By Bob Janiskee
The Park Service acquired South Carolina’s Castle Pinckney National Monument in 1933, but was glad to see it abolished and transferred in the 1950s. Lacking a glorious past, and too expensive to restore, the old island fort now sits rotting in Charleston harbor.
In 1791, George Washington visited Charleston, South Carolina, saw that a little island in the harbor (Shutes Folly) was strategically located, and ordered that a fort be built there. The good people of Charleston, who were tasked with funding and building it, decided that it should be named Fort Pinckney in honor of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a local planter, Revolutionary War General, and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. (Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in nearby Mt. Pleasant, SC, is named in honor of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s cousin.)
A crude log fort completed on Shutes Folly in 1804 was promptly destroyed by a hurricane. It was replaced by a brick masonry fort completed in 1810. The new fortification was dubbed Castle Pinckney because of its distinctive “castle” design, an innovation that featured multiple tiers of enclosed and protected (casemented) gun positions.
Castle Pinckney played no role in the War of 1812 and was demoted to “secondary line of defense” status in 1826. The very next year, the construction of Fort Sumter, a bigger and better fortification, got underway at a more strategic location across from Fort Moultrie at the harbor entrance. By the late 1820s it was already clear that Castle Pinckney would remain overshadowed by its bigger, better located neighbor.
Castle Pinckney was lightly garrisoned until 1836, and then not garrisoned at all until 1860. Not much was going on at the fort during the quarter-century leading up to the eve of the Civil War. Some repairs were made. A lighthouse was added to the island in 1855. The fort served as the city arsenal. Then, remarkable things began to happen.
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Seven days later, a small contingent of South Carolina militia “stormed” Castle Clinton — used ladders to climb over the parapet, that is — and captured the garrison, which consisted of a couple of Union soldiers, some women and children, and around three dozen laborers and mechanics. Not a shot was fired by either side during this, the first seizure of Federal property in a southern state following the secession declaration.
Less than four months later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries opened up on Fort Sumter and got the Civil War hotly under way. By September, Castle Pinckney was being used as a makeshift prison for 154 Union troops captured in July at the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), the first major land battle of the Civil War.
Though heavily bombarded during the war (twice in 1863 and once in 1864), Castle Pinckney remained in Confederate hands until Charleston fell late in the war. Whether the the fort’s guns were ever fired in battle remains unclear. Union troops reoccupied Castle Pinckney on February 18, 1865.
Following the war’s end, the Federal government seemed to have little use for Castle Pinckney beyond service as a lighthouse station and depot. The guns were left in place (some are still there today) but the fort was left to decay. By 1890 the deterioration was so advanced that the fort was sealed, filled with sand, and prepared for use as a lighthouse foundation. An 1897 proposal to use the site as a nursing home for Union veterans came to nothing. The Spanish-American War came and went with no improvements to the fort. By 1917, the lighthouse was abandoned. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did use the site as a base for harbor improvement projects.
Though only a pale shadow of what it once was, Castle Pinckney was still an historically significant place. On October 15, 1924, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Castle Pinckney National Monument. The new monument was placed under War Department administration, but in June 1933 it was transferred to the National Park Service as part of the agency reorganization.
Lacking necessary funds and any real incentive, the Park Service made no plans to preserve the property and develop it for public visitation. In 1951, Congress enacted legislation to abolish Castle Pinckney National Monument (which actually didn’t go into effect until 1956) and transferred it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps of Engineers didn’t want to keep Castle Pinckney. By 1953 it was declared surplus property, and there was a Congressional mandate to dispose of it to the state of South Carolina, the County of Charleston, or the city of Charleston. The Park Service temporarily accepted the property back from the Corps of Engineers for a few years, but on March 29, 1956, the national monument was finally abolished. Having turned Castle Pinckney over to the General Services Administration (GSA), the Park Service was rid of it forever.
In 1956, the city of Charleston briefly considered building a sewage treatment plant on the island, but nothing came of it. Two years later, the South Carolina State Ports Authority paid the GSA $12,000 for Castle Pinckney, having decided that the property (with five additional acres) would be suitable for use as a dredge spoils disposal area.
An SCSPA-initiated project to excavate and restore the fort as a state park and museum was abandoned in 1962 when funds ran out.
During the years since, there have been various other proposed or temporary uses of Castle Pinckney. In July 1964, a private citizen said he was considering buying the fort so he could build a private residence on the island. In October 1964, the SCSPA deeded the fort to the South Carolina Shriners, who apparently intended to use it in connection with their crippled children’s program. The Shriners returned the property to the SCSPA the next year.
In 1969, the SCSPA sold Castle Pinckney to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who intended to restore the fort, erect a museum, and (later) build an upscale restaurant. Although the SCV acquired grant monies and donations, it ran out of money for the project by 1984. The property later reverted to the SCSPA, which still owns it.
In 1970, Castle Pinckney was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Recent decades have seen some cleanup and stabilization efforts, and even some ambitious proposals to restore the fort and open it to the public. However, restoring a structure in such an advanced state of deterioration will take a lot more money than the SCSPA or anyone else has been willing to come up with.
Today, the Castle Pinckney ruin still sits out there in Charleston harbor. Tour boat guides point it out and tell brief stories about the fort’s not-too-glorious history. You can’t land on the island without special permission, though, and only a few people – mostly archeologists, cleanup crews, and Civil War reenactors – have set foot on it lately.
Postscript: Two other castle forts, both part of the New York harbor defense system, were completed at about the same time as Castle Pinckney. Castle Williams, completed in 1811 at a strategic location between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, can be seen at Governor’s Island National Monument. The other castle fort, which was also completed in 1811, is at nearby Castle Clinton National Monument in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park.