinth runs several miles to Folly Beach. The battery was built with its front aligned from northeast to southeast, from marsh to marsh, and its flanking walls parallel to the marshes. A causeway ran along this side of the peninsula in 1862, connecting the fort to the main part of the island. It was this causeway that allowed the Union troops the possibility of access to the fort.
The Battle of Secessionville began at 4:00 a.m., with 3,500 Union troops attacking 1,250 Confederate troops at Tower Battery. The plan to attack Charleston from James Island was not new; the British had used a similar plan during the Revolutionary War with the focus on nearby Fort Johnson (now home to the state DNR's Marine Resources Division).
The Union force's main assault advanced that early morning between the marshes down the peninsula in a confined area with hedgerows, open cotton fields, two-foot-wide trenches and knee-high weeds - an area open enough to allow for concentrated fire from the Confederate line. Still, despite the strong Confederate defense, a segment of the Union forces managed to reach the earthworks, and heavy hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The Confederates repelled the attack twice before the Union conceded. The assault's collapse also prevented a second wave from taking place. Union reinforcements never materialized for the initial assault after a flanking maneuver failed because of the impassable marsh and pluff mud. It's hard to imagine so much havoc and loss in a place that is now so tranquil and quiet.
The war infamous for pitting brother against brother did just that at Fort Lamar. Scottish brothers James and Alexander Campbell immigrated to the United States in the 1850s, choosing very different areas in which to settle. Alexander, a stonemason by trade, settled in New York City and signed up with the Union Army when the war broke out. His older brother, James, landed in Charleston and received a commission with the Confederate Army. Alexander was one of the Union troops that attacked Tower Battery, the fort where James was stationed along with his Confederate comrades, initiating the Battle of Secessionville. The brothers did not meet that day, but Alexander discovered the coincidence later, and managed to get a message through to his brother soon after the battle. Both brothers survived the war to old age.
Farther up you'll find the remains of the dry moat that was excavated when the earthworks were built. The moat played a role in the battle by presenting another barrier for Union soldiers trying to reach Tower Battery. Continue along the path until it makes a loop. Historians believe this is the location of a mass grave of Union troops. Also on this site rest the remains from a more contemporary operation. Farming equipment of a variety of shapes and styles is abandoned and strewn about. One interesting-looking large tool, possibly the frame for a fertilizer or seed spreader, was left against a tree some years back, only for the tree to grow over, slowly engulfing the implement. The area also features other curious bits of debris, with one massive concrete slab angled so that it resembles a loading dock.
Not to be missed is the red-orange fruit of the Russian olive. It was introduced into the United States in the late 1800s when it was planted as an ornamental, but the large shrub subsequently escaped into the wild where it can crowd out native species.
Retrace your steps to the parking lot to continue the tour. Northwest of the interpretive center is the site where the 75-foot lookout tower that gave the battery its original name once stood. Proceed up the path and there you'll find the western remnants of the new magazine. A spectacular grove of live oaks garnished with wisps of Spanish moss grows nearby. Once established, live oaks will thrive in almost any location and provide very good wind resistance. These are tough, enduring trees that will respond with vigorous growth to plentiful moisture on well-drained soil.
Col. Lamar never saw the fort that he had so feverishly worked to complete named in his honor. He died of malaria in October of 1862 at the age of 35, reportedly leaving behind a considerable estate to his wife. He is buried in his native Edgefield.
Interestingly, the Union commander, Brig. Gen. Henry Benham, had acted against orders in his attempt to take James Island and was subject to a court-martial after the loss. He was later reinstated to full rank by President Lincoln after what many considered a wrongful demotion and served the remainder of the war with distinction.
At the end of the battle, Union casualties totaled 683 with l07 killed, 487 wounded and 89 captured or missing. Confederate losses totaled 304 with 52 killed, l44 wounded and 8 captured or missing. Had the Union captured Fort Lamar they would have flanked the harbor defenses, forcing the likely abandonment of Charleston by the Confederacy - an event that might have ended the war sooner.
Thousands of people visit Fort Lamar Heritage Preserve on James Island throughout the year, and annually on the closest weekend to June 16th, many attend an event at the preserve to commemorate the Battle of Secessionville. Feel free to walk around the area, but remember, the site is surrounded by private property, so it's important to stay on the marked trails. Please don't climb on or otherwise disturb the earthworks. The site is open for self-guided tours from dawn to dusk every day.