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South Carolina

Ft. Johnson – James Island, South Carolina

SC James Island James Island History Fort Johnson

This article was contributed by local historian Doug Bostick. It may not be reproduced in any format without written consent from Mr. Bostick and SCIWAY.

Today, when you say "Fort Johnson," most people think of Fort Johnson Road. Oh yeah, wait a minute, wasn't that where the first shot of the Civil War was fired – or was that Morris Island?

Growing up on James Island, the end of Fort Johnson Road was always a place of great mystery. First, there was some kind of convent for nuns. My Southern Baptist upbringing did not equip me with much of an understanding of what went on there but we were admonished – NEVER GO DOWN THERE. As if that wasn't enough, an imposing gate blocked off the road leading to Fort Johnson. As teenagers armed with fast bicycles, we finally ventured in only to be disappointed in never finding "the fort." We did find a powder magazine, a monument commemorating the firing of "the first shot," and a path that led to Fort Sumter at dead low tide. Where were the walls and the cannons?

William Russell, who received a grant for 100 acres in 1694, first occupied this tract of land on the far eastern edge of James Island. The property was named Wind Mill or Mill Point. A map drawn in 1697, Carte Particuliere de la Caroline, denoted the property as "Windmill." Russell sold Mill Point in 1704 to John King.

In 1708, an act was passed calling for a fortification at Mill Point to guard the harbor. This distinguishes the site as the first fortification built for the defense of the Charles Towne harbor. John King was compensated for the seizure of his plantation. In 1709, a James Island captain named John Drake was selected as commander and the fort was staffed with a Lieutenant and 12 men.

By 1724, colonial records indicate that the fort had fallen into deterioration due to neglect and disinterest. In 1749, the fort was enlarged to accommodate 40 men and their officers. In 1756, an act was passed that foretold the first of many uses for Fort Johnson as a quarantine station. The act provided that all vessels entering Charles Towne harbor anchor at Fort Johnson for inspection by a physician.

As the French and Indian War broke out colonists became concerned about an attack by the French or Spanish. As a result, a tabby fort was constructed in 1759. The war ended before the fort was finished and, in fact, the tabby fort was never completed.

In 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Fort Johnson and its 21 guns were seized with no resistance by local colonists. By 1776, the colonists had increased Fort Johnson's arsenal to 60 guns. The colonists destroyed Fort Johnson before retreating after learning of the advance of a sizable British army led by Sir Henry Clinton landing at Johns Island in 1780.

The fort was abandoned from 1800 to 1807. With the threat of the War of 1812, Fort Johnson was re-established with two new batteries. They were, however, destroyed by a hurricane in 1813.

While the fort continued to fall into ruins, an 1833 map reveals that the site had become a substantial facility for the US Board of Engineers. The facility included a wharf, two docks, a barracks, quarters for many staff persons, storerooms, offices, a carpentry shop, a tool house, a blacksmith shop, a boarding house, and many "Negro houses." Just to the southeast of this complex were the beginnings of a summer village for James Island planters. In time this village, called Johnsonville, contained many planters' homes, a church, a commissary, and a schoolhouse.

There were several discussions of reviving the fortification itself, but little was ever done. Finally, as threat of civil war loomed ahead, South Carolina constructed two batteries at Fort Johnson. The east battery fired the first shot on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Fort Johnson played a key role in holding back the advances of the Union army on Morris Island. Despite several attempts, the Union army was never able to take Fort Johnson until Charleston was evacuated by the Confederacy in February 1865. Upon taking the fort, the Union army reported the Fort Johnson arsenal at 20 guns. The end of the Civil War brought an end to Fort Johnson's role as a critical military fortification.

In 1872, an act was passed establishing Fort Johnson as a quarantine station. By the late 19th century, the quarantine station consisted of quarters for resident officers, offices, a fever hospital, a pest-house, a storage building, a boathouse, and barracks for officers, crew, and female passengers of vessels undergoing fumigation. All material, clothing, and bedding would be removed from the ships and "heat sterilized." The ships would be sealed and pumped with 18% sulphur dioxide gas used as a disinfectant. After 24 hours, the ship would be vented. The passengers and crew, though, might be held as long as five days.

In 1906, Fort Johnson was transferred by the state to the US Public Health Department. Public Health, then, operated the quarantine station until 1945. When it closed, the station contained 14 buildings and a 40-bed hospital. During World War II, the Coast Guard also operated from Fort Johnson with a training facility, an anti-aircraft gun training facility, and a listening post for German U-Boats.

In 1954, the 100-acre site was acquired by the College of Charleston and the Medical College of South Carolina. In 1970, the bulk of the property was transferred to the SC Department of Natural Resources as a research facility.

Interestingly enough, twice there were local initiatives to establish Fort Johnson as an historic site. In 1935, local officials urged the federal government to develop Fort Johnson as an historical park. The National Park Service, however, favored Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter and both became federal parks, ignoring Fort Johnson.

Again, in 1967 as the College of Charleston was looking to sell 40 of their 50 acres at Fort Johnson, many local officials, including Charleston Mayor Palmer Gaillard, urged the SC Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism to purchase the site and protect its historic assets. Unfortunately, those plans were never realized either.

Fort Johnson, the mystery behind the gate, is steeped in history. The powder magazine and Civil War monument are still there to see. Many visitors or those with business with the Department of Natural Resources are often confused by the presence of the beautiful plantation home sitting on the property. Is that the original plantation home that occupied the property or some remnant of the planter's summer village? The answer is neither. John Ball built this home on his rice plantation on the Cooper River, named Marshlands, in 1810. Slated for destruction, the College of Charleston had the home moved from the Cooper River to Fort Johnson, where it was restored. Today, it houses offices for the Department of Natural Resources.

Find a reason to visit the Department of Natural Resources, or just ride your really fast bike. The site is worth visiting. Follow the road until it ends and you'll be faced with the most spectacular view of Charleston Harbor ever seen by land. From that vantage point, it is easy to see why Wind Mill was selected as the first Charleston fortification to protect the harbor.

You know, I never did get to the Sisters of Mercy convent.

Harbor View Road & Summer House


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