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Today In Charleston History: December 11

1861 – GREAT FIRE.

A fire started at Russell and Co.’s sash factory at the foot of Hasell Street and East Bay (present-day location of Harris Teeter). It crossed to the south side of Hasell Street and spread to Cameron and Co.’s machine shop. The fire spread quickly, fueled by a windy Nor’easter and an endless supply of wooden buildings. Another factor in the devastation was that most of the men who would have been available to fight the fire had signed up for Confederate military service and were not living in the city. Many people were able to save some of their belongings, but few could stop the fire from destroying their homes.

It left the city of Charleston in shambles and it remained in ruins for the remainder of the War.  Business was suspended and planters sent produce into town for the needy. “Soup houses” were opened to feed those left homeless and relief committees were established to house the homeless and to raise money for the victims. The effects of the fire were long lasting and rebuilding was slow during the economic depression in the decades following the War. The damage caused by the fire became associated with damages from the war.  Photographs of the burned city were often misrepresented as damage caused by Union guns. The Great Fire of 1861 did more damage to Charleston in one night than the Federal blockade and bombardment did over the next four years.

1861 fire path map. From the Post and Courier.

1861 fire path map. From the Post and Courier.

Emma Holmes, 23 –year old described the fire in her diary:

The flames swept on with inconceivable rapidity & fierceness, notwithstanding the almost superhuman efforts of the firemen … Through that awful night, we watched the weary hours at the windows and still the flames leaped madly on with demonic fury … At five a.m. the city was wrapped in a living wall of fire from the Cooper to the Ashley without a single gap t break its dread uniformity. It seemed as if the day would never dawn … when the sun rose, the fire was still raging so fiercely that its glare almost overpowered that of the sun … The wind circled in eddies, driving the flames in every direction & carrying showers of flakes to an immense distance …

1861 fire

Harper’s Weekly reported the fire, including the rampant speculation that the fire may have been started by rebellious slaves.

IT matters little, in effect, whether the burning of the city of Charleston was the fruit of accident or of negro incendiarism. The rebels are sure to ascribe the disaster to the latter cause. Secret terrors are the price of despotism : in slave countries, every noise, every cry, every unusual movement of a slave, carries apprehension to the heart of his master. At the time of the John Brown affair, Governor Wise told us that Virginia matrons living miles and miles away were beside themselves with terror. We know that so terrible was the alarm created by that trumpery attempt, that down on the Gulf shore negroes whose behavior had attracted attention were imprisoned, whipped, and even shot by scores. In the language of Southern members of Congress who talked secession in those days, life was not worth having, if accompanied by the agonies which such events implanted in every Southern breast.
It is by the light of these memories that we must read the tale of the burning of Charleston. The burning of 600 houses, including every public building in the city, and property valued at $7,000,000, is an astounding event. Whatever the politicians and the papers may say, the Southern people from Norfolk to Galveston are sure to conclude that the negroes did the dread deed, and each man and woman is now quaking in terror lest his or her house should be the next to go. Nor is this opinion likely to be confined to the whites. The slaves, too, will hear of the fire, and will hear simultaneously—for we know that news does spread among the slaves, hard as their masters try to keep them in ignorance—that between eight and ten thousand slaves, till lately the overworked laborers on Carolina cotton plantations, are now free men, getting eight and ten dollars a month. It will not exceed the negro’s power of combination to connect the two events together. When he does, beware the result.

Fire path, from Frank Leslie's Illutrated

Fire path, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated

Meeting Street damage, Harper's Weekly

Meeting Street damage, Harper’s Weekly. Looking east from the roof of the Mills House. Circular Church ruins to the left … St. Philips to the right. Harper’s Weekly.

At a public gathering, ground was broken for the construction of the South Carolina West Indian Exposition. Mayor Smythe and Gov. M.B. McSweeney spoke at ceremony. More than seven thousand people attended, arriving on trolleys, carriages and bicycles.

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