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Photo: Flags and a cannon at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina.

Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina (file photo).

Photograph by Kevin Fleming, photolibrary.com

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published April 8, 2011

Events slated to honor the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War may fall victim to budget battles, as Democrats and Republicans stand on the verge of a federal government shutdown.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter, an island fortress in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The ensuing battle began the costliest war in U.S. history. (See pictures of the Battle of Fort Sumter.)

Today Fort Sumter National Monument is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service. Civil War enthusiasts, civic leaders, nonprofit organizations, and park staff have spent years planning a robust calendar of commemorative events at the site. (See more Civil War events happening around the country.)

But the fort may well be shuttered for the sesquicentennial, due to a government shutdown slated to begin at midnight on April 8. The shutdown would furlough some 800,000 of the 2.1 million federal workers nationwide, including many national park staff.

"There have been a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the federal government evacuating the fort exactly as they did 150 years ago," said Faye Jensen, executive director of the South Carolina Historical Society.

Fort Sumter Staff Must Prepare for a Shutdown

For Jensen and many others, however, the prospect of an empty Fort Sumter on the battle's big anniversary is no laughing matter.

Hundreds of Civil War reenactors (pictures) are scheduled to camp at the park next week and conduct "living history" demonstrations in Fort Sumter and nearby Fort Moultrie.

Union troops are to occupy the site from April 9 to 13, introducing visitors to different facets of Civil War life, until the Union surrender of the fort is commemorated with a flag ceremony on April 14.

Confederate reenactors then plan to be onsite to welcome guests from April 15 to 17.

Nancy Gray, spokesperson for Fort Sumter National Monument, said she remains hopeful that a government shutdown will be avoided or abbreviated, but that park personnel must be prepared for the worst.

"We are developing a strategy to effect a facility shutdown in the event that there is a lapse in government funding as of midnight Friday," she said.

"In that scenario, that closure will impact all park facilities, including the fort, visitor centers, and even concession operations, such as the boat tours that take people to Fort Sumter. This impacts not only the park but of course visitors to the area, as well. Not even private boaters will be allowed to access the fort."

(See the top ten U.S. Civil War sites, as rated by National Geographic Traveler magazine.)

Even in a Shutdown, "A Lot Going On" in Charleston

Even if Fort Sumter sits eerily quiet next week, the city of Charleston will be honoring the anniversary in style.

"We started planning all this three years ago and realized that there wouldn't be a lot of federal funding available," said the historical society's Jensen, who also serves on the board of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, which organized the area's official sesquicentennial calendar.

"Local governments, museums, historical societies, and other nonprofits began our own planning, so there is a lot going on in town even if the park should unfortunately close."

Famed Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut will be brought to life in a one-act play, Civil War clothing is on view at the Charleston Museum, and a veritable who's who of modern Civil War authors will be in town to kick off events commemorating the bloody struggle, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. (See pictures of the wartime struggles at Fort Sumter.)

At the Charleston Battery, candlelight musical tributes will begin at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, the time the Fort Sumter attack started, culminating with an authentic 1840 ten-inch seacoast mortar shot.

The gun is set to fire a star shell primed to burst over the fort—just as one did on that fateful day in 1861.

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