Fort Sumter National Park in Charleston, SC

There is plenty of architecture, southern cuisine, and water views to check out in Charleston, South Carolina but no trip would be complete without reliving a major turning point in our country’s history.

Fort Sumter National Monument is the only structure on the man-made island, which was created in the early 1800s as a defense for the city of Charleston. In April of 1861, the Confederate army bombed the still incomplete Fort, signaling the start of the Civil War.

Operated by the National Parks Service and Fort Sumter Tours, access to the island is by tour boats docked at both Liberty Square or Patriot’s Point. I would leave from the Liberty Square Visitor Center so you can spend some time checking out displays which chronicle the history of the fort and check out a small gift shop. Make sure you stamp your National Parks PassportNote: There are restrooms located at both locations and I would recommend using them before boarding the boat to the island. The Visitor's Center at Liberty Square is located on the second floor, but there is an elevator.

The 40-minute narrated boat ride to the fort explains many details about the start of the Civil War.  Once you’re on the island, you can explore the fort on your own. There are park rangers stationed at various points to give short lectures and to answer any questions. There are also placards that give detailed information about structures and objects.  I would plan on spending 45-60 minutes at the fort. When you go, be sure to look out for:

1. Bottlenose dolphins, which are indigenous to the area. Keep your eyes peeled for them on the boat ride to the island. Manatees also frequent the area. 

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2. Remnants of safety shelters build with bricks. While most of the original fort was ruined when the confederate forces bombarded Fort Sumter, there are still many formations of bricks made in the 1830s (perhaps from nearby Boone Plantation). Park rangers narrate certain sections, explaining how the shelters were built.

3. Several smooth bone cannons and rifled cannons from the war, stationed throughout the fort. Several placards explain the difference between the two cannons and how they were used in defense. 

4. The Battery Huger, built in 1899 in response to the Spanish American War, which became part of the seacoast defense system that protected the harbor. It’s the huge black, concrete structure in the middle of the fort and kids will love exploring the inside. There are narrow rooms and hallways inside, so leave the stroller outside. 

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5. The air-conditioned museum, housed inside the Huger, which displays maps, profiles of soldiers, and numerous relics from the Civil War. There’s even a 10 x 10 foot flag that flew over the fort during the Civil War. 

6. The five flags posted at the edge of the fort. Ask a park ranger to explain the real history behind the palmetto and star on the South Caroline state flag (and license plate, and many other state icons) and pay homage to local, state, and national patriotism.

Notes about navigating the island:  Wear sneakers. There are portions where you must climb steep stairs to access the museum, restrooms on the island, and the top deck of the fort. It can be difficult to navigate through parts of the fort with a stroller.  While there are chain fences to warn people of the sharp drop off on the upper level, children can easily slip through them so keep a close eye on the kids (and watch your footing too!)

Family friendly things to do nearby: There are several attractions near either boarding location:

  • The South Carolina Aquarium is next door at Liberty Square and is filled with sea life experiences for the whole family.

  • The USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier used in WWII, is docked at Patriot’s Point and has self-guided tours throughout the entire ship

  • Boone Hall Plantation, in nearby Mount Pleasant, is a late seventeenth century plantation that will bring you back in time. Read my tips about my visit here.  

Disclosure: Parts of this post first appeared in an article I wrote for Kidventurous.com