Tuesday 19 February 2019
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Fort Fremont : A Vital Piece of History

story by Emily Burgess     photos by Paul Nurnberg
Beaufort holds a vast array of history dating back centuries. The richness of the past is evident through the preservation of homes and buildings akin to the time period they were built. On the coast of Saint Helena Island sits a vital piece of lowcountry history, Fort Fremont. For years it was nearly forgotten as it sat decaying.
“The fort has always been there, but unless you were a diehard historian, you wouldn’t know why it was there,” said Pete Richards, founder of The Friends of Fort Fremont.
Fort Fremont was constructed in 1898 in response to the Spanish-American War. Years before, President Grover Cleveland sought to review the effectiveness of all coastal defense fortifications. The Board of Fortifications established by the Secretary of War, William Crowninshield Endicott, determined that the existing coastal defense systems were obsolete due to improved weapons technology, such as high velocity breech-loaded cannons. The recommendations of the Board led to a large-scale overhaul and modernization program for harbor and coastal defense in the United States.
When the war with Spain seemed imminent in 1898, Congress under the $50 million Harbor Fortification Defense Act, authorized construction of coastal batteries. Fort Fremont was one of the coastal defenses built during this time with upgraded design and new weapons systems making it unlike anything our country had before. Fort Fremont was critical in the defense of The Port Royal Sound, one of the largest natural deepwater harbors on the Atlantic Coast.
“It was a whole technology shift after the Civil War to these huge battleships and there was a need for equally upgraded technology to protect them,” said Wendy Wilson, a board member for The Friends of Fort Fremont.
During the Civil War, this area served as a key union blockading station at what is current day Parris Island. In 1891, construction was started on a dry dock at the Naval Station, which would be the only one south of Norfolk, VA. This strategic support base would serve the emerging Atlantic Fleet including twenty-two naval ships such as the USS Maine, USS Massachusetts, USS Texas and USS Indiana. The USS Maine would make one of its last stops for provisions at the dry dock in Port Royal before heading to Key West and continuing on its last voyage to Havana, Cuba, where it sank, and the start of the Spanish-American War.
The imminence of the Spanish-American War made it critical to protect the dry dock and the US Navy’s network of coaling stations for warships at the Port Royal Naval Station. The dock was the only one in the South capable of serving the modern battleships and heavy cruisers that the US Navy was beginning to build and deploy. Fort Fremont was the solution to protecting these important US stations and was authorized on April 6, 1898.
The fort was one of six fortifications designed to protect the southeastern coast during the Spanish-American War and was named for Major General John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) known for his early explorations in the far west and his role in the early history of California. The original fort site consisted of 170 acres and was manned by a force of 110 personnel. The weapons contained at the fort during this time period were considered state-of-the-art including Battery Jesup which had three 10-inch breech loaded disappearing cannons and Battery Fornance with two 4.7-inch rapid fire guns.
In addition to the two batteries, the fort consisted of barracks, a mess hall, Post Exchange, officer and NCO quarters, administrative and engineering buildings, a hospital and stables. In 1898, Navy personnel, 2nd NC Volunteer Infantry and a detachment of the Heavy Battery, SC volunteers, manned the temporary batteries. From 1899 to 1907, Coast Artillery Companies manned the fort.
Training was constant in order to maintain proficiency with the complex guns and firing systems. Calisthenics were daily except Saturday and inspection by higher headquarters and live fire drills were periodic requirements. The state-of-the-art weaponry also required constant maintenance.
It wasn’t all work at Fort Fremont. By mid-afternoon, most duties were done and the soldiers participated in athletics, the most popular being baseball, against local civilian teams traveling as far as Hampton where a game in 1906 attracted 700 spectators. The men were also active in local society attending dinners and dances, outings to hunt or fishing expeditions. Several men from the fort married local women with descendants still residing in Beaufort County today.
While in commission, Fort Fremont never engaged in combat, but served as deterrence against attack. Fort Fremont was a front-runner in technology in every way, not just in weaponry. The fort generated its own electrical power, had modern lighting, running water, telephone communication, and even a precursor of the fax machine as part of the fire control system.
The War Department considered closing Fort Fremont as early as 1906 due to budgetary constraints. In 1908, the public could tour the fort and see its weapons emplacements. In 1909, the Port Royal Naval Station was moved to Charleston, SC and a new dry dock was opened there to replace the one at Parris Island. By 1911, only a small detachment of soldiers of the 116th Coastal Artillery Company remained at the fort. Fort Fremont was officially deactivated in 1912, although the guns remained at the fort up until World War I.
The land was officially placed on the market in 1921. Over the years, several private individuals acquired the land, each with various plans, which at one point included turning the property into beach lots.  In 1951, the owners of the hospital renovated the structure into a hunting and fishing lodge. In May of 1989, the batteries and hospital building, which to this day serves as a private residence and the only original structure remaining, were listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Following it’s decommission, areas of Fort Fremont grew over with maritime forest and the ruins became an attractive nuisance. In October 2004, The Trust for Public Land and the Beaufort County Council paid $5.4 million to the two landowners of the fort property to transform the remnants of the fort into a beachfront park. At this point, minor improvements and cleanup were made to the area and a sign and fence were installed.
In the fall of 2009, the Friends of Fort Fremont was established to work in conjunction with Beaufort County to oversee the preservation plan for the site. The mission of the organization is to “promote Fort Fremont as an educational, historical, natural and cultural resource of the Spanish-American War era on the shores of historic Port Royal Sound in Beaufort, South Carolina.”
The Friends of Fort Fremont has spent years researching and working to get the word out about Fort Fremont in our local area. The non-profit group installed temporary interpretive signage, stairs and railings and cleaned external graffiti. Working closely with the county, final design plans for major improvement to the park have been approved.
“Our goal is to preserve not restore. We want to preserve what is left of the fort and educate the public about why it was important,” said Rod Kesting, president of The Friends of Fort Fremont.
The Friends of Fort Fremont continue to work on projects to preserve the remainder of the fort while also educating the public about its history. Currently, a diorama of the fort accurately scaled, made by master miniaturist Dennis Cannady, is displayed at Saint Helena Public Library. Plans are also in the works for an interpretive center at the fort for the public to come tour and learn about this important historical landmark.
Visitors can experience the fort every fourth Saturday of the month through docent-led tours starting at the Saint Helena Public Library. The tour lasts around two hours and no reservations are required. The Friends of Fort Fremont also have a tremendous amount of volunteer opportunities for those who would like to lend a hand in the preservation of this valuable piece of history.
For hundreds of years, Europeans and their descendants built fortifications to defend the great harbor at the Port Royal Sound. Fort Fremont was the last fort in this long history of coastal forts and an imperative remnant of lowcountry history.