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Forts and Flight in the Carolinas

Founded in the mid-1600s, the Carolinas are rich in American history. Groups traveling to these states can learn about the origins of flight, the impacts of the American Revolution and the Civil War, slavery and reconstruction, and how early settlers interacted with Native Americans in the area at the following must-see historic sites.


Fort Sumter National Monument

Charleston Harbor, South Carolina

The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked the Federal troops there, capturing the facility. Fort Sumter, built in 1829, sits on a man-made island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Visitors to the island can tour the remains of the fort, which is considered a Civil War ruin. Union forces laid siege to Fort Sumter for 17 months during the war in an attempt to recapture it from the Confederacy, launching 70,000 tons of artillery at it and reducing the walls to rubble. The brickwork visitors see at the site today is what was left beneath the rubble. The walls are about one-third the height they were when the fort was constructed.

Three projectiles are still lodged in the interior walls of the fort, and the site is home to many Civil War-era cannons. A small museum and store reside on the second floor of an Endicott-Era gun battery, which was built about 1898.

Groups that want to visit the site can reserve a tour through Fort Sumter Tours, the park’s concessioner; tours depart from Liberty Square in downtown Charleston or Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. The Liberty Square location has a Visitor Education Center with exhibits about the causes of the Civil War, antebellum Charleston and why Union forces fired on Confederate-held Fort Sumter.

Edenton, North Carolina

Historic Edenton, established in 1712, is the second-oldest town in North Carolina and was the state’s first Colonial capital. Groups that want to tour the historic city should book a 45-minute trolley tour or a guided walking tour through Historic Edenton to learn more about its history. Guided tours also are available at the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse and the James Iredell House.

The courthouse, which is still in operation, is one of only two courthouses outside of Raleigh where the North Carolina Supreme Court can meet. It also is one of the best-preserved Colonial courthouses in America. The lighthouse is one of the last lighthouses in the U.S. that was built on screw pilings. Originally built in the Albemarle Sound at the entrance to the Roanoke River, it was moved to its current location overlooking Edenton Bay.

The Iredell House Homesite was the home of James Iredell, an associate justice on the first U.S. Supreme Court and attorney general and North Carolina Superior Court judge during the American Revolution. Tours showcase the furnished home, a carriage house, a one-room schoolhouse, a dairy, a kitchen, a smokehouse and other outbuildings from the 18th and early-19th centuries.

Groups can learn about the Maritime Underground Railroad at Colonial Waterfront Park, where African American watermen worked to identify sympathetic seamen who would agree to transport runaway slaves to free states.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Orville and Wilbur Wright chose the Kill Devil Hills outside of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as the site of their test flights in the early 1900s because of its remote location, strong winds, hills, lack of vegetation and sandy beach for soft landings. Big Kill Devil Hill, at 100 feet tall, and hills in the area were just high enough for the brothers to practice launching their various flyers. It was here that the brothers made their first successful flight December 17, 1903.

Group visitors to the Wright Brothers National Memorial can start their tours at the Wright Brothers Visitors Center to learn about the duo and why they came to North Carolina for their flight tests. The facility is packed with interactive exhibits and a full-size reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer. Groups also can tour reconstructed 1903 camp buildings and living quarters that show how Orville and Wilbur lived during their time in the Outer Banks. The Wright Brothers Monument stands atop Big Kill Devil Hill, with impressive views of the surrounding countryside and the town of Kill Devil Hills, which didn’t exist until 50 years after the Wright Brothers made history.

On the south side of Big Kill Devil Hill, there is a re-creation of the Wright Brothers’ first flyer that visitors can touch and climb on. Guided tours of the site are not available, but during the summer months, park rangers offer interpretive programming throughout the day.

Ninety Six National Historic Site

Ninety Six, South Carolina

About 60 miles south of Greenville, South Carolina, the Ninety Six National Historic Site preserves the original site of the town Ninety Six, which was established in the early-18th century, and the original earthen Star Fort, which was built by settlers to protect them from the Cherokee Indians that lived in the South Carolina foothills.

The site also commemorates the first land battle of the Revolutionary War outside New England, which took place in November 1775. Ninety Six was a strategic location during the war, so British loyalists fortified the town. It also was the site of the war’s longest field siege in 1781, when Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene led 1,000 patriot troops against the 550 British loyalists who were defending the frontier town.

Groups can schedule a tour of the park by calling at least two weeks ahead. There is a small museum on-site that contains period artifacts and oil paintings depicting the battles that took place there. A one-mile-long interpretive trail begins at the visitors center, taking guests past the remains of the 18th-century earthen Star Fort as well as the original town site of Ninety Six. The historic site has numerous trails: The Cherokee Path Trail leads past the Star Fort Pond, which is a great fishing spot, and the Gouedy Trail wends past the location where Robert Gouedy first opened a trading post in the area. There also is an unidentified cemetery on the property that is presumed to be a slave cemetery from post-Colonial times.

Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site

Union, South Carolina

Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site preserves 44 acres of a historic cotton plantation that was active for 130 years. In 1860, the 2,000-acre plantation enslaved 178 people, making it one of the largest enslaved populations in the area. The owner, William Henry Gist, served as governor of South Carolina and was a staunch secessionist.

“He strongly believed South Carolina should secede from the U.S. to protect the institution of slavery,” said Nate Johnson, park manager at Rose Hill Plantation.

Groups that visit the site can tour the large mansion and a historic brick kitchen that was built behind the home. The site tells the sometimes-difficult story of slavery, sharecropping, emancipation and reconstruction and the white supremacist violence that followed that kept former enslaved peoples from taking part in the freedoms for which they fought during the Civil War, among them owning land, going to school, voting and serving on juries.

Numerous trails take visitors past historic places, such as the caretaker’s house and the tenant farms where former slaves continued to work the fields as sharecroppers. One of the trails takes visitors past a witness stand of 230-year-old pine trees that were alive during the plantation’s heyday. Rangers staff the site and are available to answer questions. Tours of the site are available, and groups can rent out the picnic pavilion on-site.