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Castle Pinckney – The Historic South Carolina Fort Nobody Wanted

Once a national monument, Castle Pinckney changed hands many times in a decades-long game of hot potato.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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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.

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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.

READ MORE: Learn the Story of the Forgotten Founder at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant, SC

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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.

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READ MORE: Exploring Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park

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.

National Park Week 2024

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View of Castle Pinckney and Ravenel Bridge from a tour boat returning from Fort Sumter.

Transfer #1

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.

READ MORE: The Complete List of all National Park Service Sites (and the Ones I’ve Visited) in the U.S.

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Transfer #2

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.

READ MORE: The Coffee Lover’s Guide to My Favorite Coffee Shops in Charleston, SC

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Kayakers paddle along Shem Creek with a view of Castle Pinckney in the distance.

Transfer #3

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.

READ MORE: Travel Guide and Tips for Visiting Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in South Carolina

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Transfer #4

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.

2 Responses

  1. As a member of the SCV Camp that owns the castle, your interest in this incredibly misunderstood and largely ignored historical site is appreciated.

    1. Matthew, you’re very welcome! I became interested in this story when I heard so many different versions about the historic site. Took a guided history tour and heard one story – then I heard an entirely different story on a horse drawn carriage tour. I think I’ll update some of the writing on this post – it’s been a long time since I wrote it!

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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