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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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“The battles of Morris Island saved Charleston,” says Wise. “If [the South] had lost Charleston on the heels of their defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, it could have brought a rapid end to the war. The defense of Fort Wagner became a symbol of resistance. Had they lost there, Southern morale would have been deeply hurt, and foreign interest in the Confederacy would have been affected.”

After Federal forces consolidated their position on Morris Island, Charleston became the target of the heaviest and longest bombardment ever carried out in North America. Indeed, it was not surpassed until the German bombardment of Leningrad during World War II. In the course of 545 days, Yankee batteries on Morris Island hurled some 22,000 shells at the city, five miles away across the harbor. Their guns simultaneously rained shells on Fort Sumter, reducing it to a useless but unconquered heap of rubble. Casualties were slight: only five civilians were killed. But the lower part of the city was virtually abandoned, as residents fled for safety. Near the war’s end, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman reported that Charleston had become “a mere desolated wreck . . . hardly worth the time it would take to starve it out.”

The 54th Massachusetts remained part of Fort Wagner’s garrison until January 1864. It was then redeployed to a series of posts along the coast, serving with distinction in the battles of Olustee, in Florida, and JamesIsland and Honey Hill, in South Carolina. After the city’s surrender in 1865, in an ironic postscript that galled Charlestonians, the 54th was billeted in the Citadel, the military academy housed in a building that was originally an arsenal constructed in the early 1830s to fortify local defenses after an 1822 slave revolt. As for the regiment’s dead, they were left buried in the sands of Morris Island, close by the bodies of Confederate soldiers who also died for what they believed. Whether they will remain there undisturbed depends a great deal on Blake Hallman.

Hallman first learned of the development threat to Morris Island in his capacity as a board member of the nonprofit South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. “When I found out the island was in danger, it galvanized me,” he says. He had watched unchecked development devour the other barrier islands around Charleston. “No one was standing up for the island. I said to myself, don’t just get angry—do something. I want to see the island preserved in its natural state for future Americans, so we can tell the story of these brave Americans, both white and black.”

One recent afternoon, Hallman, a member of the Charleston City Council since 2010, took me to Morris Island in a 23-foot fishing boat, My Girl. As a child growing up on nearby JamesIsland, Hallman had explored the harbor’s marshy islands and inlets in his own small catamaran. “The solitude of Morris Island always attracted me,” he told me. “I feel there that I’m a small part of history.”

We sailed along the waterfront, past rows of imposing residences, some new, some dating to the 1930s, then past the Battery at the tip of the peninsula, still spiky with antique cannon, and eventually out beyond the low, gray stone walls of Fort Sumter, now a national park. Finally Morris Island came into focus: a low shelf of sand speckled with scrub, marsh grass, palmettos and windblown pines.

Hallman ran the vessel close in to shore. I jumped onto the wet beach and dug one of the anchors into the sand while he heaved the other offshore. As we walked along the beach, Hallman told me that although the shoreline of Morris Island has shifted because of erosion, the beach’s appearance remains close to what the opposing armies saw in 1863. Most of the area where fighting took place actually lies slightly offshore, making the site, curiously enough, possibly the only underwater infantry battlefield in North America—if not the world. “This is where we think Fort Wagner used to be,” Hallman said, drawing an imaginary line with his hand from the surf to a low ridge of sand crowned by some spiky palmettos and clumps of yellow grass. “There are some who think one end of the wall is underneath that sand. There has never been any systematic excavation done here.”

Hallman bent down and plucked from the sand a seashell-encrusted lump of iron, a fragment of a cannonball. “Sometimes, the sea uncovers a whole field of debris,” he says. “Sometimes you can see lumps like this everywhere around you.” Recently, Hallman discovered the distinctive oval embankments of a Yankee artillery emplacement, hidden in the jungle of vines and fallen trees that occupies most of the interior of the island. “People say there’s nothing here. But they’re wrong.”

Some archaeologists worry that the island may never be excavated. “We believe there are cultural remains on the island, including the remains of Northern and Southern soldiers,” the National Park Service’s John Tucker, superintendent of the Fort Sumter National Monument, had told me. “Archaeology should have been done long ago.” Tucker believes that in order to prevent future development, the ideal solution would be to place the island in protective ownership.

Walking along Morris Island, it was hard to believe that Charleston, a city of 100,000 people, lay barely 20 minutes away by boat. Cream-colored terns swooped overhead. Just offshore, the fin of a dolphin or shark sliced the water. Farther out, a freighter breasted the waves where the Yankee ironclads, the doomsday machines of their day, once hovered in flotillas, hammering Fort Wagner with shrapnel and grapeshot. The zigzagging trenches, the wire entanglements, the roar of cannon, the flags snapping in the breeze, the shouts and cries were long gone. The only sound was the rhythmic beat of the waves, like the inexorable tread of marching feet. “This island,” said Hallman, “is hallowed ground.”

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