When George Washington visited Charleston, he ordered the construction of coastal fortifications to protect the harbor. Completed in 1811, Castle Pinckney served roles in the Civil War and both World Wars. But after its usefulness came to an end, the fort, and the island it occupies, became the object of a game of hot potato.
Despite its history, nobody wanted it.
The story of Castle Pinckney includes pivotal moments in history, the National Park Service and US Army, and deed transfers between federal, state, and private hands. Grab a coffee and sit back because this is an interesting story to read.
Building Castle Pinckney
In 1791, President George Washington embarked on the grand Southern Tour to meet his supporters in the southern states. After weeks of traveling across the coastal plains of Virginia and North Carolina, Washington crossed the Cooper River and landed in Charleston.
Washington’s one-week schedule was filled with private meetings, ceremonies, and entertainment. During his time in the city, he traveled across the Cooper River to visit Fort Moultrie and Fort Johnson, instrumental during the Revolutionary War.
Three years later, Washington ordered a series of coastal fortifications built along the east coast. He specified for a new fort to be built on Shute’s Folly, a small island he passed while crossing the Cooper River in Charleston. Construction of the masonry fort was completed in 1811 and named Castle Pinckney in honor of Charleston native and Revolutionary War General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
Castle Pinckney During the Civil War
Throughout the 1800s, Castle Pinckney was manned as a federal garrison. Then, in 1829, construction started on Fort Sumter at the mouth of the Cooper River. Once completed, it would have replaced Castle Pinckney.
On December 26, 1860, South Carolina Governor F.W. Pickens ordered the state militia to seize Castle Pinckney. The next day, Colonel J.J. Pettigrew formed a detachment of the Washington Light Infantry, Meagher Guards, and Carolina Light Infantry in Marion Square. They traveled across Charleston Harbor in rowboats and landed on Shute’s Folly.
Lieutenant Richard K. Meade commanded a small garrison of four mechanics and thirty laborers inside the fort. Spotting the approaching militia, he ordered the gates to the fort sealed and locked.
But Pettigrew was prepared to assault the fort. Raising ladders, he quickly scaled the walls and confronted Meade inside the fort. Meade refused to acknowledge Pettigrew’s authority to seize the fort and refused to surrender, but he also admitted he had no chance to defend the fort. Instead, Meade abandoned the fort, and Pettigrew allowed all federal troops to leave peacefully. Castle Pinckney became the first federal installation seized by a seceded state.
This incident was the closest Castle Pinckney would ever come to seeing combat.
Almost a year and a half later, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. Battles over the incomplete fort and nearby Fort Moultrie would continue throughout the War Between the States. In the meantime, Castle Pinckney was used as a prisoner of war camp for captured Union soldiers.
When Charleston was captured by Union forces in 1865, Castle Pinckney was abandoned and returned to federal control.
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Castle Pinckney National Monument
From 1876 until 1917, Castle Pinckney was used as a lighthouse for ships traveling into Charleston Harbor. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated the site as Castle Pinckney National Monument. It was placed under the care of the National Park Service, a new bureau of the Department of the Interior created just a few years prior.
But the National Park Service’s focus was on creating new national parks in the American West. The bureau held onto the national monument for over a decade without making any improvements or offering access to the island. By 1936, the NPS began an effort to sell Castle Pinckney.
In 1954, an act of Congress abolished Castle Pinckney National Monument.
US Army Corps of Engineers
After the national monument was abolished, the deed to Castle Pinckney was transferred from the National Park Service to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The corps planned to use the aging masonry fort as a storage depot for military vessels patrolling nearby waters.
But it was rarely used, and less than a year later, the Corps of Engineers decided they did not want Castle Pinckney, either.
South Carolina State Ports Authority
In 1957, the South Carolina State Ports Authority purchased Shutes Folly, including Castle Pinckney. The SCSPA planned to use the island as a spoil area for dumping dredged material from the Cooper River – they had no interest in Castle Pinckney whatsoever.
In 1967, a fire destroyed all the wooden buildings inside Castle Pinckney. The SCSPA simply let the ruins lie with no interest in the fort. Like the Phoenix of mythology, life came out of the ruins as hundreds of brown pelicans made the castle their home.
The SCSPA placed warning signs around the small island. Visiting was strictly prohibited, even if you arrived with your own boat or kayak. The historic castle was off-limits.
Sons of Confederate Veterans
In 2011, the South Carolina State Ports Authority sold Castle Pinckney to the Sons of Confederate Veterans for $10. A stipulation of the sale allowed access to the fort for members of the SCV – and only those members.
The Castle Pinckney Historical Preservation Society was founded in Charleston two years later. The non-profit organization’s mission was to raise funds for the preservation of the historic fort. Although efforts continue, the historic Castle Pinckney is still off-limits to any non-members of the SCV, and no preservation work has been completed.
The best way to see the fort is to visit Fort Sumter. The boat ride from Liberty Square to the Civil War-era fort passes close enough to Shute’s Folly to see the brown pelicans and get a good look at the ruins of the fort.