03 February 2006 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 3 comments

Morris Island is a spit of sand just south of Charleston Harbor. During the Civil War, it was the site of Battery Wagner, a formidable sand fort that helped to defend the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Because of the narrowness of the island and the fact that any attacking forces had to run a gauntlet to get there, Battery Wagner never fell during the Civil War. It was also the place where the 54th Massachusetts Infantry made its ill-fated but heroic attack, as depicted in the Oscar-winning 1989 film Glory. No matter what, Morris Island played a major role in the drama that played out as the Union made attempt after attempt to force the surrender of Charleston throughout the war. Interestingly, the commander of the Union forces trying to take Charleston for much of the war was Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren, the father of Ulric Dahlgren. Ulric spent some time there in the fall of 1863 while recuperating from the combat wound that cost him a leg, all of which just further adds to my interest.

The passage of time, the relentless pounding of the sea, and the damaging winds and waves and hurricanes have not been kind to Morris Island. In spite of that facct, it remains a powerful and moving place. Perhaps it’s the connection with the 54th Massachusetts that makes Morris Island such an important spot. Perhaps it’s that Battery Wagner was never conquered and represents a proud symbol for the Confederacy. Perhaps it’s that what remains of Morris Island–much of it has eroded away, including the remnants of Battery Wagner–is completely pristine and undeveloped. What remains of the island remains in the same wild condition that it was in prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. It is therefore, no surprise that there was a great hue and cry raised when plans to develop what remained of Morris Island were announced. It’s no secret that oceanfront property is tremendously valuable, that oceanfront housing is tremendously profitable, and that the developer stood to make tens of millions of dollars if the development was done. Oceanfront property in a wealthy community like Charleston is doubly valuable.

As Dimitri Rotov has documented so well in his blog, a coalition of local activists, led by the mayor of Charleston, national preservation groups, and grass roots opposition to the idea of developing Morris Island quickly came together and mounted an extremely effective campaign. Bobby Ginn, the owner of Morris Island, listened to what they had to say. In a startling turn, Morris Island has been saved. Unlike most instances where greedy developers use the fact that land is historic to blackmail preservation groups or the government to pay a super-premium price to preserve the land, Mr. Ginn has done something really remarkable. “Mr. Ginn already has set a sterling example. He purchased the property from its owner for $6.5 million and is selling it to the Trust for Public Land for $2 million less. Further, he has promised another $500,000 to plan and provide for public access,” noted a recent newspaper account.

Let’s be clear about this: the developer is taking a $2 million LOSS on this property AND is going to donate an ADDITIONAL $500,000 to make the island accessible. There are no strings attached; it’s an outright purchase and sale of the property that will keep Morris Island in pristine condition. “What we have here is a very generous and community-spirited company,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. who helped work out the deal.

First, and foremost, we all owe Mr. Ginn a great debt, both for being an eminently reasonable man who was willing to listen to public opinion, which was overwhelmingly against the development of Morris Island, and also for being unfailingly generous by not only giving up his profit, but for selling the land at a loss just to make sure that it remains pristine.

Second, we can all learn a lesson from this episode, which demonstrates how effective a well-coordinated public and private preservation effort can be when the city fathers look beyond tax revenues and see the importance of preserving our historic legacy. “This is the best scenario possible: Everybody wins,” said Blake Hallman, a volunteer with the Morris Island Coalition that sought to preserve the tract. Charleston Mayor Riley, who led the charge to save Morris Island, quite correctly observed, “We were able as a community to make a very important decision that we would not allow the pressure of economic growth to damage a special and sacred place.”

I tip my hat to all involved in this great battlefield preservation victory.

Scridb filter


  1. Tue 07th Feb 2006 at 7:45 am

    Jim Campi and the folks at the Civil War Preservation Trust played a crucial role in the fight to preserve Morris Island. The members of the Morris Island Coalition greatly appreciate their guidance and assistance.

  2. Fri 10th Feb 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Putting the Stars into Alignment

    Morris Island has been saved from development. An option to purchase now rests in the hands of the Trust for Public Land. Everyone in the United States should be pleased that a portion of their nation’s history has been saved. South Carolinians should be proud at what has been accomplished. Charlestonians have the right to be ecstatic at the outcome of what should be the last battle for Morris Island.

    This last battle was characterized by an overwhelming amount of public and political support. Alex McMillan, former congressman, Civil War Preservation Trust trustee, and mentor, said it best when he stated: “The stars are in alignment.” He was correct, but the statement by itself does not clarify that the stars were helped into alignment by the hard work of so many.

    There have been seven attempts to develop Morris Island. Some were stopped by the effects of erosion while others were stopped by public opposition. The Morris Island Coalition was formed in February 2004 when the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust authorized me to form a coalition of like- minded groups to oppose the sixth attempt to develop Morris Island. The real impetus, however, came from fellow board member Nora Kravec, who eloquently convinced me that the voice of a few can actually make a difference. She should be considered the first star in the sky over Morris Island.

    Together, we formed the Morris Island Coalition. Our board consisted of groups representing the Civil War Preservation Trust, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust, the Coastal Conservation League, the Robert Lunz Group of the Sierra Club, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 37th Texas Cavalry re-enactors, Folly Island Voters’ Association, Surfrider Foundation-Charleston Chapter, the 27th S.C. Volunteer Infantry, the Palmetto Battalion, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans: Fort Moultrie and Secessionville Camp.
    Although they could not take an advocacy position, the park rangers of the National Park Service in Charleston promptly supplied any historical information requested. Recently retired Superintendent John Tucker and his park rangers, Michael Allen, Rick Hatcher and Carlin Timmons, deserve to be commended as outstanding stewards of part of our nation’s history. I am officially petitioning Encyclopedia Americana to have their pictures added to the definition of steward.

    All coalition members gave insight and wisdom, adding more stars to the sky. Without a doubt, we would not, however, have been able to attain the success we have today without the guidance and financial support of the Civil War Preservation Trust in Washington. They sponsored our Web site, and created publicity for us by putting Morris Island on their Top Ten Most Endangered Civil War Battlefields list. They also funded the Mason Dixon research poll last year, showing overwhelming public opposition to the development of Morris Island.

    The Civil War Preservation Trust held their board meeting in Charleston last weekend to focus on the severity of the imminent plan to develop the island. I told their board of trustees then that I truly felt that the Morris Island Coalition would not have succeeded in helping to preserve the island had it not been for the role played by the Civil War Preservation Trust. Their star glows brightest of all.

    Our job was relatively easy, for hardly anyone wanted to see the island developed, including the island’s owners. The sixth developer dropped his option to purchase in the face of public opposition and financial limitations. The seventh and last development focus came from the Ginn Company. We felt that there was room to negotiate a happy solution if the Ginn Company realized how important Morris Island was to our nation’s history. Indeed, Bobby Ginn is a South Carolina native who fondly remembers his boyhood trips to the island.

    The coalition brought the issue to the public, who besieged The Post and Courier’s opinion page with their overwhelming opposition to the development plan. Armed with this mandate from the public, Charleston County Council members Henry Darby and Colleen Condon co-sponsored a council resolution opposing development on Morris Island. It passed unanimously.

    With such a chorus of voices speaking in unison, we needed a political figure who believed in the island’s value to speak for us. Mayor Riley volunteered to contact Bobby Ginn and ask him to allow the island to be purchased by the preservation community. To hisimmense credit, Mr. Ginn readily agreed, confirming the right for a star to be named “Ginn.” The chairman for the Trust for Public Land, David Agnew, by all accounts, negotiated a fair and reasonable price for the island, allowing all parties involved to be pleased with the outcome. Mr. Agnew’s star shines brilliantly above Morris Island.

    Indeed, everyone involved with Morris Island is a winner. Our elected officials listened to public input and then made appropriate decisions. The Ginn Co. deserves the majority of the accolades for responding sensitively and realistically to public will. The preservationists will see the island stay in its natural state and be used for commemorative as well as educational purposes. This last battle for Morris Island is a textbook example of what can happen when all parties work together for a realistic goal.
    It should be safe to say that those American soldiers of the Civil War whose remains rest on Morris Island, both from the North and South, black and white, can rest easy tonight – rest for all eternity, knowing that their sacrifice has been acknowledged by their descendents. We should all be proud.

    Blake Hallman
    Morris Island Coalition
    Board member,
    SC Battleground Preservation Trust,
    Ft. Sumter-Ft. Moultrie Trust

  3. Sun 12th Feb 2006 at 7:24 pm

    There was another comment here that attacked Dimitri Rotov in an extremely personal fashion because the author of that post doesn’t like Dimitri’s disagreements with the Civil War Preservation Trust. Because I found it to be inappropriate, it was deleted by me. Disagree with me all you like. Criticize authors. Criticize my work. Do NOT use my blog to launch personal attacks on someone and to pursue YOUR personal agenda. I will not permit that now, or ever.


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