Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, is a must-visit for any history buff. The fort is located on an island in Charleston Harbor and can only be visited on a tour. Managed by the National Park Service, tours leave the pier adjacent to the North Carolina Aquarium at 11am and 2:20pm. These are the winter hours, and I am sure there must be more visits during the warm months.
The trip takes a half-hour each way, and we are allowed 1 hour to visit the fort itself and the museum. You purchase your ticket at the information building and then pass through to the Spiritline Ship. In warm weather, as many as 385 people crowd aboard, but on an overcast day in January, it was closer to 50. There is an audio presentation on the way over, telling about the building of Fort Sumter and the events leading up to the confrontation. On the upper deck, seating is in plastic deck chairs, or you can stand at the bow and feel the breeze in your face. Below deck, there is a restaurant, but it wasn’t open. Coffee, soda, snacks, and hot dogs were available at the main deck snack bar.
Once you land at the fort, you can take a tour with one of the rangers, which last about 15 minutes. I would say that ours lasted closer to 30. We learned about the building of the fort and the changes it has undergone over the years. At one time, the officers’ barracks, which no longer exist, were quite luxurious. Our ranger talked about the history of brick forts and why they are no longer used. The bricks that constructed this fort were all made by slave labor. Evidently, the United States was not above using slave-made products when it suited them to do so.
There is a museum inside the fort. One of their treasures is the flag that was flying over the fort when the shelling began. Another is the flag of South Carolina. Standing on the wall, you can see other islands and Charleston in the distance. If you would rather not take the guided part of the tour, you are free to tour on your own with a map that gives very good directions.
There is a very small gift shop, both at the fort and at the information center. It has the usual park department items. I was very surprised to find no T-shirts with Fort Sumter on them.
Keep in mind that it will be a lot cooler out on the water than it is in town, so dress accordingly. Also, seasickness could be an issue, as the water was rough. There are stairs involved in getting onto the walls of the fort, but I believe that even with limitations, the lower level would certainly be accessible.