CHARLESTON, S.C. — One of America's most famous historic sites has again made history as a record 328,000 visitors took the tour boat last year to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to see where the Civil War began.
Spurred in part by the observance of the 150th anniversary of the war, the trend continues this year.
Visitation at Fort Sumter was up another 11 percent during the first three months of this year, said Dawn Davis, the chief ranger of the U.S. Park Service Fort Sumter National Monument, which includes Sumter, Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, and the Charles Pinckney Historic Site in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Confederate guns surrounding Fort Sumter opened fire on the fort in April 1861 to plunge the nation into its bloodiest conflict. It took only 34 hours for the Union soldiers there to surrender, and it would take four years for the Union to take back its fort.
When the 150th anniversary of the opening of the war was marked a year ago with somber music, a beam of light shining heavenward from the fort, and cannon booming around the harbor, officials expected a spike in visitors. But Davis wasn't expecting this.
"It did indeed exceed my expectations. I expected it last April and even last May. But for it to continue and continue all winter and the first three months of this year ..."
She credits the increase not only to Civil War buffs visiting.
"I think it's other folks as well. I've seen more interest with teachers and schools and children in general, which is a good thing," she said. The Civil War Trust Teacher Institute will be in Charleston in July, giving teachers from around the nation a chance to visit the fort.
Davis said Sumter generally draws around 200,000 visitors a year. The only other year it surpassed 300,000 was 2002, when visitation edged above that mark following the 9/11 terror attacks.
"A lot of people were staying closer to home and doing vacations to see places of historic significance," she said. "But after that, visitation dropped back down to the 200,000 range."
Easter is usually the busiest time of year at Fort Sumter, she said. And the fort is only reachable by boat.
On Good Friday, both Civil War buffs and more casual visitors were in the Fort Sumter tour boat facility on the Cooper River waiting to take the ferry to the fort.
Durell Goode of Atlanta, a disabled veteran, said he had long wanted to visit to the fort and also planned to see the Morris Island Lighthouse, near where the black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment, attacked Confederate Battery Wagner on Charleston Harbor in a charge commemorated in the 1989 movie Glory.
Goode said the film sparked his interest in the war.
Mark Cross of Fairfax, Va., was visiting with his wife Jan. Their daughter moved to Charleston last year and until this week "all I had seen of Charleston was through the window of a Penske moving van," he said.
Although he lives in an area of northern Virginia rich in Civil War history, Cross said he isn't an enthusiast. Indeed, the visit to Sumter came at the end of his weeklong stay; he thought it might be a good way to spend an overcast day.