Part funky beach town, part ritzy getaway, Sullivan’s Island has a certain timeless quality. While much of it was rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo’s devastation, plenty of local character remains, as evidenced by some cool little bars in its tiny “business district” on the main drag of Middle Street.
There’s a ton of history on Sullivan’s, but you can also just while the day away on the quiet, windswept beach on the Atlantic, or ride a bike all over the island and back. Unless you have a boat, you can only get here from Mount Pleasant.
While Fort Sumter  gets the vast bulk of the press, the older Fort Moultrie (1214 Middle St., 843/883-3123, www.nps.gov/fosu , daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., $3 adults, $5 per family, under 16 free) on Sullivan’s Island actually has a much more sweeping history. Furthering the irony, Major Robert Anderson’s detachment at Fort Sumter at the opening of the Civil War was actually the Fort Moultrie garrison, reassigned to Sumter because Moultrie was thought too vulnerable from the landward side.
Indeed, Moultrie’s first incarnation, a perimeter of felled palm trees, didn’t even have a name when it was unsuccessfully attacked by the British in the summer of 1776, the first victory by the colonists in the Revolution. The redcoat cannonballs bounced off those soft, flexible trunks, and thus was born South Carolina’s nickname, “The Palmetto State.” The hero of the battle, Sergeant William Jasper, would gain immortality for putting the blue and white regimental banner—forerunner to the modern blue and white state flag—on a makeshift staff after the first one was shot away.
Subsequently named for the commander at the time, William Moultrie, the fort was captured by the British at a later engagement. That first fort fell into decay and a new one was built over it in 1798, but was soon destroyed by a hurricane.
In 1809 a brick fort was built here; it soon gained notoriety as the place where the great chief Osceola was detained soon after his capture, posing for the famous portrait by George Catlin. His captors got more than they bargained for when they jokingly asked the old guerrilla soldier for a rendition of the Seminole battle cry. According to accounts, Osceola’s realistic performance scared some bystanders half to death. The chief died here in 1838 and his modest gravesite is still on-site, in front of the fort on the landward side.
Other famous people to have trod on link Sullivan’s Island include Edgar Allan Poe, who was inspired by Sullivan’s lonely, evocative environment to write The Gold Bug and other works. (There’s a Gold Bug Avenue and a Poe Avenue here today, and the local library is named after him as well.) A young Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman was also stationed here during his Charleston  stint in the 1830s before his encounter with history in the Civil War.
Moultrie’s main Civil War role was as a target for Union shot during the long siege of Charleston. It was pounded so hard and for so long that its walls fell below a nearby sand hill and were finally unable to be hit anymore.
A full military upgrade happened in the late 1800s, extending over most of Sullivan’s Island (some private owners have even bought some of the old batteries and converted them into homes).
It’s the series of later forts that you’ll visit on your trip to the Moultrie site, which is technically part of the Fort Sumter National Monument  and administered by the National Park Service.
Most of the outdoor tours are self-guided, but ranger programs typically happen Memorial Day through Labor Day daily at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. There’s a bookstore and visitors center across the street, offering a 20-minute video on the hour and half-hour 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Scholars say that about half of all African Americans alive today had an ancestor who once set foot on Sullivan’s Island. As the first point of entry for at least half of all slaves imported to America, the island’s “pest houses” acted as quarantine areas so slaves could be checked for communicative diseases before going to auction in Charleston proper.
But few people seem to know this. In a 1989 magazine interview, African American author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison said about historic sites concerning slavery, “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”
In 2008, that last item became a reality, as the first of several planned “benches by the road” was installed on Sullivan’s Island to mark the sacrifice of enslaved African Americans. It’s a simple black steel bench, with an attached marker and a nearby plaque. The Bench by the Road is just near Fort Moultrie, which has also recently expanded its African American–oriented interpretation at its visitors center.
From U.S. 17 follow the signs for Highway 703 and Sullivan’s Island. Cross the Ben Sawyer Bridge and then turn right onto Middle Street; continue for about a mile and a half. Keep in mind there’s no regular ferry to Fort Sumter  from Fort Moultrie; the closest ferry to Sumter leaves from Patriots Point  on Mount Pleasant.