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The fate of the Civil War hinged on the battle at South Carolina's Morris Island. If Union forces captured Fort Wagner they could control access to the harbor. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Preservation or Development at Morris Island?

On this site where the nation's legendary African-American fighting force proved its valor in the Civil War, a housing development ignited a debate over the uses of history

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UPDATE, March 25, 2011: As part of Smithsonian magazine's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we have updated this story to reflect what has happened to  plans for commercial development on Morris Island since this story was written in 2005.

As a crimson sunset spread over a darkening Atlantic Ocean on July 18, 1863, African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, 650 in all, stood on the shore of South Carolina’s Morris Island “like giant statues of marble,” an eyewitness remembered. Behind them, five more Yankee regiments stood at the ready. For hours, Union ironclads had shelled the Confederate garrison of Fort Wagner, half a mile away.

Around 7:30 p.m., 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw of Boston addressed the men of the 54th. “We shall take the fort or die there!” he told them. “Now I want you to prove yourselves men!” As depicted in the 1989 film Glory, the two long blue ranks began to move forward across the sand.

The fate of the Civil War hinged on the battle that would follow. Capturing Charleston—the South’s major port and the symbolic birthplace of Secession—would drive a fatal spike into the heart of the Confederacy. The defensive linchpin was Fort Sumter, where the war’s first shots had been fired against its then-Federal defenders in April 1861. Sumter now bristled with Confederate cannon. If Union forces could recapture it, they could penetrate the harbor, seize the city and strike inland.

“Fort Wagner was the key to Morris Island, and Morris Island was the key to Fort Sumter,” says Stephen R. Wise, director of the Parris Island Marine Corps Museum and author of Gate of Hell: Campaign for CharlestonHarbor, 1863. “Once the North captured it, they could place batteries there and destroy Fort Sumter, which controlled access to the harbor.”

Less than a decade ago, Morris Island once again became a battleground, when private developers acquired 128 acres of the island that were privately owned (the rest of the island is owned by the State of South Carolina, which leases it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.) They sought to erect more than a score of luxury homes. The proposed development incldued the land near Battery Gregg, a Confederate emplacement to the north of Fort Wagner and now underater. Preservationists were dismayed to see newspaper ads offering oceanfront properties with 360-degree views at $500,000 an acre.

Critics of the proposed development said it would destroy the island’s splendid isolation and wreak havoc on the vestiges of the Civil War battlefield underwater just offshore.

The effort to stop residential development on the island brought together preservationists, historians and ecologists, as well as Civil War buffs of all stripes. “This isn’t a Confederate versus Union issue,” said Jeff Antley, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of those who fought for the South, in 2005. “We should protect the island because of the sacrifices of all the men who died there. It doesn’t matter who shot who anymore.” Joseph McGill Jr., a Charleston-based program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an African-American, agrees. “We and the keepers of the Confederate flame disagree on more than we agree on,” he says. “But one thing we do agree on is the preservation of Morris Island.”

“That island is hallowed ground,” said Blake Hallman, a native Charlestonian and business instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, who leads the coalition to save the island. “Southern soldiers were fighting for their families, their country and an economic way of life. Black troops wanted to prove themselves just as good as the whites. Young New Englanders who fought and died there made a sacrifice for the nation, for their beliefs, for the U.S. Constitution. This story deserves to be told, and it can be told only if the island is protected from development. Morris Island is an incredible jewel. The threat to it is serious and immediate.”

Under cover of darkness that summer evening in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts now marched with quickening tread along a narrow beach road. The South was already reeling. Just two weeks earlier, Union forces had hurled Robert E. Lee’s army back at Gettysburg, and more than 1,000 miles away, Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two.

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