Anyone visiting the two sites where the Civil War began couldn't find the contrast more jarring.

Fort Sumter — on which the Confederacy opened fire on federal troops on April 12, 1861 — is a national historic monument, maintained by the federal government with the goal of interpreting the Civil War.

But Fort Johnson, from which those shots were fired, is another story.

Today, most of that property is owned by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which isn't in the history business.

If visitors know where to look, they can find a small stone marker placed in 1961 to explain that the historic mortar shot was fired nearby. There also are two or three modest structures that reflect the fort's late 18th century and early 19th century eras. Some earthworks remain along a nature trail.

That's about it, and that's too bad.

Part of the reason for this lack of historical interpretation is that there's not much left to see. Fort Sumter historian Rick Hatcher noted that the site where the actual first shot came from has eroded away into the water about 50 to 75 yards from the shore.

Also, the fort was an earthen tabby installation; it never was built of brick or stone like Sumter and Castle Pinckney.

Not far from the stone marker at Fort Johnson is a brick powder magazine that survives from the 1820s and two circular tabby structures, remnants of two late 18th century cisterns. "These are the oldest physical remnants you can see of the form Fort Johnson had," Hatcher said.

After the war, the fort served as a quarantine station run by the city and state.

The federal government took over the operation in 1906, and the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina took it over in the 1950s. Most of the property was transferred to DNR in 1970.

Another reason for the lack of interpretation is the priorities of the current owners.

Linda Renshaw, a spokeswoman for DNR, says the department welcomes visitors interested in the history of the site but has no money to interpret its story.

She says the agency would be open to ideas about changing that, though any changes would need to be vetted through MUSC and C of C, which still own part of the site.

"I think we all recognize the value. It's a matter of getting somebody to take the lead," she says. "We're out to do research in the mission of our own agencies."

Hatcher says he directs people to the fort when asked, adding, "It's getting more and more attention as we have more and more Civil War groups coming to town."

Their experience might not be all they expected. It's possible to wander down to the water's edge and see Fort Sumter in the distance, but finding the marker can be a bigger challenge.

Renshaw says she talked to a man upset because the limb of an oak tree obscured it.

"I'm not going to advise somebody to mutilate that live oak tree just to reveal the marker," she says.

I agree that pruning back an oak limb isn't the answer to improving our appreciation of Fort Johnson's history, but I wonder —especially with the 150th anniversary of that historic shot less than five years away —exactly what is.

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St. Charleston S.C. 29403.