South Carolina’s Fort Sumter
Author Benjamin Franklin Grady makes clear below that South Carolina had not surrendered control of Fort Sumter and other fortifications that guarded her from attack from the sea, a wise decision in light of the quarter from which the enemy eventually came.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
South Carolina’s Fort Sumter:
“This claim of property “belonging to the Government” rested on a very weak foundation, as a brief history of the terms on which the United States acquired their title to it will make clear.
The States conferred upon the Congress the power “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever…over all the places purchased by the consent of the legislatures of the State in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.” While Mr. Jefferson was Secretary of State, he wrote to the authorities of South Carolina, and advised that her Legislature consent for the Congress to purchase certain lands. This was done, but exclusive jurisdiction was denied.
The act was passed December 12, 1795 (House Ex. Doc., Number 67, 2nd Session, 23d Congress) “to enable the United States to purchase a quantity of land in this State, not exceeding two thousand acres, for arsenals and magazines.” And it provided, “that the said land, when purchased, and every person and officer residing or employed thereon, whether in the service of the United States or not, shall be subject and liable to the government of this State, and the jurisdiction, laws and authority thereof in the same manner as if this act had never been passed; and that the United States shall exercise no more authority or power within the limits of the said land, than they might have done pervious to the passing of this act, or than may be necessary for the building, repairing, internal government of the arsenals and magazines thereon to be erected, and the regulation and management of the same, and of the officers and persons by them to be employed in or about the same.” But there was a proviso that the land should not be taxed by the State.
But this act did not transfer from the State her title to the forts and other defensive works in Charleston Harbor, which she built during the Revolution. The transfer was made by an act passed in 1805, to which the following proviso was added: “That, if the United States shall not, within three years from the passing of this act…repair the fortifications as may be deemed most expedient, etc., on the same, and keep a garrison or garrisons therein; in such case this grant or cession shall be void and of no effect.”
This proviso was disregarded by the United States, the defensive works, including Fort Moultrie, were neglected for years, and Fort Sumter was not commenced till 1829. According to all the laws of justice, therefore, the title to the property reverted to the State, and the repairing and building were carried on solely by the sufferance of the State. Thus it is clear to anybody who respects the laws governing property titles that the United States occupied the defensive works in the harbor of Charleston without any legal rights of ownership; and since the money spent in building came out of the pockets of the people of all the States, it cannot be disputed that whatever equitable rights were acquired belonged to the seceded States as well as to the others. And it is equally clear that South Carolina never surrendered her sovereignty over the sites of the forts and other defensive works.”
(Note: Neither South Carolina nor any other State was paid anything out of the Federal Treasury to reimburse her for her expenses incurred in erecting defensive works in her harbors during the Revolution, nor for cessions of State lands.—See Act of March 20, 1794)
(The Case of the South Against the North, B.F. Grady, Edwards & Broughton, 1899, pp. 286-288)