Charleston’s contradictions often are clearly visible from the city’s harbor.
Near the historic district, which has benefited from stringent preservation efforts over many decades, new hotels and apartment buildings rise. The soon-to-open International African American Museum located on Gadsden’s Wharf confronts Confederate flags flying above Castle Pinckney on Shutes Folly in the middle of the harbor.
Those flags, when they appear, greet thousands of people a week on the water — vacationers on cruise ships, mariners on commercial vessels, tourists on harbor tours or private boat charters, visitors to Fort Sumter who take the ferry that passes Shutes Folly. The flags also are viewed from the land by thousands more every week who walk through Waterfront Park or along the East Battery.
Some visitors to Charleston who go on boat charters wonder aloud about those flags. Why are they there? Who decides to raise them? What message do they convey about the Holy City? Others voice their support.
Many don’t recognize the Confederate flags when they fly on Castle Pinckney because they are always the lesser-known divisional or national banners, never the Southern Cross that became the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which is the one most closely associated with the Confederacy and the one that provokes the most controversy.
So it can come as a surprise when visitors learn that the flag on Shutes Folly is, say, the “Stars and Bars” or The Citadel’s battle flag, or South Carolina’s flag of secession.
On the water
The island has three parcels, according to Charleston County GIS records. The southernmost parcel is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Fort Sumter Camp 1269. The other two are “undevelopable” and slowly fading away. One is deeded to Henry Laurens; the other to the Mary Simons Estate. The whole island now is a bird sanctuary. Visitors are forbidden.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans looks after the old fort, but restoring it and maintaining it would cost a fortune, so the installation is left to endure the elements and the nesting birds with little human intervention.
Every month or so, an SCV member rides a skiff to the castle and changes the flag. The idea is to raise flags that have historical significance, though sometimes one will see the Irish flag in honor of St. Patrick’s Day or the Italian flag to mark Columbus Day. At the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the group raised a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag to show solidarity.
For Carolina Day, which marks the patriot victory over British forces at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776, the state flag (or a historical version of it) will flap in the breeze. For the Fourth of July, the U.S. flag is hoisted.
But during other parts of the year, the SCV often raises a Confederate flag of some kind.
Sailboat charter captain Mark Stetler said he tries to avoid mentioning the flags until one of his guests ask about them, then he’ll strive to offer a neutral response, keeping politics off the boat.
“The discomfort starts with me,” he said. “I try to say as little as I can.”
But, often, he will feel the need to offer some explanation, so he tells his guests about Castle Pinckney, its history and its current status, and he’ll tell them that Confederate flags don’t always fly there.
The typical response is “stunned silence,” he said. Sometimes he will get an eye-roll or perhaps a question or comment alluding to the imposition of the Antebellum South and the Civil War onto the year 2022. He’s never hosted a guest who expressed support for the flags, he said.
Chris Rabens, a powerboat charter captain, said he passes by Castle Pinckney with his guests frequently. Usually, they are too immersed in the experience of being together on the water to pay much attention to serious matters such as South Carolina history, he said. A few will show interest.
Some guests are enthusiastic, uttering expressions of support for the Confederate cause (“The South will rise again!” they might shout); others question the motivations of the Sons of Confederate Veterans or voice mild disagreement, Rabens said.
“I get a broad spectrum,” he said.
Tamara Butler, director of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, said the fort, its history and the Confederate flags that sometimes fly in the middle of the harbor are evidence of the city’s inherent contradictions and unresolved racial and economic tensions — and of the efforts among some to reconcile all that.
“It’s really important for people to see that Charleston is still trying to figure itself out,” Butler said. “My hope is that people will use controversial things (such as Castle Pinckney’s flags) to question their significance.”
The city is a place of public history, and it’s nearly impossible to ensure that all of it is presented and explained, she said.
“I can’t contextualize the fingerprints in the bricks; I can’t be there every time someone sees them,” Butler said. “So we need to have conversations about who’s responsible for public history work in the city.”
Charleston needs to invest more in the people who can do that work, and to ensure that African Americans are included, she said.
“Charleston sells itself as a progressive city, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Butler said.
The old fort
The island of Shutes Folly, little more than an eroding sandbar now, once was much larger and greener. Joseph Shute bought the island from Col. Alexander Parris in 1746 and tried to grow orange trees. The farm ultimately failed, but that’s not likely what gave the island its name. Rather, it was the manmade buildings that did so. A “folly” is a decorative structure, often grand and picturesque, that one might find in a large garden — or on a little-used island.
Shute’s “folly,” in this case, perhaps refers to Castle Pinckney itself, which has become solely decorative. Or it refers to the small grove of trees that once stood on the island’s highest ground.
The South Carolina Ports Authority acquired the island in 1958, but didn’t use it and soon tried to give it away.
It gifted the old fort to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 1269 in 1969, but it was returned to the state Ports Authority in 1984.
On June 21, 2011, the authority sold the remains of Castle Pinckney to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Fort Sumter Camp for $10. A year and half later, the nonprofit Castle Pinckney Historical Preservation Society was incorporated. Its website, castlepinckney.org, provides access to historical documents and photographs, and describes the history of the fort, a chronology of its use, and an accounting of efforts to preserve it.
Shutes Folly has had some sort of fortification on it since 1742. An early earthen and timber structure used during the American Revolutionary War was replaced with a larger log-and-sand fort in 1797, named for Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution.
An 1804 storm destroyed the log fort, but a replacement made of brick soon rose on the site. It was completed in 1810, and was used during the Civil War as an arms depot and a stockade — first for captured Union soldiers, then for Confederate blockade runners.
In 1878, a lighthouse was built there, along with a lightkeeper’s residence, providing its illuminated warning until 1917.
Castle Pinckney, though once armed and garrisoned, was not much used during conflicts and has come to be known as the poor stepchild compared with forts Sumter, Moultrie and Johnson.
Object vs. symbol
Philip Middleton, former commander of the SCV’s Fort Sumter Camp, said his group’s stewardship of Castle Pinckney includes keeping people off the island, protecting the nesting birds and what remains of the historic brick fortifications, and cutting back the profuse growth of vegetation each winter.
“We have been very circumspect,” he said. “We’re proud to be completely inoffensive.”
Unfortunately, restoring the old fort and doing more to interpret its history has been cost-prohibitive, Middleton said.
Messages left for four other SCV members in South Carolina went unanswered.
Castle Pinckney’s history cannot be contextualized properly without public access of some kind, said Michael Allen, a former National Park Service park ranger and former member of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission. Many people don’t realize they’re looking at a Confederate flag, he added.
A flag, if framed and labeled and hung on the wall of a museum, is merely an object for consideration. Flying it atop a flagpole in the public sphere effectively transforms it into an active symbol, Allen said. The banners, then, are not unlike Confederate monuments. Put a statue in a museum and one can provide the necessary context, he said. Put it on a pedestal in the public square and one is making a political statement, whether intended or not.
“So this raises questions about honoring the past,” he said. “Whose past do we honor, and how?”
Kyle Sinisi, a history professor at The Citadel, said Castle Pinckney is a historic installation and flying banners that had been raised above the fort in the past is appropriate. Fort Sumter also once flew a variety of flags, including Confederate flags, he noted.
Fort Sumter no longer displays Confederate flags of any kind.
“Flags add good context,” he said. “They turn (Shutes Folly) from a sand spit with some ruins on top of it into something that has a story. ... To me, it’s just a great shame that we can’t make it a tourist hot spot. It’s so tantalizing, it is so close and yet so far.”