The history of Charleston, Folly Island and Morris Island during the Civil War is rich and colorful. The city of Charleston in the mid 1800′s was the 22nd largest city in the United States. Charleston’s status as a busy port city brought upon the need for many forts, bastions, and floating batteries to protect it from foreign invasion. Fort Wagner, Fort Johnson, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Sumter were all instrumental in the events of the mid-1860′s. In the final month of 1860, these forts, batteries, and bastions, in and around Charleston, were put into use to protect South Carolina from its own countrymen during the opening battles of the Civil War.
On December 20, 1860, the South Carolina General Assembly made the state the first to ever secede from the Union. Less than a month later, on January 9, 1861 cadets from the Citadel Military Academy fired two large cannon at the Union steam ship, The Star of the West, from their Morris Island station. This action prevented the Star of the West from reaching Fort Sumter with valuable troops and supplies. This is considered, by some to be the “first shots fired” in the Civil War. In the spring of 1861 Confederate troops bombarded Union controlled Fort Sumter in an attempt to stave off attack. In June of 1862 the Union forces attempted a land invasion at Secessionville on what is now called James Island. The Union forces were driven back by a much smaller Confederate army and Charleston remained under the Confederate flag. Charleston harbor and the surrounding areas, Sullivan’s Island, Folly Island, and Morris Island remained in the hands of the Confederate forces until July of 1863.
In the early months of 1863 the Union Navy attempted an all out offensive against Charleston Harbor. The plan was to neutralize the heavy artillery and put troops ashore. The naval bombardment was not effective and the troops never made it to land. In July of 1863 General Gillmore led Federal navy and ground forces in taking the lower portion of Morris Island by attacking Battery Wagner. This area guarded the harbor entrance from attack from the southwest. The Union forces suffered great losses during the battles for Fort Wagner but ultimately persevered over the Confederate forces in September of 1863.
From late in 1863 until the end of the war, Folly and Morris Island served as camps for Union troops. The harsh conditions of the area caused many troops to fall ill from exposure to the elements and poor sanitation.