Driving Through Dixie, Part 7

Charleston and Fort Sumter (via Triangle, Virginia)

 

Part 1. Across Miss., Ala., & Ga. to Atlanta

Part 5. Memorials for WW II, Korea and Viet Nam

Part 2. To Lynchburg & Appomattox Court House

Part 6. FDR Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and Corcoran

Part 3. General Lee’s Surrender Remembered

Part 7. Charleston and Fort Sumter

Part 4. Through Virginia to Arlington and D.C.

Part 8. Sweet Savannah & Dash Back to Memphis

 

Index to 62 Photos / Return to Nolan Travels Home Page / Page Updated 9-2-05

 

By Lewis Nolan

 

July 11, 2005, Monday – To Charleston, S.C.

 

Betty and I drove her Mustang Sally out of Casey’s parking garage in Arlington at 9 a.m., bound for Charleston, S.C. The weather and his
Now-dilapidated cottage in Triangle
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directions were perfect and we were soon on I-495 south in the HOV lane, which became I-95 once we cleared the suburbs.

 

On the spur of the moment, we got off the interstate at the Triangle/Quantico Marine Corps Base exit. Betty and I had rented a tiny, duplex cottage in Triangle for about 8 months while I completed my enlistment in the Marines in 1968-early 1969. It was our first home and the source of pleasant memories. The current address is 4023 Bradys Hill Road. I think the street was renamed from the rural route number it once had.

 

We had been in the Washington area several times in the intervening years, but never had before taken time to have a look at our former residence. Thanks to Betty’s memory of the bi-level cottage being quite close to the main highway and a volunteer fire station (its siren used to wake us up in the middle of the night), we were able to quickly find the wooden cottage. We found that it has fallen into serious disrepair over the last 35 years. When we rented the top floor, the cottage was in excellent condition. I think we paid $80 a month in rent. The landlord, a retired carpenter whose last name was Mountjoy, had built it himself and maintained it in good condition. He is probably long gone by now.

 

We had some good times there. We stayed in touch with our very nice, next-door-neighbors, Scott and Linda Hardy, for several years. They were both Mormons from Utah. I had given him the Expert Rifleman Badge I had earned in the hopes that he would qualify for it before shipping out to Vietnam as a lieutenant in command of an infantry platoon. Our downstairs neighbors, Ricky and Gail (I don’t remember their last names) were planning on returning to Georgia as soon as his enlistment was fulfilled. Ricky was a truck driver in the motor pool who had already put in his time in Vietnam.

 

Like virtually all the Marines I served with in those troubled times, Ricky wanted to return to civilian life as soon as possible. So stigmatized were uniformed servicemen in those emotion-fraught, anti-war days
PFC Lewis in 1968
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that some of the guys with USMC regulation haircuts felt it necessary to wear wigs when they went into the clubs in Washington on the weekend.

 

We briefly stayed in touch with a terrific guy who was my boss in the base PR office, where I edited the weekly newspaper and wrote press releases. He was Master Gunnery Sergeant Phil Kronenburg, one of the finest men I’ve ever known. Nicknamed “Top,” he gave me a ride to and from the office in his car every day. By providing me with free transportation, his kindness freed up our 1965 Mustang for Betty drive in her commute to Stafford 20 or so miles away, where she taught at Hartwood Elementary School. Betty and I enjoyed several evenings with Top and his wife, Jeanette, at their home 10 or so miles down the road in Woodbridge. On occasion, Top and I would check out one of the base fleet’s Lightning sailboats for day sailing on the Potomac.

 

With his long service in the Marines, Top had learned the ropes in how to work - or “skate” the often-baffling military system to his advantage. He shielded his staff from many of the senseless inspections required by our screwball company commander. I still laugh when I recall how Top cleverly maneuvered his “Silver Skates” around the rear of a “CS truck” to make it appear that he, too, had endured the mandatory tear-gas session that was part of gas mask training. He had slipped into the platoon of guys at the exit door, hacking and coughing with the best of us.

 

More importantly, he tried to protect us from the periodic call-ups for troops with “ISO-MOS’s” (journalism training) to be transferred to “MAC-V” (Military Assistance Command – Vietnam). In my case, my orders to ship out were shelved when Top informed Marine Corps Headquarters that my right ankle had been broken in a freak accident and I was wearing a cast. That made me unfit for duty. By the time my ankle had healed, I was "too short" to be sent to Viet Nam. I emphatically declined to extend my enlistment - a privilege extended troops back in those days before the Bush-Rumsfield policy of "stop loss" that keeps military personnel in Iraq long beyond their normal time.


Even though he was one of the “team leaders,” Top managed to stay “in the rear with the gear” when just about everybody in the Quantico Informational Services office was transferred to the Provisional Marine Battalion in September, 1968. The battalion was quickly formed and sent into Washington, D.C. to help put down the riots that raged there following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

 

I remember being issued a flak jacket and two clips of live ammo for my M-14 rifle and sleeping in a big tent pitched in an inner city park. I was assigned to a rifle squad that cruised the streets in a military truck, serving as backup to a police car.

 

Several shots from a hidden sniper were fired in our vicinity. Everybody in the squad but me were recently back from Vietnam, awaiting out-processing. They all quickly and expertly rolled into the pavement gutters while locking and loading their weapons on the fly. I was the last man to react and then in what seemed like clumsy slow motion. It was my only time under hostile fire. Although it lasted less than a minute and I didn’t fire a shot, it is an indelible memory.

 

Our battalion was one of several Marine Corps and Army units from nearby bases that were sent into action because of widespread burning and
Basket maker in Charleston Market
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looting of businesses on 14th Street and other parts of downtown DC. The Marines have always put a lot of emphasis on public relations, the reason the Quantico ISO office was largely emptied to support the Provisional Battalion. I remember one captain promising that he would buy me a fifth of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey if I could get a photo of one of his guys on the front page of The Washington Post. (Another of life’s missed opportunities.)

 

Top was a smart man, with a great sense of humor and a twinkling eye that never took authority too seriously. He had gone into the Marines during World War II. I learned that circumstances had kept him in the Corps even though he wanted out as much as I did. Every time his enlistment was due to expire, there was a pregnancy, child in need of hospitalization or some other expensive contingency facing his family. Consequently Top “shipped over” so many times that he became trapped into going all the way to retirement.

 

He finally – and happily – became a civilian after 30 years of service. He had been intent in enjoying life in a lakeside home in his native New England and spending a lot of time sailing. Betty and I were distressed when Jeanette wrote us that Top had died of a heart attack just a few months after retiring. I hope one day far in the future to “gaze on heaven’s scenes and find the streets are guarded by United States Marines” - commanded by Top Kronenburg.

 

Another really good guy I worked with in the Quantico ISO office was Gunnery Sergeant Louis Pescatore, who taught me a lot. Gunny had served on Okinawa during World War II and was another career Marine who looked out for his troops. He was the only Marine I knew who still favored the acceptable but out-of-fashion Eisenhower jacket. He later retired to a PR job at the Melbourne, Fla. chamber of commerce and I’ve regretted for years that I didn’t stay in touch with him.

 

Others in that talented pool of military journalists included Mike Franks, a razor-sharp Marine fit for any poster who preceded me as editor of the Quantico Sentry. Another was Mike Barnes, who was editor before Franks and later was elected to Congress. Others included George Upton, a morose English major from Harvard; and Glen Destatte, an enchilada loving pal
Lewis by Fort Sumter ferryboat
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from California who aspired to be a sportswriter for the L.A. Times (I never did find him there despite several calls over the years). Glen took great pride in never eating the free food served three times daily in the mess hall, preferring to spend most of his modest pay on eating out – even if it meant ironing his own clothes.

 

During our short stop in Triangle 35 years later, Betty and I talked about those and other guys and also shared some memories about the great enchilada dinners she cooked in the tiny kitchen that had Glen licking the pan afterwards. We remembered good times with Top and his family, of digging a small flowerbed by the mailbox, of planting bachelor buttons and of rolling up big balls of snow in our tiny front yard after our first major snowstorm. We piled up the snow to form a snow woman with huge breasts, causing our affable landlord to joke that “I’d like to meet the lady.”

 

It was fun reliving those pleasant memories. But we were sad to see that our first home (“be it ever so humble”) had become so dilapidated. Other than a few new buildings and fast food outlets put up here and there in recent years, Triangle is still a shabby, little military town right at the main entrance to the base.

 

It was time to push on so we got back on I-95 and drove south toward Fredericksburg, site of one of General Lee’s great victories in the Civil War and once our favorite spot for hiking. What had been small towns, villages and vast expanses of farmland when we were there are now expensive suburbia. New highways have been built to serve the ever-expanding ranks of commuters to DC but growth in traffic outpaces the road builders. Betty remembered that unlike today, when rudeness rules so much of the road, truck drivers back in 1968-69 were models of courtesy during her daily commute. But of course. What trucker wouldn’t be nice to a beautiful blonde driving a snappy, 1965 Mustang?

 

Even though her Mustang on this drive was an air-conditioned, 1998 model convertible, it was a long and boring drive down I-95. We passed through the widths of Virginia and North Carolina, where we got onto I-26. We finally reached Charleston nine hours after we started.

 

We made a lot of stops and had to back-track twice in search of gas stations close to the highway. One of my peeves is getting off the highway when a sign indicates a certain brand of station at the next exit. Then
Ferryboat in Charleston Harbor
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once committed to the off ramp, a second sign comes into sight that indicates the favored brand is a mile or more down a country road. It seems to me that the highway departments in North Carolina, Mississippi and other states that permit that form of bait-and-switch advertising are looking out for  interests other than those of the traveling public.

 

Once in Charleston, we were delighted to find that our three-star hotel, the Frances Marion at 387 King Street in the heart of the Historic District, is charming, comfortable and elegant. I got our huge room for $85 a night on the Internet service Priceline. That is an excellent rate for this tourism-heavy time of year.

 

The hotel was named in honor of the Revolutionary War Hero nicknamed “The Swamp Fox.” We had a great view from our 11th floor room. We could see much of Charleston, the nearby campus of the College of Charleston and the distant, broad Cooper River. The bathroom is tight, but has a large, tiled walk-in shower and new fixtures.

 

The Frances Marion is a “grand hotel” built in 1924, somewhat similar in style to the famous Peabody Hotel (with four or five stars, depending on rating service) in Memphis. While it does not offer the knockout luxury of The Peabody, the Frances Marion does have a beautiful lobby and the amenities one expects in a three-star hotel – fitness center, business center, room service, concierge, restaurants and a bar. The staff is gracious and helpful.

 

We enjoyed an excellent meal at the “Coast” restaurant, located in a renovated warehouse a block or so away at 39-D John Street (telephone 843-722-8838). The hotel concierge recommended it because the quality of the fresh fish is unsurpassed in Charleston, the prices reasonable and the décor and service quite nice. I had flounder stuffed with fresh crab chunks served in a delicious sauce. Betty had fresh softshelled crabs with bacon-cheese grits. Many of the fish dishes are cooked over wood.

 

Exhausted by the long drive and sated by the wonderful meal, we retired early.

 

July 12, 2004, Tuesday – In Charleston

 

Betty got her day going by walking three or four blocks to the famous Market section of Historic Charleston. She had spent a week in Charleston 13 years ago while she attended a Johnson and Wales Culinary Academy course in baking. She knows the downtown layout well and another visit to the stalls in the roofed, open-air market was among her priorities.

 

I stayed back at the hotel to check on the condition of our condo at Gulf Shores, Ala., now that Hurricane Dennis had passed. Our rental
Betty by entrance to Fort Sumter
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agency was still closed due to the mandatory evacuation of the beach town so I didn’t learn much. I did find out that some of the main power lines are down and that the worst of the damage was 50 or more miles to the east near Pensacola. 

 

Returning to the hotel at 11 a.m., Betty had her arms full of souvenirs, gifts and other purchases made at the Market. A bellman loaded our suitcases and several open bags on a cart for temporary storage so we could check out and visit Fort Sumter. Unfortunately, one of my nearly new boat shoes had somehow tumbled out of an open bag somewhere in the portage-storage process. I didn’t notice that it had disappeared until unpacking at our next destination that night. I made several calls and sent an email to the hotel, but the shoe never turned up. Nonetheless, I would not hesitate staying at the Frances Marion again.

 

We walked about a mile down Calhoun Street (named for the great South Carolina orator-Senator) to the Fort Sumter Ferry. We passed by many classic buildings that reminded us of New Orleans – without the grime. We stopped at a deli to purchase three bottles of water to ward off dehydration on this very hot day. We also carried out a turkey sandwich for me and a chocolate croissant for Betty to eat on the hour-long boat ride out to the fort.

 

The roundtrip excursion fare was $12 each. Tickets are sold at Charleston’s new, National Park Service Visitor Education Center in the Charleston Harbor. It is adjacent to the new South Carolina Aquarium. Thankfully, the visitor center and its small museum are air-conditioned. The temperature on this sunny day must have been in the upper 90s and the humidity close to 100 percent. The heat was positively oppressive.

 

Once the ferryboat got underway, it wasn’t quite so bad. The boat’s speed created a hot wind that resulted in some evaporative cooling. The top deck is covered by a canvas awning. A Park Service volunteer tour guide cautioned the 200 or so tourists aboard about the dangers of dehydration. Bottled water, soft drinks and hot dogs were sold at reasonable prices.

 

Betty had ridden the ferry out to Fort Sumter on her visit in 1992 and had encouraged me to take the ride. While I had joined Betty for a long weekend following her Johnson and Wales course (when we then drove a
Betty on Fort Sumter wall
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rental car to pick up Casey at a church camp to visit some colleges he was considering in the Mid-Atlantic states), I hadn’t been to Fort Sumter in a very long time. We have a picture of me as a lad of about 4 with my grandmother, Bertha Orpha Miller Nolan, on Fort Sumter about 1947. My parents then lived in nearby Columbia, S.C., where my brother Patrick Thomas Nolan was born that year.

 

About all I remember of Columbia is that my parents employed a very kind and very large African-American woman to take care of me; that she would push me on a swing but never as high as I wanted to go; and that I was terribly frightened when my dad took me to a college football game (Clemson versus Carolina, I think) and the crowd around us chanted “Hit ‘em again, hit ‘em again - harder, harder.” I had feared some poor kid way down in the middle of the football field action was getting spanked really hard.

 

Now, more than 55 years later, I was aboard a boat churning across the Charleston Harbor on the way to historic Fort Sumter, the alpha of the War Between the States. I mused that if I had lived then, might I have been among the Southerners chanting “hit ‘em again, harder harder” when the Confederate cannon pounded the Union force into surrendering the stronghold.

 

Like many Americans, I have ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. My mother’s people were from Virginia; one of her grandfathers served under General Lee in the Dixie Rifles. My father’s people were Yankees through and through; one of his grandfathers served the Union in the 51st Wisconsin Volunteers. My sentiments have always leaned toward the South and its traditional values – although decidedly not with the historic Southern politics regarding race and the role of government in a just society.

 

This visit to Fort Sumter was especially meaningful even if a little out of sequence. The Confederate cannons fired the opening shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861. The initial Confederate surrender documents were signed April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, which we visited last week.

 

I was reminded of who won America’s deadliest war when I purchased from the ferryboat concession a Diet Coke made in Atlanta. I paid for
Lewis by Columbiad cannon
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it with a $5 bill bearing the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Forget about saving your Confederate money, boys. It’s not even good in the Charleston harbor.

 

South Carolina seceded from the Union Dec. 23, 1860. At the time, there were four Federal installations around the strategically and economically important Charleston Harbor. There was Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, Castle Pinckney on Shute’s Folly Island near the city, Fort Johnson on James Island across from Moultrie and Fort Sumter at the harbor entrance. The only fort garrisoned in strength was Fort Moultrie. Six days after the state seceded, the Federal commander concluded that Moultrie could not be defended so he secretly transferred his 85 soldiers to Fort Sumter.

 

South Carolina demanded that the Federals abandon the fort. President Buchanan refused. Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard of New Orleans took command of the Confederate troops at Charleston and accelerated work on fortifying the harbor. Abraham Lincoln took office as President and by April 4 dispatched a relief expedition to Fort Sumter. Acting on orders of the Confederate Secretary of War, Beauregard opened fire. The Federals surrendered the next day and were allowed to board a ship bound for New York. Miraculously, no one on either side had been killed during the 34-hour bombardment. But the long dreaded Civil War was underway.

 

Both Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie across the harbor remained in Confederate hands until February,1865 during the closing twilight of the war.

 

Union forces had strong land positions around Charleston and fired rifled Parrot Cannons at Fort Sumter at will for almost two years. An estimated 46,000 shells – over 7 million pounds of metal – were fired at the fort, reducing it to rubble within weeks. But the 300 Confederate defenders hid beneath the piled up, broken bricks and buttressed their position with sand and bales of cotton. Their cannons were dismounted but they refused to surrender, returning fire with harmless musketry. Finally, the Rebel forces evacuated the fort Feb. 17, 1865 in the face of General Sherman’s troops advancing from Savannah.

 

Following the Civil War, the U.S. Army attempted to rebuild a portion of the fort so it could be used if needed for coastal defense. It
Lewis by rifled Parrot guns
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served as an non-garrisoned lighthouse station from 1876 until 1897. The gun platforms rotted away and the cannons turned to rust. There was brief renewal activity during the Spanish-American War and again during World War I. The long-neglected ruins of the once-proud and massive fort were briefly manned by an antiaircraft gun unit during World War II. In 1948, Fort Sumter was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service and became a national monument.

 

Today, visitors are told by the Park rangers on duty, Fort Sumter bears only superficial resemblance to the original, multi-tier firing platform for cannons. It once had a three-story structure with brick walls five feet thick. Inside the walls were quarters for its defenders, storage for military supplies and a parade ground for training.

 

Several of the massive, smooth-bore Columbiad cannons the defenders used to hurl 300-pound projectiles three miles are on display. Several of the rifled Parrot Guns the Federals used to accurately fire timed shells from impregnable emplacements four miles away are also on display. The Parrot guns instantly made brick forts like Sumter instantly obsolete.

 

We had only one hour on the sand spit of an island. It turned out to be a blessing because it was dreadfully hot, especially inside the wind-protected ramparts of the fort. Fellow tourists escaping the heat crowded into a small, air-conditioned museum that contains a lot of neat stuff.

 

We got a fleeting look at the shell-torn American Flag that flew over the fort during the first Confederate bombardment. The Federal commander who decamped Fort Sumter in the face of overwhelming bombardment, Maj. Robert Anderson, returned to symbolically hoist the same flag over the ruins after the Union Army regained control.

 

I’d like to return to Fort Sumter in cooler weather someday and spend more time inspecting the museum’s exhibits and reflecting on their significance. I found the Park Rangers and volunteer docents to be quite knowledgeable and eager to answer questions.

 

The ferryboat ride back to the Visitor Center took only 45 minutes. We picked up another turkey sandwich and a huge green salad at the same deli as we walked back to the Francis Marion Hotel to retrieve Mustang Sally and our bags. We ate a late lunch in the car during the easy, two-and-a-half hour drive to Savannah on U.S. 71 South.

 

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