Clemson University researchers take unprecedented look behind Fort Sumter’s walls
Decades of simmering tension between the North and South exploded on April 12, 1861 when Confederate forces opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War.
The fort still stands on its man-made island more than 150 years later, now a national monument and one of South Carolina’s most treasured historical artifacts. But a lesser-known story resides inside the fort’s brick masonry walls.
It’s about how engineers and architects in the early 19th century managed to design a structure that has withstood military bombardments, hurricanes and the constant pounding of waves.
To tell that story, a group of Clemson University researchers worked with the National Park Service for more than three years to look behind– and inside– the fort’s walls. They came away with an unprecedented view of a historic building that draws more than 350,000 visitors a year.
Researchers analyzed cracks, took core samples from bricks, made a 3D scan of the fort and used sensors to monitor vibrations. They even put a camera on a remote-control boat to explore an internal cistern system.
As the project winds down, researchers are taking account of what they’ve learned.
Their work has been making the rounds in the engineering community nationwide. Three academic journals and three conference proceedings highlighted the team’s research as recently as spring.
“We really turned it into a research exercise,” said Sez Atamturktur, the Distinguished Professor of Intelligent Infrastructure in the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering. “We used the structure as a case study for many different ideas.”
Fort Sumter National Monument funded the project through a Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Units (CESU) agreement. The primary purpose of the collaboration was to provide for the public good.
From the perspective of the National Park Service (NPS), the focus was providing pragmatic tools to aid in preserving the structure over the next 50 years.
At the heart of the research are computer models the team developed to help assess how the fort is doing structurally. Many of the ideas in the Fort Sumter study could apply to other forts scattered along the nation’s coasts, Atamturktur said.
“We build models, we come back to experiments, and we marry them,” she said. “Experiments help us build better models, and models help us design better experiments.”
Studying historical buildings poses interesting challenges, Atamturktur said.
Historic masonry monuments, such as Fort Sumter, are complex networks, she said. There are curved elements, such as arches and domes, and straight elements, such as piers and walls.
Over time, materials degrade, and the structure deforms as the foundation settles. Chipped off pieces and decorative molding can make it difficult to reproduce the geometry for 3D models.
Atamturktur led the research team. Ismail Farajpour and Ashley Haydock, who were Clemson graduate students at the time of the research, collaborated on the project and were co-authors on some of the publications. Other collaborators included Denis Brosnan, Peter Messier, and Saurabh Prabhu, all of Clemson, and Rick Dorrance from Fort Sumter National Monument.
Tanju Karanfil, the associate dean for research and graduate studies for the College of Engineering and Science, congratulated the team on its work.
“This is a great example of what happens when researchers from different backgrounds and organizations come together to focus on a single project,” he said. “Their efforts not only provided research opportunities for students but also created new models that could help assess historic structures.”
Construction on Fort Sumter began in 1829. The foundation is a man-made island filled with nearly 10,000 tons of granite and 60,000 tons of assorted rocks and aggregate.
By 1860, the fort had its familiar pentagon shape. Walls of locally made brick and Rosendale mortar rose nearly 55 feet high in three tiers.
The fort withstood several bombardments lasting into 1865 but not without taking their toll. Only the first tier remains with major portions reconstructed.
President Harry S. Truman signed the 1948 law that made Fort Sumter a national monument.
Studying historical structures is nothing new for Atamturktur. She has also examined the Washington National Cathedral and, as a Ph.D. student, did her dissertation on the Washington Monument.
Since 2013, the team’s research on Fort Sumter has been published in Engineering Structures, the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities. The research was also featured in an article in STRUCTURE magazine and was a chapter in the book “Topics in Dynamics of Civil Structures.”
James R. Martin, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, said the project shows the exemplary educational experiences students can expect from Clemson University’s College of Engineering and Science.
“Research is playing a larger role in the Clemson experience,” he said. “As we expand, Clemson students can expect more opportunities like this to work with cutting-edge technologies and to find solutions to real-world challenges. I’d like to congratulate Dr. Atamturktur and her team on a creative and engaging project.”