CORNBREAD AND BUTTERMILK: A glimpse of Fort Sumter in the 20th century

  • Posted: Monday, April 21, 2014 7:39 a.m.

April 12 marked the 153rd anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter – the attack that opened the War Between the States.

We know what happened to Fort Sumter in the 19th century.

The Rebs forced the Union garrison to surrender and occupied it until late in the war, when the Union recaptured it.

But the fort is still there, accessible by boat to those who want to take a pleasant excursion in Charleston Harbor.

During an interview just before my retirement from the Mobile Press-Register, Jim (Sonny) Gullette gave me an insight into Fort Sumter in the 20th century. At the home of his sister, Anne, in Mobile, We discussed his book, “Sonny's Fort,” which he had just written.

Jim and his family lived on Fort Sumter when World War II was threatening and the fort's guns were cocked and primed for Nazis, not Yankees. He spent his last days at his home in Greer.

Jim was 3˝ and Anne, was 5 when their father, James H. Gullette, took charge of the fort's Coast Guard beacon station around 1937.

The family lived in a white, two-story frame house inside the fort's walls. They shared the premises with a few Army and Coast Guard personnel, a big old feral cat named Moon, a big black lab named King, and an unknown number of ghosts, judging from the clammy cold that occasionally emanated from the fort's dungeon.

And then there were occasional visits by Capers.

King was Sonny's dog and companion. King's nemesis was Moon, a big, yellow-eyed, orange-and-brown cat that came from nobody-knows-where, lived somewhere within the fort, and never touched the food left out for him.

King often gave noisy chase to Moon, and on one occasion Moon nearly lured him to his death. The chase led along a high wall that looked down on a rocky strip between the fort and the water.

When cat and dog approached a corner, Moon leaped off at an angle and King's momentum carried him over the wall.

The big dog gave a lusty kick as he left the wall, and that was enough to propel him beyond the rocks and into the water.

Sonny was playing down on the beach one day when he noticed the approach of an old man in an ancient outboard. He was casting his net for fish and shrimp.

Later, Capers rowed ashore and built a cooking fire. Sonny was fascinated by fisherman's Gullah dialect and tantalized by the smell of fish boiling in a can on the beach. Capers shared his meal with the boy, and they became instant friends.

Later, Capers and Sonny stayed overnight beneath a tarp stretched over some stakes anchored in the beach sand. As darkness descended, Jim said, they could see a smoky shape over near the entrance to the dungeon. Capers wondered how the smoke could have gotten over there, since the wind was blowing the other way.

King saw it, too. He went toward it, teeth bared, hair bristling. He leapt toward the form and either slipped or was thrown back to the beach.

The form disappeared over the rocks and into the fort. King followed it into the dungeon. Later, he brought a piece of tattered gray cloth into the tent. Remnant of a Confederate uniform?

“Whatever it be, I wouldn't want to be shaking its hand,” said Capers.

A hurricane around 1940 proved more hazardous to the Gullette family than Rebel shells were to the fort's occupants of 1861.

Caught without adequate warning, James H. Gullette moved his family into a magazine room just below one of the big gun turrets. A sturdy Coast Guardsman named Hackmyer accompanied them. So did King.

During the night, the wind-driven sea breached the low wall on one side of the fort and surged onto the parade ground, turning the craterlike area into a lake. It began rising inside the magazine room. Gullette knew he had to get his family out or they would drown.

The room had a hoist that led to a trapdoor through which ammunition had been fed to the big gun above. Using the ammunition cradles as a ladder, Gullette and Hackmyer forced open the trapdoor in the ceiling, secured a rope to the gun mount, and led the family to relative safety in the gun pit. They wrapped themselves in raincoats and rode out the storm.

All but King. He refused to be lifted up the hoist, and Hackmyer finally had to force open the door and let him out into the flooded parade ground.

When the storm had passed, the Gullettes returned to a water-damaged house and Sonny grieved for his dog. Anne was the first to see King. He was standing over by the fortress wall, staring in the direction of Charleston. He was a survivor.

Anne was the first to leave Fort Sumter. She went to Mobile to stay with relatives and attend school.

When it came time for Sonny to start school, the family moved to nearby Sullivan's Island, but they still spent their summers at the fort until the radio beacon station was closed and their father was transferred to Fort Moultrie.

King remained on the fort. Moon disappeared and was never heard from again.

When he was 13, Sonny was fishing from an abandoned houseboat near Sullivan's Island when a small boat came puttering up. In it was Capers.

Some day, Sonny told me, he would write another book, titled “Capers.”

I wanted to read it, but never shall. Sonny died before he had a chance to write it.

Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson. Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@aol.com and read more of his writings by going to www.wadesdixieco.com.

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