Tips for Visiting Fort Sumter in Charleston

Where the American Civil War Began
Fort Sumter Charleston South Carolina

Almost all guides to Charleston list Fort Sumter as the number one attraction for visitors. It certainly is a place that put Charleston on the map many years ago during the civil war. It is worth a visit to get a great summary of events that led to the bloodiest conflict the USA has ever faced. Plus, getting out on the water of Charleston harbour allows you to take in the city from a different perspective.

Follow this guide and our first-hand tips for making the most of your trip to Fort Sumter when you are next in Charleston South Carolina.

Getting to Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter is a National Monument and access is in fact free. However, the island is only really accessible through the Fort Sumter Tours ferry service. This runs 4 services per day in summer and three in other months of the year (9:30 am, 12:30 pm, 2:30 pm all year round; 4:30 pm summer only). The ferry departs from Liberty Square, a 10-minute walk north of the Charleston City Markets.

If you are adventurous you may wish to take your own boat or kayak. If so, you are unable to use the dock provided and can only access the fort while a National Parks Ranger is on site.

fort sumter liberty square

Access to Fort Sumter is via the Ferry at Liberty Square north of historic downtown Charleston

Hotshots

The canon balls fired into Fort Sumter during the civil war included ‘hot shots’. These were canon balls heated until they were glowing red then fired upon the fort. They exploded into fireballs when they struck by setting whatever they hit immediately alight.

How Long is the Fort Sumter Tour?

The tours to Fort Sumter are almost all self-guided. There is a brief introduction on the Ferry by National Park volunteers and a welcome talk by the ranger at the fort.

Tours take 2.5 hours roundtrip which includes the ferry ride there and back. Visitors only really get 1 hour on the island to explore. We have included some more tips below on how to plan your time whilst on the island.

Fort Sumter Entry

The well-preserved national monument at Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter Tickets

Tickets are $22 per adult (Seniors (aged 62+)  $20; Children (aged 4-11) $14; Under 3 year-olds are free). Tickets are purchased at the well signposted ticket office at Liberty Square. Head up the stairs to the ticket window. An optional donation can be added to your ticket. A small museum can keep you entertained as you wait for the ferry to arrive.

There is an optional $5 to allow you to extend your stay and come back on a later ferry than the one you arrived on. This would be useful for anyone who was doing a research project or very interested in the detailed museum at the fort.

Limited Disabled Access

The upper half of the fort including the museum, bookstore, toilets is only accessible by stairs (the lift was not operational at the time of writing and unlikely in the near future).

fort sumter stairs

Access is limited to the upper sections by two long sets of stairs (elevator is not operational at the moment)

Spot the 3 wedged canon balls

There are 3 canon balls still visible, wedged into the inside of the northern fort wall. See if you can spot these!

Fort Sumter Ferry Ride

On board the ferry there is plenty of seating and the open top deck provides the best viewing. Sights along the way include the WWII warship USS Yorktown, the wide-spanning Arthur Ravenel Bridge on your left as well as the historic downtown precinct on your right.

Further along the way, you will pass Castle Pinckney on Shutes Folly Island which controversially flies a confederate flag. You will also pass within sight of the location of Fort Johnson from where the first shots of the civil war were fired towards Fort Sumter.

A small shop sells drinks and snacks on board. There is a water fountain on Fort Sumter so bring a water bottle.

fort sumter ferry

The Arthur Ravenel Bridge from the Fort Sumter ferry departure point at Liberty Square

How to see everything at Fort Sumter in 1 hour

Depending on your interest in the civil war, the hour available may be too short or just about right. Below we provide tips for both the casual visitor and civil war buffs.

Casual visitors

  1. Off the ferry, take in the fortifications from the outside and join the welcome message by the National Parks Ranger.
  2. Walk along the upper grassed sea frontage and do a walk by the plaques marking key events at Fort Sumter.
  3. Return down to the entrance via the stairwell on the right (when looking back towards Charleston) to see the canons used to defend the fort.
  4. Spot the 3 mortar shells still embedded in the inside walls.
  5. Head up to the museum to see the tattered US flag that was smuggled out in secrecy just before the fort was captured by the Confederates.

Before long a ranger will come past and tell you it’s time to go!

fort sumter cannon hole

One of the many cannon holes (some with original cannons) to see what life on Fort Sumter may have been like

Civil war buffs

  1. Head directly to the museum to take in what you need and any photos before everyone else gets there.
  2. Walk up from the museum to the grassed area and view the plaques listing the role Fort Sumter played in the civil war.
  3. Return down to the entrance via the stairwell on the right (when looking back towards Charleston) to see the canons used to defend the fort.
  4. Get the attention of one of the National Park volunteers or Rangers to give you any insider tips such as how the cannons were fired and what conditions were like during the bombardment on Fort Sumter. They are very knowledgeable and you may even get time to chat on the return ferry.
fort sumter volunteer cannon

One of the knowledgeable volunteers at Fort Sumter showing us how the cannons were fired.

Return Ferry from Fort Sumter

Rangers will announce when the return ferry is boarding. It will be sooner than you think! Make sure you get to the museum even just for a glimpse of the American flag smuggled out by Major Anderson when the fort fell to the Confederates.

fort sumter us flag

This flag was taken by Major Anderson back to New York after the defeat of Fort Sumter, then reflown once the Fort was returned to union forces.

Final Tips to Visiting Fort Sumter

  • Bring a water bottle so you can refill if necessary at the water fountain at the fort.
  • Wear a hat & sunglasses, especially in summer as it gets hot with little shade (besides the air-conditioned museum).
  • Get a demonstration of how the canons worked by one of the volunteer staff.
  • Recommend to get lunch (if you’re hungry) at Sticky Fingers only 15 minutes walk from Liberty Square.
  • Check out the Fort Sumter website for up to date news.

Read a more in-depth account of how events led to the beginning of the civil war.

About The Author

Warren

Ever since venturing out the back gate into the bush as a kid, I've had a curiosity to escape and explore as often as I could. It's fair to say that my curiosity has continued to grow instead of fade as the years go on. Sixty countries later it was about time to turn a few scribbled notes into some legible stories and tips to share for anyone with a similar curiosity as me.

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