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Morris Island, located south of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, is one of a series of barrier islands guarding the South Carolina coast. The last Ice Age about 20,000 years ago caused glaciers to creep down as far south as northern New Jersey and dropped sea levels some 300 to 400 feet below their present levels. The shoreline of South Carolina was 50 to 60 miles out into ocean from its present position. Most barrier islands were formed during the slowly rising sea level of the last 7,000 years. From the results of core testing on nearby islands, Morris Island is at least 4000 years old. We know that barrier islands are not stationary and at times, especially under the influence of major storms, can change rapidly. In the mid-1800s,evidence of an ancient marsh was exposed along the Morris Island shoreline, a clear indication that the island was once located seaward of its position at that time.

In the earliest charts of the region, what is now Morris Island was actually three separate islands - Middle Bay Island, Morrison Island, and Cummings Point. Another name associated with the island in the 1700s was Coffin Island. This name may have been linked to the use of the island as a burial ground for sick and contagious passengers arriving by ship. The name would have well suited the island during the Civil War when hundreds of soldiers, both North and South, were buried there. Around 1800 the shallow inlets were filled in and formed one long island that became known as Morris Island.

Another, better-documented use of the island was as a base for navigational aids. Three hundred years ago, a ship could not come directly into harbor because of a series of underwater sand bars across the mouth of Charleston harbor extending about two miles off the shoreline. Early explorers found a natural opening in the bar opposite the inlet between Folly Island and Morris Island. Ships would cross the bar at the deepest point, then sail north along Morris Island and turn into the harbor about two miles in front of Fort Sumter. Because of its proximity to the natural deep water entrance into Charleston, from the very earliest days of European settlement some form of light marker was kept on the island. The early wood fires and burning pitch markers later evolved to more permanent lighthouses. The earliest permanent structure dates to 1767. The 1767 structure was replaced in 1838 by a brick tower 102 feet tall with a revolving beacon that could be seen 12 miles out to sea. In 1858 Capt. G. W. Cullum, while he was supervising construction of Fort Sumter, installed an improved second order lens and light. A powerful hurricane in 1854 washed away the light keeper's house, and in 1858 a stronger house on a raised foundation was built for the light keeper and his family. Other than the lighthouse and keeper's house, the only structure of note built on the island was a pest house or quarantine station. The structure was built in 1834 and was said to have had 40 beds. From records at the beginning of the Civil War, this complex may have consisted of a hospital and two smaller out buildings.


At the time of the Civil War, the island looked much different than it looks today. A series of large sand dunes 30 to 40 feet high lined the length of the island, and the island was thickly forested. The dunes were much higher on the Southern end than on the region nearer to Fort Sumter. Vincent's Creek bordered the land face of the island for about a quarter of its length and provided access to the back of the island from the harbor.
The Civil War caused many changes to the island as both the Confederacy and the Union realized its importance. Confederates recognized the strategic value of the island to the defense of Charleston and later the Union saw it as a base for capturing the city. A number of historic firsts in American history are associated with Morris Island as both Confederate and Union troops fought to control the island and take Fort Sumter. Two major campaigns involve Morris Island: the "first shot" (1861) and the Siege of Charleston (1863-1865), including the assault on Battery Wagner (July 1863).

Between South Carolina's December 1860 secession and the outbreak of hostilities on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces erected a series of 11 to 12 hastily constructed batteries along the shores of Morris Island, including the first iron-clad land battery used in warfare. The purpose of these batteries was to besiege the federal forces occupying Fort Sumter and to protect against attempts to reinforce the garrison. On January 9, 1861 young Citadel cadets manning a battery on the island fired on the Star of the West, a merchant vessel sent to resupply the federal forces. During the opening bombardment of the Civil War, the first shots to hit Fort Sumter were fired by the Palmetto Brigade from the iron-clad battery on Cummings Point on the north end of the island. After the Federal forces surrendered the fort on April 14th, the first Confederates to enter the fort were troops from Morris Island.

The lighthouse was destroyed by the Confederates at the beginning of the Civil War to prevent Union warships from using the marker, and the pest house was disassembled. The batteries constructed for the Confederate siege of Fort Sumter were replaced by stronger fortifications built from sturdy timbers and sand. These included Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg, two large works on the northern end, and a series of ten detached positions on the south end. As the war progressed, almost all of the trees on the island were cut down to allow unobstructed fire down the island. The light keeper's house was gradually stripped of its timbers during the Union occupation of the island.

Battles fought on Morris Island in the summer of 1863 were heroic for both challenger and defender. and they influenced the outcome of the war in ways far beyond the conquest of the tiny island. The Siege of Charleston began on July 10, 1863 when Union forces landed on the south end of Morris Island. On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an African-American regiment, led a fateful assault against Battery Wagner and earned itself a place in the history of this nation. One result of their courage in battle was the recruitment of 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors by Union forces. The assault failed to take Battery Wagner and resulted in 246 deaths, 880 wounded and 389 captured. Thirty four of the deaths and 146 of the wounded were from the 54th Massachusetts. Ninety-two soldiers of the 54th were captured. In 1900 Sergeant William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts became the first African American soldier awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Wagner assault. In the summer of 1863 Morris Island was a virtual killing field as stubborn defenders met a determined challenger.

Confederate defenders held Battery Wagner for two months before evacuating the island on the night of September 6. In the words of Maj. Robert Gilchrist, one of the defenders, "seven hundred and forty men were driven out of a sand hill by eleven thousand five hundred. Two months to advance half a mile toward Charleston." For years afterward, West Point cadets studied the tactics used in the siege following the July 18 assault with a model of Battery Wagner. After the Confederates evacuated the island, Federal forces strengthened and modified many of the abandoned fortifications. At one point, to deter the Confederate practice of housing Union prisoners in parts of Charleston then under bombardment, Federal forces built a stockade for 300 prisoners was built several hundred yards north of Battery Wagner in response to Confederate housing of from Federal positions on Morris Island. A large supply base and wharf were built on the south end of the islands. With as many as 10,000 men stationed there during part of the war, observers reported that the island looked like a tent city.

The 587-day siege from Morris Island made Fort Sumter the most heavily bombarded site in North American warfare. Not only was this the longest siege in U.S. history, but it involved the largest number of siege cannon and was the first time that rifled cannon were used in an American battle. It was also the first firing of an artillery projectile of over four miles. The sustained firing by U.S. troops on a civilian target (Charleston) was also a controversial first. The initial battery designed to fire into the city, the" Swamp Angel," can still be seen in the marsh just behind the island..

For a few years after the war, Morris Island remained under U.S. Army control, but hurricanes soon washed away most of the works constructed there. Even ten years after the war, the U. S. Army captain in charge of the island reported that he would gather wagon-loads of human bones to be reburied after every major storm. By 1885, storms had cut the island in two and over-wash had filled in Vincent's Creek, which had formerly bounded the land face of the island, but the outline of Battery Wagner was still recognizable. A new lighthouse and keeper's house complex was completed in 1878; but was rendered virtually obsolete in 1896 by the construction of jetties and the dredging of a new harbor entrance. Ships now enter Charleston harbor directly from the sea.

The jetties, storms, and a rising sea level have played havoc with Morris Island. Over the last 100 years the island has been eroding at a frightening rate. The 1878 lighthouse, originally built 1200 feet from the shoreline, is today at least that far out to sea. Efforts are underway to preserve this historic structure. Much of the Civil War battlefield has also been covered by the sea, but the region nearest Fort Sumter retains characteristics from that period. The remains of earthworks can be found on the marsh side of the island. Civil War artillery fragments and projectiles are frequently found along its shores and beneath its sands. The noted geologist Dr. Orin Pilkey has warned that development on this island is extremely dangerous due to the instability and rapid erosion of the island. The island is privately owned and has been threatened with development projects several times in the last few years.

Written by Russell Horres.

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