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Today In Charleston History: December 20


King George II confirmed the charter of the Two-Bit Club at the Court of St. James. Soon afterward, the name was changed to the South Carolina Society and began including non-French members.

1782 – Slavery

Capt. Joseph Vesey returned to Charlestown with his wife, Kezia, their son John and Vesey’s personal servant / cabin boy, sixteen year-old Telemaque.


The first theatrical performance in Charleston after the British evacuation was held in the Exchange Building.

1800 – Slavery

 A law was passed making it more difficult to emancipate slaves. Also passed was “An Act Respecting Slaves, Free Negroes, Mulattoes and Mestizoes” which permitted blacks to gather for religious worship only after the “rising of the sun and before the going down of the same … a majority [of the congregation] shall be white persons.”

Perhaps thinking that the “Christianization [sic] of the city’s black labor force would have a stabilizing effect,”  the white authorities ignored late night church meetings among all black congregations for many years.


The South Carolina Jockey Club was formed.

1860 – Secession

On this day, a secession convention meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, unanimously adopted an ordinance dissolving the connection between South Carolina and the United States of America.

Click here to read the Charleston Mercury’s account of secession. 

The convention had been called by the governor and legislature of South Carolina once Lincoln’s victory was assured. Delegates were elected on December 6, 1860,  and on December 17 at noon, 169 delegates gathered at the First Baptist Church in the South Carolina capital, Columbia. Included among the delegates were four former governors, four former U.S. Senators, judges, and more than 100 planters.

first baptist columbia

First Baptist Church, Columbia SC Courtesy of Library Of Congress

David J. Jamison was chosen chairman of the convention. Jamison, a planter of 2,000 acres and seventy slaves opened the convention by quoting Georges-Jacques Danton, leader of the French Revolution, urging the delegates “To dare! And dare again! And without end dare!” The fact that Danton was beheaded for his radical leadership went unacknowledged by the delegates.

A resolution was agreed upon that “South Carolina should forthwith secede” and an ordinance be drafted “to accomplish this purpose” was passed. After that, the members began to clamor for adjournment and move the convention to Charleston. Historically, the reason given has always been of a small pox outbreak in Columbia. However, many of the delegates complained about the “meager accommodations in Columbia.” Charleston, however, offered luxurious hotels and the opulent homes of friends. As John A. Inglis, a delegate from Chesterfield County exclaimed, “Is there any spot in South Carolina more fit for political agitation?”

While the argument about moving the convention was being held, Charleston delegates had already wired home, and given orders to secure Institute Hall, and as many rooms at the Mills House that could be procured. William Porcher Miles, however, thought that moving after a day was a mistake. He told the delegates, “We would be sneered at. It would be asked … is this chivalry of South Carolina? They are prepared to face the world, but they run away from the smallpox.”

 However, the delegates voted to adjourn and make the seven-and-one-half hour train trip to Charleston together. The Columbia-based newspaper, South Carolinian, the next day published this story:


By a letter from New York, there is reason to apprehend that the Lincoln men have been gathering up all the rags they can find from the small-pox hospital, and intend an incursion in the South, to chase the secession conventions and legislature from place to place until they are made powerless.   

In the late morning hours, the exhausted, red-eyed delegates arrived at the Charleston rail depot, greeted by the sound of drums, and a fifteen-gun salute from the Washington Light Infantry. They were led down Meeting Street into town by a military escort. Crowds lined the street, “ladies wore white cotton ‘secession bonnets’ with streamers decorated by … palmetto trees and a lone gold star.” The Palmetto Flag flew from almost every house and business. They marched past the Secession Pole in front of the Charleston Hotel. A “Secession Gun” had already been erected on East Bay, “to be fired on ratification of the ordinance. The gunpowder had been stored by a Charleston lady since the nullification crisis three decades before.”

secssion hall - frank leslie

South Carolina Institute Hall on Meeting Street. Harper’s Weekly illustration

Word passed through the city that the convention would reconvene at 4:00 P.M. at Institute Hall, now being called by the locals as “Secession Hall.” With this festive atmosphere as the background, Rhett, Jr. paid a call to the British consul Robert Bunch to discuss how the English government would treat a Southern Confederacy. Bunch wondered if the confederacy would reopen the African slave trade which, he claimed, the English government “views with horror.” Rhett, Jr., filled with the powerful excitement of the moment, replied:

No Southern State or Confederacy will ever be brought to negotiate upon such a subject. To prohibit the Slave Trade would be virtually to admit the institution of slavery is an evil and a wrong, instead of, as the South believes, a blessing of the African Race and a system of labor appointed by God.

 At 4:00 p.m., Rev. Richard Furman re-opened the convention with a prayer. The only business conducted that afternoon was a motion by Barnwell Rhett that “a committee be formed to prepare an address to the people of the Southern States.” The delegates, however, felt the hall was “too commodious … to debate intelligently.” The presence of several thousand rowdy spectators obviously changed the atmosphere of the hall from solemnity to celebratory. They decided to meet the next morning, delegates only, at St. Andrews Hall on Broad Street.  

 The Mercury’s front page exclaimed:

The excitement here is a deep, calm feeling … [the city] may be said to swarm with armed men [but] we are not a mobocracy here, and believe in law, order, and obedience to authority, civil and military.          

Issac W. Hayne, the state’s attorney general, called for secession commissioners to be sent to other states, to urge them to join South Carolina. He called for each commissioner to carry a copy of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, before it was even approved.

While the whites were celebrating, among the free blacks in Charleston, the exodus, which had started in September, continued. James D. Johnson, on Coming Street, was preparing his two houses for sale. He wrote, “I only want to beautify the exterior so as to attract Capitalists.” His son wrote, “It is now a fixed fact that we must go.”

 At 11:00 a.m. the delegates met at St Andrew’s Hall. A delegate proposed that should “sit with closed doors,” and Sen. James Chesnut protested. He claimed that “a popular body should sit with the eyes of the people upon them.” He then suggested they move back to Institute Hall. John Richardson argued to Chesnut:

I protest. If there is one sentiment predominant over all others, and truly the mind of the people of Charleston, it is that this Convention should proceed! 

The days were shut, locked and guarded by Charleston police. All the citizens could do was wait with the patience of a child on Christmas eve. An afternoon parade by the Vigilant Rifles and the Washington Light Infantry occupied some of the afternoon. They stopped in front of South Carolina Society Hall on Meeting Street, where Mayor Charles Macbeth presented a flag to Captain S. Y. Tipper “sewn by a number of the fair daughters of Carolina.” Capt. Tipper toasted Fort Moultrie:

It is ours by inheritance. It stands upon the sacred soil of Carolina, and the spirit of our patriotic fathers hover about it. Infamy to the mercenaries [Federal troops] that fire the first gun against the children of its revolutionary defenders.     

 The day ended, and no news from the convention. No ordinance yet.

August 20, 1860: Thursday morning, forty-five days after Lincoln’s election.

Nina Glover, in Charleston, wrote to her daughter, Mrs. C. J. Bowen, “The Union is being dissolved in tears. The feeling exhibited was intense; each man, through the day, as he met his neighbor, anxiously asked if the Ordinance had yet passed.”

By mid-morning a large crowd of thousands had gathered on Broad Street in front of St. Andrew’s Hall. The Charleston police guard stood in front of the closed and locked doors. 


St. Andrews Hall, 118 Broad Street. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The ordinance, written by Christopher Memminger, was a simple, but direct statement. John Ingliss claimed that it meant: “in the fewest and simplest words possible to be uses … all that is necessary to effect the end proposed and no more.”

 The call of the roll started at 1:07 P.M. and ended at 1:15, with every delegate voting “yea,” a unanimous vote – eight minutes to vote to “dissolve” the Union. From a window at St. Andrew’s a signal was flashed to the crowd. Then, according to Rev. Anthony Toomer Porter:

 A mighty shout arose. It rose higher and higher until it was the roar of a tempest. It spread from end to end of the city, for all were of one mind. No man living could have stood the excitement.

The Mercury had received a draft copy of the ordinance, by 1:20 P.M., five minutes after the vote concluded, the “extra” was on the streets. During the day, tens of thousands of copies of the “extra” were printed.  Perry O’Bryan’s telegraph office wired the news to the rest of the nation.


Upon the signing of the Ordinance, all the church bells in the city began to ring. James Petigru asked a passerby, “Where’s the fire?” The man responded, “Mr. Petigru, there is no fire; those are the joy bells in honor of the passage of the Ordinance of Secession.”

 Petigru responded, “I tell you there is a fire. They have this day set a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and please God, we shall have no more peace forever.”    

Across the city, celebrations continued through the day. Elderly men donned the uniforms of their volunteer units and marched, shouting the news to all the neighborhoods. A man in a golden helmet trotted a horse around the city, a copy of the ordinance held aloft. Men gathered around Calhoun’s grave and vowed to “devote their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, to the cause of South Carolina independence.”

The text of the Ordinance:

The State of South Carolina

At a Convention of the People of the State of South Carolina, begun and holden at Columbia on the Seventeenth day of December in the year or our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty and thence continued by adjournment to Charleston, and there by divers adjournments to the Twentieth day of December in the same year –

An Ordinance To dissolve the Union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the Ordinance adopted by us in Convention, on the twenty-third day of May in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven hundred and eight-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United State of America was ratified, and also all Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendment of the said Constitution, are here by repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston, the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.

Jacob Shirmer, a Union man like Petigru, prophetically wrote in his diary:

This is the commencement of the dissolution of the Union that has been the pride and glory of the whole world, and after a few years, we will find the beautiful structure broke up into as many pieces as there are now States, and jealously and discord will be all over the land.

Robert Gourdin wrote to John W. Ellis, governor of North Carolina:

Before the sun sets this day, South Carolina will have assumed the powers delegated to the federal government and taken her place among the nations as an independent power. God save the State.

We may, if possible, avoid collision with the general government, while we negotiate the dissolution of our situation with the Union. I apologize for the brevity of this … It is written at the dinner table amid conversation, wine and rejoicing.     

At 6:30 p.m. the secession delegates lined up on Broad Street in front of St. Andrew’s Hall, and through the gas lamp glow, marched east to Meeting Street, turned left and marched past Hibernian Hall, the Mills House and arrived at the front doors of Institute (Secession) Hall. The delegates entered the hall, to the roar of applause and cheers from more than 3,000 Charlestonians, packed into the building.  One of the attendants was eighteen-year old Augustine Smythe, the son of Presbyterian minister, Rev. Thomas Smythe, who was crammed into the corner of the upper gallery. Also in the gallery was Virginian Edmund Ruffin and British consul Robert Bunch.

circular church - teetotal

Photo of Meeting Street with 1806 version of Circular Church steeple and portico and SC Institute Hall, c 1860.

 On the stage was a lone table, flanked by two potted palmetto trees. A banner on the stage read “Built from The Ruins.” After the delegates were seated, Rev. John Bachman offered a prayer where he asked God for “wisdom on high for the leaders … forced by fanaticism, injustice, and oppression” to secede. Then a copy of the ordinance, or, as the Mercury called it, “the consecrated parchment,” was read aloud and, as the Mercury breathlessly reported:

On the last word – “dissolved” – those assembled could contain themselves no longer, and a shout that shook the very building, reverberating, long-continued, rose to Heaven, and ceased on with the loss of breath.


South Carolina Institute Hall, street view, (Harper’s Weekly)

Upon the signing of the Ordinance of Secession, all the church bells in Charleston began to ring. James Petigru asked a passerby, “Where’s the fire?” The man responded, “Mr. Petigru, there is no fire; those are the joy bells in honor of the passage of the Ordinance of Secession.”

 Petigru responded, “I tell you there is a fire. They have this day set a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and please God, we shall have no more peace forever.” Late in the day, Petigru was again asked about secession and famously remarked, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”


Inside South Carolina Institute (Secession) Hall. From Frank Leslie’s Newspaper. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The ordinance was then placed on the stage table, and one-by-one, the delegates stepped forward to sign. Over the next two hours the delegates signed the Ordinance of Secession, and as politicians are apt to do, offered a few remarks on the “monumental occasion.” Ruffin wrote, “no one was weary, and no one left.”

After the last signature, Chairmen Jamison held the document above his head and exclaimed, “I proclaim the State of South Carolina an Independent Com-monwealth!” At that, the crowd rushed the stage, and frantically removed souvenir fronds from the palmetto trees. Augustine Smythe, slid down a pillar to the main floor, joined the scrum. He managed to not only get a palmetto frond souvenir, but also removed the pen and blotter used to sign the document. These items today are in the collection at the Confederate Museum, housed in Market Hall on Meeting Street.

The raucous celebration spilled into the Charleston streets, with men whooping and shooting pistols in the air. Bonfires in tar barrels, were lit on street corners across the city. Edmund Ruffin wrote, “The bands played on and on, as if there were no thought of ceasing.”

A teenager named Augustus Smythe procured a seat in the balcony of Charleston’s South Carolina Institute Hall on the night of December 20, 1860.  Over the next three hours Smythe watched the members of the South Carolina legislature sign the Ordinance of Secession, officially removing the state of South Carolina from the Union and establishing an independent republic, ultimately called the Confederate States of America. The raucous celebration after that historic event spilled into the Charleston streets, with men whooping, drinking whiskey and shooting pistols in the air. Smythe had the calm foresight to make his way through the crowd to the stage and remove the inkwell and pen which had been used to sign the Ordinance. These items today are in the collection at the Confederate Museum, housed in Market Hall on Meeting Street.

secssion, mills house

Rally on Meeting Street, in front of Mills House, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Newspaper. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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