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