Community Rallies to Protect Charleston’s Civil War Site (SC)

CHARLESTON, S.C. 3/14/2006: “There’s more to fighting than rest, sir. There’s character. There’s strength of heart. You should have seen us in action two days ago. We were a sight to be seen! We’ll be ready, sir. When do you want us?”

Those were the words of Union Colonel Robert G. Shaw, as played by Matthew Broderick in the 1989 Oscar-winning movie Glory, as he reassured his commander that Shaw’s unit of African-American soldiers was up to the task of leading the charge to take a strategic Confederate battery overlooking Fort Sumter and the Charleston, S.C., harbor.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry regiment spearheaded an assault on Battery Wagner, located on the northern end of Morris Island. While courage was not in short supply, cover and strategic positioning were. Almost 4,000 Union soldiers, lead by Shaw’s regiment, attacked Battery Wagner. Savage fighting occurred, including bloody hand-to-hand combat on the parapet and inside the battery; but the 1600 Confederate defenders prevailed and the assault failed. The 54th suffered tremendous casualties and hundreds of its brave soldiers still lie buried in unmarked graves beneath the island’s shifting sands.

While the sea has reclaimed Battery Wagner, much of the rest of Morris Island remains and is still the subject of fighting. Only now, the battles are over the future of the 126-acre island. The preservation of Morris Island, with its rich history, has been a major focus of Civil War enthusiasts, and local groups in the Charleston area for a number of years.

None of the past efforts succeeded, but now, the effort to protect the island is on the verge of success. The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national non-profit private land conservation organization based in San Francisco with an office in Charleston, S.C., announced February 2, that it has reached agreement to purchase Morris Island from Ginn Clubs & Resorts, a Celebration, Florida-based company.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley challenged government and community leaders to move quickly to make sure the effort is finally a success because “we may not be offered another chance to secure such an important local and national treasure.”

“It is a sacred place, a fragile, coastal island, the shape, landscape, and size of which have been altered by the hands of man trying to direct nature and history. The shifting sands of Morris Island reflect the changing times of our history. There, the grounds were consecrated with the blood of brave Americans who wore both the blue and the gray. The struggles that have gone on there should instill in us the challenge to mount one last effort to preserve Morris Island,” said Mayor Riley.

The agreement provides a clear roadmap to preserving the island, said Slade Gleaton, director of the TPL state office in Charleston. There will be no development on the island, but public access will be assured and balanced with protection of the island’s natural and historic features, Gleaton said.

The first step, which the Ginn Company will pay for, will be a thorough historical assessment of Morris Island. Additional information will be gathered on the natural resources of the island and the anticipated passive use of the island by the public . All of this information will be used as stakeholders throughout the community come together to work towards planning the delicate balance between historic preservation, natural resource preservation and public passive recreational use for Morris Island.

Then, TPL will have to raise the $4.5 million purchase price to insure the island’s future.

Charleston’s local newspaper, The Post and Courier, editorialized that “The preservation of Morris Island is an achievement of national importance for the Charleston community. Its pending sale by developer Bobby Ginn to the Trust for Public Land ensures that the historic, pristine island will remain unspoiled in perpetuity.”

Gleaton said TPL will seek help from federal, state, and local sources. Federal funds may be available through the Coastal Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP), while State of SC funding might come from the State Conservation Bank and/or the SC Heritage Trust Fund. In Charleston County, voters have a approved a one-half cent sales tax increase to acquire open space. Initial funding for this program is anticipated within the next year. In addition, TPL intends to look to private organizations and individuals for funding, including the Civil War Preservation Trust, which continues to focus on the protection of this significant historic Civil War resource.

Morris Island is accessible only by boat. What is now one island was originally three islands, according to the earliest charts of the region – Middle Bay Island, Morrison Island, and Cummings Point. Another name associated with it in the 1700s was Coffin Island, which may have been linked to its use as a burial ground for sick and contagious passengers arriving by ship. Around 1800, the shallow inlets were filled in and formed one long island that became known as Morris Island.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national private non-profit land conservation organization that works to conserve land and historic landmarks for people. TPL has a national presence, with 55 offices, over 400 employees, and more than 550 volunteers working passionately to accomplish our mission. Since its inception in 1972, TPL has completed 3,011 projects in 43 states, protecting over 2 million acres of land worth more than $4 billion. For more information, see