A Short History of Charleston (before 1860)

A Short History of Charleston Before 1860

Note: The city was originally called Charles Town. In 1720, after the Bloodless Revolution, the spelling was changed to one word, “Charlestown.” In 1783, as a new American city, the name changed to Charleston.

The Colony of a Colony. Unlike most earlier settlers to Virginia and Chesapeake, many Carolina settlers came not from England, but from Barbados, an important distinction. During the English Civil War (1642-51) Barbados became an asylum for Royalists seeking to avoid the conflict, and the violent Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell. After the 1649 execution of Charles I, Parliament sought to punish Barbados for their loyalty to the monarchy by restricting their trade, creating an economic crisis for the small island. To sustain their economy, Barbadians began to rely on trade with the Dutch Republic, until Cromwell and Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1651, which banned the use of non-English ships to carry English goods. This essentially prohibited all trade with the Dutch, but Barbadian merchants carried on illicit privateering until England invaded the island and the Royalist Barbadian House of Assembly surrendered. The Carolina colony would soon become the “promised land” for many Barbadian merchants and planters.

Charles II

In March 1663, Charles II granted the territory called Carolana to the “true and absolute Lords and Proprietors,” eight men who had been instrumental in restoring him to the throne after Cromwell’s death. There was a strong consensus among the Proprietors that the colony could be more easily, and inexpensively, developed by luring experienced settlers from established Caribbean colonies. To accomplish that goal, they offered large land grants in lieu of providing financing. Three months later, John Colleton of Barbados informed the Lord Proprietors that “many citizens were interested in moving to Carolina.”

The Proprietors also adopted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, that, they hoped, would establish a “perfect government.” The Constitutions were “a grand and impractical political framework … that envisioned an orderly, quasi-feudal system under their immediate control.” Although never formally adopted, the Constitutions did become the working blueprint for settling and governing the new colony. It offered “religious freedom for anyone who believed in God,” established the Church of England as the tax-supported religion, forbade Catholicism, and permitted freedom of worship to “every church or profession as long as its followers believed in God.” It specifically mentioned “Jews, heathens, and dissenters,” and that attitude of tolerance would have a profound influence on Charles Town. Unlike Boston and Philadelphia, founded by Puritans and Quakers, Charles Town was a private business venture colony, and the promise of religious freedom brought many persecuted worshippers from Europe.

 It also created a system of government by the landed gentry. To vote a man must own fifty acres and to hold a seat in the Assembly, he must own five hundred. All “free settlers over the age of sixteen” were promised 150 acres, and an additional 100 “for every able-bodied servant.” Servants could include family members and “indentured servants.” Every individual who acquired 3,000 acres “would have all the rights of a lord of the manor established by English law.” The Proprietors forbid the enslavement of the local Natives in Carolina but set out specific and strict laws to accommodate African slavery, based on the Barbadian system which declared “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”

In April 1670, the first English settlement south of Virginia was established in Carolina, called Charles Town. The Barbadians cast a long shadow and influenced much of the Carolina lifestyle, establishing the model for what became romanticized as “the Old South.” They lived with “a combination of old-world elegance and frontier boisterousness. Ostentatious in their dress, dwellings, and furnishings, they liked hunting, guns, dogs, military titles like ‘Captain” and ‘Colonel’ … They enjoyed long hours at their favorite taverns over bowls of rum punch or brandy.”

Charles Town, 1671

They also had little interest in the Proprietors’ lofty notions of a perfect government, and quickly controlled the colony by dominating the Council and the governorship. John Coming, from England, wrote that “the Barbadians endeavor to rule all.” The Council claimed that since the Carolina charter was issued after the Navigation Act, it superseded that Act and that they “totally disclaimed the authority of the British Parliament in which they were not represented.” So, from the beginning, the landed gentry were already at odds with the British authority to regulate their trade, and their lives. Their argument was that since they were governed without representation in Parliament, the Council felt within their rights to ignore the law and trade as they pleased.

The Bloodless Revolution – Proprietors Overthrown. In 1715, the Carolina Assembly officially asked the London Board of Trade to void the Proprietors’ charter. Forty years into the life of Carolina, the Proprietors had become disenchanted with a colony that “failed to produce the great wealth and prestige they had expected.” That disappointment evolved into apathy and soon, the colonists learned to “survive with minimal assistance … from their increasingly passive proprietors.”

The fate of Proprietary Rule was sealed by two events, the devasting, and almost catastrophic Yemassee Indian War (1715-1718), and the battle against pirates (1718-1719.) Both events “provided the colonists with galling evidence that the men in London had placed personal profit above the public welfare.”

Johnson’s return from Yemassee War

At the end of 1719, the Assembly convened “a convention of the people” and denounced the rule of the Proprietors. They vowed “to get rid of the oppressive and arbitrary dealings of the Lords Proprietors” and declared itself “the government until His Majesty’s pleasure be known.” They officially petitioned King George I to purchase the Carolina colony from the Proprietors.

Governor Robert Johnson, appointed by the Proprietors, refused to acknowledge this new government. In response the Assembly elected General James Moore Jr. as “provisional governor.” During the swearing in ceremony Gov. Johnson arrived and ordered the militia to disperse and the illegal Assembly to desist. The militia “leveled their muskets at Governor Johnson,” which created a standoff. Johnson soon departed for England and for all intents and purposes, the proprietary government of Carolina ended. Even though the first royal governor did not appear for eighteen months, the Provisional Government maintained power and steered the colony into a sound economy. At its heart was the concept that the “Bloodless Revolution,” as locals called it, was to protect the “incontestable right” of Englishmen to be governed “by noe laws made here, but what are consented to by them.”

On August 11, 1720, the Lord Justices of Great Britain declared that the colony “shall be forthwith taken provisionally into the hands of the Crown.” South Carolina’s first rebellion was a polite coup d’état. They did not grab the reins of power by force, nor did they imprison their opponents. Rather, it was a “polite and passive-aggressive course of action that reflected a very British sense of honor and decorum.”

Slave Trade. Carolina lowcountry is often called the “Ellis Island for Africans” due to the number of slaves imported into the state. The main economic reason for the trade was rice, the most profitable crop Carolina produced. The first slave arrived on August 23, 1670, and very quickly, more enslaved Africans flooded the port. Eventually half the population of Charleston was black. With their knowledge of rice cultivation, slaves were needed on the plantations and their labor became essential to the Carolina economy. Between 1670 and 1808, 1,000 cargos of enslaved Africans, about 200,000, entered the port of Charleston, about 40% of the slaves brought into North America. According to According to the International African American Museum, “Nearly 80 percent of African Americans can potentially trace an ancestor who arrived in Charleston.”

In 1690, the first slave code was enacted, based on the Barbadian code which included a provision of punishment for anyone killed a slave. Eight years later, they passed an act that encouraged the “Importation of White Servants.” The fear was that “the great number of Negroes which of late have been imported … may endanger the safety thereof.”

Most slaves who arrived in Charleston were sent to the plantations, to toil in the fields, day after day, year after year, a monotonous, often brutal life. Many Charleston slaves worked as domestics in the homes, with better food, clothing and living conditions, yet had to be on-call twenty-four hours a day, subject to the whims and moods of their owners, some benevolent, some not. Others were hired-out laborers involved in at least various occupations:  bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, coopers, and manufacturing.

Charleston slave sale

Amid this shared experience in bondage, a new culture was born. In the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, the Gullah became known as people who clung to aspects of their African heritage, including their crafts and folktales. Their language was English infused with words from their former homes, which some people describe as creole. It survives to this day.

     From 1803 – 1807, South Carolina, alone among the southern states, legalized the reopening of the African slave trade. Almost 40,000 Africans were imported into Charleston during those four years. The United States ended the international slave trade in 1808, but a thriving domestic slave trade grew to meet the demand for labor. Before the Civil War Charleston was the center of urban slave trading with more than two million slaves were sold.

Stamp Act – Townsend Acts. To pay the debt incurred in the colonies during the French and Indian War, in 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act. The Stamp Act required that most printed materials in the colonies be printed on “stamped paper [an embossed revenue mark] from London.” That included newspapers, legal documents, playing cards and magazines.

Carolina’s response was quick and passionate. John Rutledge, representing the Assembly, wrote to Charles Garth, the South Carolina agent in London (a lobbyist), to oppose the “stamp tax and any other tax by Parliament.” Rutledge claimed the taxes were “inconsistent with that inherent right of every British subject, not to be taxed but by his own consent, or that of his representatives.”

In Charlestown, forty-foot-high gallows were constructed at Broad and Church Streets in front of Dillon’s Tavern and an effigy of Caleb Lloyd, British stamp officer, was hanged. Two thousand people paraded the streets at night and ransacked the house of the British stamp officer, George Saxby, looking for the stamps. Lloyd and Saxby both were forced to resign in fear of their lives. They promised not to perform their duties “until Parliament had addressed colonial grievances.”

Most citizens vowed to not use stamped paper, and for the next few months business in Charlestown ground to a halt. The harbor became clogged with ships which could not get official clearance to leave the harbor. Courts shut down, due to lack of stamped paper, and publisher Peter Timothy announced, “the publication of the South Carolina Gazette … will be suspended.” The Assembly stated: “Sincerely as we are attached to his Majesty, we insist that we are entitled to all inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the Kingdom of Great Britain.”

Fourteen months after it was passed, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, and Peter Manigault wrote that the news was received with “joy, jollity and mirth.” Charlestown celebrated with ringing church bells, street bonfires, parties, and public celebrations. Despite the colonists’ victory over Parliament, Christopher Gadsden gave a speech under the great oak tree in Mr. Mazyck’s cow pasture north of the city where he warned of “the folly of relaxing their opposition and vigilance, or of indulging in the fallacious hope that Great Britain would relinquish their designs and pretensions.” Hundreds of men gathered hands around the tree and swore resistance to future tyranny. From that moment forward, the oak was called the Liberty Tree.

The next year Parliament passed the Townsend Acts, which placed new taxes on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea, and any other items that were not produced in North America. It also stipulated colonists were only allowed to purchase goods from Great Britain. Peter Manigault, speaker of Carolina Assembly, wrote to his Massachusetts counterpart, Thomas Cushing, that South Carolina would “join with the agents of the other provinces in obtaining a repeal of the acts of Parliament.”

In the spring of 1769, a group of Carolina men formed an “Association” and pledged to stand against the importation of any product from Great Britain. They threatened to denounce anyone who did not “sign with us.” Their rally cry became “Sign or die!” Many of the gentry leaders were upset by this move, since the leaders of the Association tended to be mechanics, lower born laborers, not gentlemen, who tended to be lawyers and planters.

On July 29, 1769, thirteen merchants, thirteen planters and thirteen mechanics met at the Liberty Tree and created a unified Association, encouraging American manufacturing and prohibited the importation of any European or East Indian goods. They also banned slave importation starting in 1770 and pledged to boycott anyone who did not sign within a month. The Association was to remain active until the Townsend Acts were repealed. Anyone who broke the agreement was to “treated with the upmost contempt.” Anyone who did not join would have their names published in the Gazette. By the end of the year, Peter Manigault reported that only thirty-one merchants had refused to sign with the Association, and many who signed only did so “from fear of communal retaliation rather than conviction.”

The Next Rebellion – Tea Act – American Revolution. In April 1770, Parliament repealed the Townsend Acts. But, to avoid the appearance of weakness, the tea tax was left in place. Merchants in New York, Georgia, Boston, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island abandoned their commitment to the non-importation Association. In a meeting at the Liberty Tree, South Carolina vowed to remain in support of the Association until the tea tax was repealed.

In late 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act which repealed all duties on tea that was handled by the East India Trading Company but kept the tax on those who purchased the tea. News arrived that “300 chests of tea were on their way to Charlestown” and Peter Timothy in the Gazette urged citizens to “band together to take the necessary steps to prevent the landing.” A group called “Club Forty-Five” met at the Liberty Tree and swore to “defend against the tyranny of Great Britain.” Forty-five skyrockets were fired; forty-five men marched to Dillon’s Tavern where forty-five rum punch bowls and forty-five bottles of wine were consumed.

Exchange Building

On December 1 the tea arrived on the ship called London, and a “mass meeting of all South Carolinians, without exception” was held at the Exchange Building. This marked the beginning of the first of the extra-legal Assemblies that would govern South Carolina until the end of the Revolutionary War. They demanded that merchants stop importing tea, which was then secretly offloaded the tea in the middle of the night and stored in the basement of the Exchange under British guard. A few days later, Charlestown received word that Boston had tossed 342 chests of tea into the harbor, leaving Club Forty-five embarrassed that the local tea had been safely stored away, while Boston had taken decisive action.

Over the next two years, the Association did manage to toss the cargo of several British ships into the harbor, including tea. South Carolina’s extra-legal Provincial Congress recommended that all citizens “diligently train themselves in the use of arms,” and by April 1775, they had seized “800 guns, 200 cutlasses and 1,600 pounds of gunpowder” from British armories in the region.

On March 26, 1776, four months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, South Carolina adopted a new state constitution creating the Republic of South Carolina, which kept the power firmly in the hands of the land-owning gentry class. For the second time in its one-hundred-year-old history, South Carolina had forced a change in their government. By the end of the Revolutionary War, there would be more than 200 battles and skirmishes in South Carolina alone.

Idle and Easily Agitated. In 1800, Charleston was the fifth largest city in America behind New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston, with population of 18,924, which included 10,104 blacks and 8,820 whites. Henry Adams described Charleston that year:

Nowhere in the Union was intelligence, wealth, and education greater in proportion to numbers that in the little society of cotton and rice planters who ruled South Carolina … the society of Charleston compared well in refinement with that of any city of its size in the world, and travelers long thought it the most agreeable in America … Before the Revolution large numbers of young men had been educated in England, and their influence was still strong in the society of Charleston. The younger generation inherited similar tastes.

As the infant United States entered the 19th century, South Carolina was an odd balance of despotism, in their passionate defense of slavery, and staunch proponents of democracy. William W. Freehling described the elites as a” snob not quite at ease with his own snobbishness.” The city physically grew as marshes and creeks on the peninsula were filled and turned into fashionable boroughs. The city began to take on the Federal architectural influence that it still retains in the 21st century. A major construction project filled in the southeastern part of the city, and the subsequent construction of the seawall led to the construction of dozens of fashionable mansions on the Battery overlooking the harbor. Although magnificent structures were being built, a pervasive stench hovered over the city. Most streets were unpaved and unlit, and were fouled with stray animals, dead carcasses, and clogged drains. Garbage piled on the city’s wharves. Hastily buried bodies in the overcrowded graveyards and cemeteries often refused to stay underground.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin drastically improved the efficiency and profitability, and cotton began to challenge rice as the major crop. Although slave labor had cleaned up the lowcountry marshes, and turned them into arable land, “but the swamp diseases remained.” With malaria so prevalent, most white families fled the area during the warmer months. John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s leading politician of the antebellum period, held no love of Charleston. He commented that the prevalence of the fever was “a curse for their intemperance and debaucheries.” Thus, large numbers of lowcountry plantations were owned by “absentee planters, managed by white overseers, and worked by many Negroes.” Meanwhile, the ratio of Negroes to whites reached “unsettling proportions.” Eighty-seven per cent of the white households in Charleston owned slaves, while across the rest of South Carolina, that ownership rate was about forty-five percent.

During the antebellum era most slaves lived on plantations and were largely concentrated in places such as the rice regions of the lowcountry and fertile cotton regions of the midlands.

Charleston was considered the “most European of American cities.” It was filled with narrow cobblestone and bricked streets, elegant courtyards, formal gardens, Spanish and French balconies, bookstores, European-style coffeehouses, and planters’ townhouse mansions. It was an enchanting place in which the idle gentry could while away their days, and evenings. Unfortunately, ten blocks away, there was another Charleston of “sordid poverty and unpaved streets, of filthy hovel and crumbing walls.” This was the slums packed with slaves, free Negroes, white mechanics, and rough transient sailors. 

Furthermore, the gentry also knew firsthand the anxiety of slave conspiracy and incessantly guarded against it. Every night curfew bells in St. Michael’s Church warned Negroes without passes to get off the streets. Every night the town guard marched “while planters who left their plantations to escape the dangers of malaria, sat politely in their elegant drawing rooms, listening to the bells that reminded them of other dangers.”

Lowcountry gentry lived by a rigid social code of cultivated gentility. They “despised manual labor, detested moneygrubbers, and hated penny-pinching.” Before the Revolution, many planters had also been merchants, but more foreigners moved to South Carolina from Europe and the North, and they quickly took over the counting houses and mercantile firms. They may have become wealthy, but they were rarely able to break into the Carolina social hierarchy. Established planters looked down their noses at the “new money.”

In an 1808 letter M.I. Manigault wrote, “Idleness is the order of the day here … There is William Heyward, with a fine disposition and an excellent capacity – lounging away his morning … drinking away his afternoons.” This was typical of the lowcountry leisure class which was “dedicated to achieving the exclusiveness and refinement displayed by English country gentlemen.” Expensive Madeira wine and Spanish cigars were the usual accompaniments to horse races, hunting with hounds, and grand dancing balls. It was a life “of taste, of polish, of elegance,” where ladies of dignity and refinement played chess, held elegant tea parties, performed on the piano, and lounged in the “richly furnished library.” The city had an overwhelming number of dram shops, taverns, and tippling houses, used by sailors, workers, and slaves. Many elite citizens complained about these activities as “destructive to the morals of youth.” However, intemperance was not only widely ignored, but often embraced. During the 19th century it was customary for the host to lock the doors of his home and refuse to permit any guest to leave the table until he was drunk. 

William Freehling, in Prelude to Civil War, wrote: “For some gentlemen planters, contempt for work extended to agricultural endeavor … [and] had time to engage in politics, to study, to write.”  Unfortunately, the books in a planter’s library were “more often displayed than read,” except for one notable exception: the medieval tales of Sir Walter Scott, the most famous being Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. The planters delighted in Scott’s tales of “chivalric knights, with their exalted principals, their princely deportment, and their unswerving courage,” and sought to live up those ideals. They also embraced the hero’s passion to defend his honor against any “imagined insult,” no matter how slight.

Denmark Vesey. In 1822, a free black man, Denmark Vesey, was arrested as the ringleader of organized slave rebellion. In trial transcripts he was quoted as saying “we were going to have a war and fight the white people … those that did not join must be regarded as an enemy and put to death.” The blacks recruited for the revolution were instructed to bring “their hoes, hatchets, axes and spades, which might be used as offensive weapons, or as instruments to break open doors.”

His plan was to attack the Meeting Street Arsenal and once these weapons were secured, they planned to kill white slave owners and liberate as many slaves as possible. The last step was to commandeer ships from the harbor and sail to Haiti.

However, the rebellion was discovered by white leaders and over the next seven days, 131 blacks were arrested. Thirty-eight others were sentenced to a prison and whippings. Forty-three were “transported” to another state, and thirty-four were hanged.

The rebellion roiled Charleston society. The discovery that their slaves were willing to murder them while they were asleep in their beds was at first unfathomable, and then horrific. In response to the mounting fears a permanent municipal guard of 150 men was formed and at night, Charleston became virtual armed camp.

Vesey Rebellion

The bells of St. Michael tolled at 9:00 p.m.- a signal for all slaves to return to their master’s homes. Any slave found on the street after that hour without a pass was taken to the guard house “with strong probability of a whipping in the following morning.” South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Seamen Acts. Any free Negro that came into the state on a vessel would be lodged in the jail during the stay of the vessel in port. If the captain would not pay for the cost of board and lodging, the Negro would be sold into slavery.

Calhoun and Nullification.  Nationally, South Carolina’s political power was deeply invested in one man, John C. Calhoun. As one of the Congressional “War Hawks,” he advocated for the War of 1812 and became Secretary of War afterward. He was then elected vice president in 1824 (John Quincy Adams, president), and 1828 (Andrew Jackson).

Calhoun as an elder statesman

Calhoun assumed the mantle of the “leader of the Southern cause” when the Tariff of 1828 was passed by Congress. It became known as the Tariff of Abominations due to the negative effects it had on the Southern economy. Designed to protect industry in the north, the tariff so enraged the South Carolina legislature they denounced it by formal resolution. They also published the “Exposition and Protest,” secretly written by Vice-President John C. Calhoun, which espoused that the States were sovereign before they entered the Union, so therefore retained the power to veto, or nullify, any act of the federal government which violated the Constitution. The States’ Right argument was born and continues to this day.

In October 1832 the Nullifiers won a majority in the state legislature and called a Nullification Convention to resist the Federal tariff. Robert Hayne resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate and was elected governor of South Carolina. Three weeks later Calhoun resigned as Vice-President, and Hayne promptly nominated Calhoun to take over his just-vacated Senate seat. 

Congress passed the Force Act, which authorized the use of military force against any state that resisted the tariff acts. U.S. Navy ships began to intercept Charleston inbound ships to collect customs duties. South Carolina and the United States were on the brink of military engagement when Sen. Henry Clay brokered a compromise bill with Calhoun that slowly lowered tariffs over the next decade. The compromise was accepted by South Carolina legislature and ended the nullification crisis, but not the resentment. The next generation of South Carolina men were baptized with the bitter waters of the Nullification Crisis. Their distrust of the Federal government grew as they realized their interpretation of the Union did not match their Northern counterparts. 

Pushed To Civil War. In May 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass), called for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state and denounced “Slave Power” as the political arm of the slave owners. He specifically called out South Carolina senator Andrew Butler (D-SC), who was not attendance, recovering from a stroke.

The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course, he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows … I mean the harlot, slavery.

Mr. Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC) was enraged, and claimed that he intended to challenge Sumner to a duel. His fellow representative, Lawrence Keitt, advised Brooks that “dueling was for gentlemen of equal statue. Sumner is lower than a drunkard. Dueling with him would only be an insult to yourself.” They decided the most appropriate punishment was to humiliate Sumner with a public caning.

Two days later Brooks strode into the Senate chamber and approached Sumner at his desk while Keitt held the other senators at bay with a pistol. Brooks said, “Mr. Sumner I have read your speech … it is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” He then struck Sumner repeatedly with a cane until it broke into five pieces. Several men in the Senate finally overpowered Brooks and disarmed Keitt. Sumner’s injuries were so severe he was out of the Senate for three years recuperating.

Various editorial illustrations of the Preston Brooks’ attack on Sen. Charles Sumner

Keitt was censured and a motion to expel Brooks from the House failed, but he resigned to give his constituents the opportunity to ratify or condemn his conduct. They demonstrated their approval by returning him to office in the special election held on August 1.

South Carolina held Brooks and Keitt up as heroes while Sumner was portrayed as a martyr for the cause of abolition. The event inflamed sectional tensions between northern and southern members of Congress to the point they began to arm themselves while session. The pieces of Brooks’ cane were “begged as sacred relics.” The city of Charleston presented him with a new cane which bore the inscription, “Hit him again!”

Historian Stephen Puleo wrote that, “The caning had an enormous impact on the events that followed over the next four years. … As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to civil war.”

Today In Charleston History: July 18


John Rutledge died from “the wearing out of an exhausted frame rather than … positive illness.” He was buried in St. Michael’s graveyard. He died without ever recovering from the crippling financial debt accrued during the Revolution. 

John Rutledge

John Rutledge

One of Charleston’s “founding fathers” Rutledge, a lawyer, served as provincial attorney general (1764), and was voted to the Stamp Act Congress (1765). He served in the 1st Continental Congress (1774) and 2nd Continental Congress (1775). In 1776, he helped South Carolina write a new state constitution, and was elected president of the new state government.

During the Constitutional Convention, he maintained a moderate nationalist stance and chaired the Committee of Detail, he attended all the sessions, spoke often and effectively, and served on five committees. Like his fellow South Carolina delegates, he vigorously advocated southern interests. In 1787 he was one of the signer of the Constituion of the United States. 

President George Washington appointed Rutledge as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1791 he became chief justice of the South Carolina supreme court. Four years later, Washington again appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice to replace John Jay. But Rutledge’s outspoken opposition to Jay’s Treaty (1794), and the intermittent mental illness he had suffered from since the death of his wife in 1792, caused the Federalist-dominated Senate to reject his appointment and end his public career. Meantime, however, he had presided over one term of the Court.


John Rutledge’s grave, St. Michael’s Church


1863-Civil War. Assault on Battery Wagner

Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 of his troops were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Shaw was commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, perhaps the most famous regiment of African-American troops during the war.


Images of Battery Wagner, Harper’s Weekly

Fort Wagner stood on Morris Island, guarding the approach to Charleston harbor. It was a massive earthwork, 600 feet wide and made from sand piled 30 feet high. The only approach to the fort was across a narrow stretch of beach bounded by the Atlantic on one side and a swampy marshland on the other. Union General Quincy Gillmore headed an operation in July 1863 to take the island and seal the approach to Charleston.


Col. Robert Shaw

Col. Robert Shaw

Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the attack of July 18. Shaw was the scion of an abolitionist family and a veteran of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley and Antietam campaigns. The regiment included two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the grandson of author and poet Sojourner Truth.

Confederate General Samuel Jones wrote:

The First Brigade was formed in column by regiments, except the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts … it was a negro regiment, recruited in Massachusetts, and was regarded as an admirable and reliable body of men. Half the ground to be traversed before reaching Wagner was undulating with sand hills, which afforded some shelter, but not so much as prevent free and easy movement; the other half smooth and unobstructed up to the ditch. Within easy range of Wagner the march encroached so much on the firm sand of the island as leave a narrow way between it and the water.

Union artillery battered Fort Wagner all day on July 18, but the barrage did little damage to the fort and its garrison. At 7:45 p.m., the attack commenced. Yankee troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to the stronghold, facing a hail of bullets from the Confederates. Shaw’s troops and other Union regiments penetrated the walls at two points but did not have sufficient numbers to take the fort. Over 1,500 Union troops fell or were captured to the Confederates’ 222.

The Storming of Ft. Wagner, lithograph by Kurz and Allison,1890

The Storming of Ft. Wagner, lithograph by Kurz and Allison,1890

Despite the failure, the battle proved that African-American forces could not only hold their own but also excel in battle. The experience of Shaw and his regiment was memorialized in the critically acclaimed 1990 movie Glory, starring Mathew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman. Washington won an Academy Award for his role in the film.

To read more about the assault on Fort Wagner, read here

1864-Civil War

George Trenholm

George Trenholm

George Trenholm replaced Christopher G. Memminger as Secretary of the Treasury in President Jefferson Davis’s Cabinet. As skilled as he was with money, Trenholm couldn’t rescue the Confederate economy. After the fall of Richmond, he took flight southward with the rest of the Cabinet, but in ill health, was unable to continue running.

Today In Charleston History: May 24


The first Lutheran Holy Communion was held by Rev. John Martin Bolzius.

The St. John’s congregation was organized in 1742 with arrival of Dr. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the father of the Lutheran Church in America. He stopped for two days in Charleston on his way to visit the Salzburger colony at Ebenezer, Georgia. He returned a month later and spent three weeks waiting for a ship to Philadelphia during which time he held services, taught catechism to the children of the German residents, and held services with communion on Sundays  at various places including the Huguenot Church. Their first structure began construction in 1759  on Clifford Street (behind where the present Archdale church sits) and was dedicated in 1764.  

st. .johns

The original St. John’s Lutheran on Clifford Street, c. 1764

1780-American Revolution

Governor John Rutledge arrived in Camden, SC and learned the terms of Charlestown’s surrender. Rutledge was disappointed by Gen. Lincoln’s surrender and wrote “the Terms of Capitulation are truly mortifying.” He demanded to know why Lincoln “did not evacuate the Town, & save his Troops.” Things looked bleak for South Carolina militarily.

Today In Charleston History: May 17


South Carolina Society

South Carolina Society

The South Carolina Society was incorporated by the Assembly, making it one of the most important organizations in the colony.

In 1732, a French Huguenot named Elisha Poinsett opened a tavern in Charleston.  Several friends agreed to help him out his business by spending an evening or two each week in his tavern. They began to collect two bits (sixteen pence) a week for a fund to help any of their members with a need; they soon became known as the “two-bit society.” When Poinsett’s business no longer needed their help, they formalized their association with the idea that education would be their main charity.

1781 – British Occupation

In violation of Gen. Lincoln’s terms of surrender, Charles Pinckney and other militiamen on parole were arrested and placed aboard two British prison ships in the Charlestown harbor – the Pack Horse and the Torbay. Conditions on the ships were horrendous. More than one third of the prisoners held in Charlestown by the British died in captivity.

Charles Pinckney wrote a letter to Colonel Balfour complaining about:

a most injurious and disagreeable confinement … the idea of detaining in close custody as hostages a number of men fairly taken in arms … is so repugnant to the laws of war and the usage of civilized nations …

1787-Constitutional Convention

Indian Queen Tavern, Philadelphia

Indian Queen Tavern, Philadelphia

John Rutledge arrived in Philadelphia and found lodgings at the Indian Queen Tavern on Third Street, which he described as having “sixteen rooms for lodgers, plus four garret rooms … greeted by a liveried servant in coat, waistcoat, and ruffled shirt.” Other delegates who stayed at the Tavern included George Mason and Alexander Hamilton.

Charles Pinckney stayed at the home of Mrs. Mary House, at the corner of Fifth and Market Street, with James Madison.


Horatio Allen, chief engineer of the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, met with officials of the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company and discussed the type of road to build and recommended using a steam locomotive. Allen had studied steam locomotives in England and was positive that steam locomotives were the future.


John Reeks aka ... Francis Dawson

Austin John Reeks (Francis Dawson)

Austin John Reeks was born in London. The Reeks were one of the oldest Catholic families in England and traced their roots back to the War of Roses. He would later join the Confederacy under the name Francis Warrington Dawson and re-locate to Charleston where he would become publisher of the News and Courier.

Today In Charleston History: May 1


The Act of Union took effect. The Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament united to form the Parliament of Great Britain. Anne becomes Queen of Great Britain.

1757 – Fortifications

Construction of the city’s fortifications were finished within ten months.  De Brahm’s design, a “continuous line of Ramparts, forming regular Bastions, detach’d or joined with curtains,”connected Granville’s Bastion with Broughton’s at White Point. The new wall was four feet taller than the previous one and the Gazette noted that “the sea is damn’d out.”

1763 – Marriage

John Rutledge married Elizabeth Grimke. There were to have ten children, eight that reached maturity.

1775 – Publishing

 Robert Wells of the South Carolina and American General Gazette, a committed Royalist, left Charlestown for England. His son, John Wells, assumed the duties of publisher and editor and espoused the Patriot cause until 1780.

106 Tradd Street, John Stuart House

106 Tradd Street, John Stuart House

False rumors that John Stuart, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, was plotting to incite Indians to attack back country settlements, forced him to abandon his house at 106 Tradd Street. He was fearful of reprisals by the Secret Committee of Five, and other Revolutionaries. He fled to St. Augustine.

 1780-The Siege of Charlestown.

Provisions for the American army was reduced to seven weeks of rice. In order to taunt the Americans, the British began to fire shells armed, not with gunpowder and lead, but with rice & sugar. 

Being cut off from supply lines Lt. Governor Christopher Gadsden permitted Lincoln’s officers to confiscate foodstuffs from citizen’s houses. They discovered “scare a sufficiency for the supply of private families.” More than twenty civilians had been killed and thirty houses burned by British artillery.


May 1, 1791

The president’s party had breakfast at Hampton Plantation, the home of the widowed Harriet Pinckney Horry. Her mother, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, had been living with her daughter for several years.

During the visit, Eliza asked Pres. Washington whether a certain oak tree should be cut down to create a better view from the portico. Washington replied that he liked the tree and the view. The tree was saved and from that day it was known as the Washington Oak.

On the road to Charleston County

Washington Oak at Hampton Plantation. Photo by author.


A number of towns around the nation claim holding the first Memorial Day. The distinction generally goes to the town of Waterloo New York. Not so fast.

On May 1, 1865, more than 10,000 people gathered for a parade, to hear speeches and dedicate the graves of Union dead in what is now Hampton Park in Charleston. The group consisted of several thousand black freedmen, northern missionaries and teachers who had arrived in Charleston to teach in freedmen schools post-War.

memorial day - club house

Club House of the Planters Race Course where Union soldiers were imprisoned.

Hampton Park was originally the Planters Race Course and, during the final months of the Civil War, it was a hellish open-air Confederate prison. A total of 257 Union troops died at the camp, some of whom had been transferred from the infamously horrific Andersonville in Georgia before it was liberated.

The dead were originally buried in an unmarked, hastily-dug mass grave by the Confederates. After the war in April 1865, twenty-eight members of local black churches buried the soldiers in individual graves at the site of the camp. They built a fence around the cemetery and an arch over the entrance which read “The Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May Day, 1865 the large assembly marched to the burial site. Nearly everyone brought flowers to place on the burial field. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, described as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

David Blight, a history professor at Yale, wrote about the event:

The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freed people.

The procession began at 9:00 a.m., led by 3000 black children carrying roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” They were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers and crosses. Black men marched in cadence next, followed Union soldiers which included the famous 54th Massachusetts (made famous in the movie Glory) and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops. 

Inside the cemetery a children’s choir sang several spirituals, “We’ll Rally Around the Flag” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Several black ministers read from Bible scriptures. After the service, the crowd gathered for a picnic, watched the soldiers drill and listened to speeches.

Burial site of soldiers on the race course.

Burial site of soldiers on the race course.

They called it Decoration Day, an annual ritual of remembrance. David Blight wrote:

This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.

In 1876 former confederate general Wade Hampton declared that it was time for white Southerners to “dedicate themselves to the redemption of the South.” Hampton was elected South Carolina governor that year in one of the most volatile elections in the state’s history, filled with riots, murders, intimidations and blatant voter fraud.

Hampton, running on his white-supremacy program, narrowly defeated Republican governor Daniel Chamberlain, despite the presence of Federal troops under General William T. Sherman in an attempt to stop violent mob action at the polls. On election night, the voter count in Laurens and Edgefield counties exceeded the total population – with most of the votes going to Hampton and the Democrats.


Gen. Wade Hampton

Hampton won the election by less than 1200 votes and each side claimed victory, accusing the other of fraud. To make matters worse, the Democrats won control of the South Carolina House and the Republicans won the Senate. Both parties moved into the State House and refused to leave, sleeping on the floor of their chambers and attempting to conduct legislative business. Outside, supporters of each side gathered as police and militia tried to keep the crowds from turning into mobs

After the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Republicans Chamberlain, with the support of Federal troops, was inaugurated as the governor on December 6, 1876. Hampton claimed that “the people of South Carolina have elected me Governor, and by the Eternal God, I will be the Governor!”

For the next four months South Carolina had rival houses and governors, each claiming to be the legitimate government. White citizens refused to pay their taxes to the Republican administration, but voluntarily contributed 10 percent of their money to the Democrat government. If a state agency wanted money to operate, they had to ask Hampton for funds. Soon there were defections from the Republican administration and Chamberlain’s power base faltered.

When Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated as the President of the United States both governors appeared before him. Hayes announced that “the whole army of United States would be inadequate to enforce the authority of Governor Chamberlain.” He ordered the evacuation of the Federal troops from South Carolina and in the first week of April 1877, Chamberlain and the Republicans vacated their offices.

Despite the chaos, the election accomplished Hampton’s goal; it wrenched control from post-War Republicans, many from the North, and back into the hands of the white Democrats. They began to institute a series of laws and reforms which removed tens of thousands of blacks from voter’s rolls. They also established a Confederate Memorial Day designed to help smother the memory of the annual Decoration Day for fallen Union soldiers.

David Blight wrote about the loss of Decoration Day:

As the Lost Cause tradition set in — the Confederate version of the meaning and memory of the war — no one in white Charleston or the state was interested in remembering the war through this event. 

hampton park locBy this time the race course cemetery was suffering from neglect, and the soldiers were reinterred at the Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries. In 1902 the site of the race course and former cemetery became part of the fair grounds for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. At the conclusion of the Expo, the city of Charleston acquired the land for a park, which they ironically named in honor of General (and governor) Wade Hampton.

Through the years Memorial Day was generally celebrated May 30. Beginning in 1971, the federal holiday was designated as the last Monday in May.

memorial day marker

Marker honoring the first Memorial Day and Union cemetery.

Today In Charleston History: April 13


The London Frigate, a slave ship, arrived in Charleston from Guinea with small pox on board. It spread so extensively that there were not enough healthy people to take care of the ill.

1780-The Siege of Charlestown

The British had managed to mount seventeen 24-pound cannons, two 12-pounders, three 8-inch howitzers and nine mortars.  At 10:00 am the batteries in the neck, north of the American lines opened steady fire until midnight.

      Major William Croghan wrote:

The balls flew thro’ the streets & spent their fury on the houses; & those who were walking or visiting in the town, as was usual during the former quiet, now flew to their cellars, & others to their works, as the places of greatest safety.

The first day’s bombardment killed two soldiers, several women and children, two cannons were destroyed and two houses burned to the ground. 

During the day, Governor John Rutledge and a few members of privy council, including Charles Pinckney left the city, heading for the backcountry. Gen. Lincoln persuaded Rutledge to “Preserve the Executive Authority … give confidence to the people and throw in the necessary succours and supplies to garrison.” That left Lt. Governor Christopher Gadsden the leading civil authority in the city.

The governor’s entourage included a number of invalids, including Lt. Colonel Francis Marion and his broken ankle. At noon they crossed the Cooper River leaving behind the constant booming of artillery and a city covered with smoke and fire.


At a Thomas Jefferson birthday celebration in Washington, DC, Pres. Andrew Jackson toasted: “Our Federal union – It must be preserved.” V-P John Calhoun replied, “The union – Next to our liberties the most dear.”

1832 – Passenger Train Wreck – Charleston First

The first passenger train wreck in the United States occurred on the C&HRR. Pulled by the West Point, the axle of the lead car snapped and was destroyed, tossing passengers out of the open car into a “low swampy place filled with mud and water.” Five of the passengers were seriously injured, but recovered.

west point

1861 – Civil War

By 8:00 a.m. the upper story of the officer’s quarters at Sumter were burning. The most immediate danger was the 300 barrels of gunpowder stored in a magazine. At one o’clock the flagstaff at Fort Sumter was struck by a Confederate shell and crashed to the ground. The soldiers rushed to rehoist the flag before the Confederates assumed they had surrendered.

About this time, former Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas visited Fort Sumter. During the midst of the bombardment, Wigfall had himself rowed out by slaves. Soldiers at Sumter were perplexed by a man waving a white handkerchief from a sword. The Federals raised a flag of truce and Wigfall, although he had no authority to do so, told the first Federal officers he met, “Let us stop this firing. You are on fire, and your flag is down. Let us quit.”

Anderson arrived a moment later and Wigfall told him:

You have defended your flag nobly sir. You have done all that it is possible to do, and General Beauregard wants to stop this fight. On what terms, Major Anderson, will you evacuate this fort?

ft sumter - interior

Inside Fort Sumter during the bombardment. Courtesy Library of Congress

Anderson felt some relief. His soldiers were half-way starved, exhausted and down to their last three shots. The American flag was taken down and Wigfall’s white handkerchief was raised in its place. The firing from all batteries ceased – the battle over.

Church bells rang across the city. Men on horseback galloped across the city, shouting the news. Spectators on the Battery sea wall cheered hysterically, the sound carrying across the Charleston harbor to the exhausted soldiers into Fort Sumter.

Hermann Klatte, a partner in a local liquor outlet called “Lilienthal & Klatte” on East Bay Street, wrote: 

 Yesterday morning at 4:30 they began fighting at Fort Sumpter…the United States flag was not raised again….Somewhat after 2:00 Sumpter surrendered unconditionally to the southern Confederacy, and soldiers from the same government will take over soon, and the bells are playing…victory.


Henry Ward Beecher, a Northern Congregationalist minister and staunch abolitionist, arrived in Charleston to preach at Ft. Sumter. Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe had written the wildly popular (and universally hated in the South) Uncle Tom’s Cabin. President Lincoln had personally selected him, stating, “We had better send Beecher down to deliver the address on the occasion of raising the flag because if it had not been for Beecher there would have been no flag to raise.”

Henry Ward Beecher, Army Chaplain

Henry Ward Beecher, Army Chaplain

Today In Charleston History: March 26

1726 – Ansonborough

Lord Anson, 1755

Lord Anson, 1755

Capt. George Anson purchased a tract of land which later would bear his name – Ansonborough – from his winnings at cards. According to local legend, Anson won the entire tract in a single game from Thomas Gadsden. In fact, Gadsden conveyed this tract to Capt. George Anson for £300 sterling. This was an unusually large sum for such a young naval officer to possess, so it is quite possible that Anson’s winnings at cards was the source of his money. 

Anson later led a British expedition that circumnavigated the world and served as Admiral as the British Fleet from 1756-62.

1737 – Crime & Punishment

Alexander Forbes was convicted of “stealing Cloathes and other things.” He was sentenced to “be whipped on the bare back at the cart’s tails through the town.”

1776 – American Revolution. Charleston First

Four months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, South Carolina adopted a state constitution, drafted by the Provincial Congress and the Republic of South Carolina was born. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was chosen to chair the Constitutional Committee. This was the first plan for an independent government in the American colonies. 

South Carolina President (later govenor)  John Rutledge

South Carolina President (later govenor) John Rutledge

John Rutledge was elected as the state’s president, Henry Laurens its vice-president and William Henry Drayton, Chief Justice. The 1776 Constitution was considered a temporary measure until “an accommodation of the unhappy differences between Great Britain and America can be obtained.” It gave the president “absolute veto power” over the acts of the legislature. Due to his power, Rutledge picked up the nickname “Dictator.”

For the second time in its history, South Carolina had forced a change in its government – in 1719 they had overthrown the Proprietors and now they had replaced British rule with a local government.

1820 – Scandal

Charles Pinckney, in Washington, D.C., was caught in an abandoned house with a “mulatto wench.” A butcher who had been robbed saw Pinckney go into the house and thought it was the robber. A group of men surrounded the house and began to holler for the “thief to come out!” Pinckney, panicked, jumped out of window and attempted to run away. Due to his age, he was unable to outrun his pursuers, who released him when they realized their mistake.

1861. Lincoln’s Spies In Charleston. 

Col. Ward Lamon, former law partner to President Lincoln,arrived in Charleston to meet with Gov. Pickens who told Lamon that “nothing can prevent war except acquiescence of the President of the United States of secession.” Any attempt to reinforce the Southern forts would mean war. Lamon responded that no attempt to reinforce Sumter would happen, and that the fort would most likely be abandoned.

Rev. Anthony Toomer Porter met James Chesnut on the street. Toomer expressed his dismay that war was now inevitable. Chesnut, however, was more optimistic. He told Toomer, “There will be no war, it will be all arranged. I will drink all the blood shed in the war.” Henry Gourdin, however, agreed with Porter that “nothing now but a miracle can arrest the onward course towards destruction and war.”


The first Shakespearean play of the 20th century in Charleston was The Taming of the Shrew, at the Academy of Music. “Despite the fact that it was Lent” there was a “very large crowd …. in this most decorous and conventional of cities.”

academy of music

Academy of Music, Market and King Street (present site of the Riveria Theater.

Today In Charleston History: March 19

1778 – Politics


Rawllins Lowndes

South Carolina President Rawlings Lowndes approved changes to the state constitution that changed the title of South Carolina’s chief executive’s office from president to governor, although he was called “president” until the end of his term. It also disestablished the Church of England in South Carolina.

1785 – Education

The Legislature granted a charter for College of Charleston to “encourage and institute youth in the several branches of liberal education.” The founders of the College include three signers of the Declaration of Independence (Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton and Thomas Heyward, Jr.) and three future signers of the United States Constitution (John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney).

The Act also granted the college almost 9 acres of land bounded by present-day Calhoun, St. Philip, Coming and George streets; three-fourths of the land was soon sold to pay debts,  In 1837 CofC became America’s first municipal college in the country.

Randolph Hall, College of Charleston main campus

Randolph Hall, College of Charleston main campus

Today In Charleston History: March 5

1773 – Commerce

Using slave labor, Christopher Gadsden finally completed his 840-foot long wharf at the north end of town on the Cooper River (at the foot of present-day Calhoun Street). It was described as “one of the most extensive of the kind ever undertaken in America.”

Gadsden Wharf on the Cooper River

Gadsden Wharf on the Cooper River

In the late 1760s, Gadsden began the construction of a large wharf on today’s Concord Street between Calhoun and Laurens Street. In January 1767 Gadsden advertised in the South Carolina Gazette for, “Pine logs 16 to18 feet long and from 10 to 12 inches thick.” Work progressed so that in nine months Gadsden announced that he had framed the wharf and had space for two ships that could be loaded and unloaded simultaneously. Gadsden also announced that planters could store their rice at his wharf for a week without charge provided that he was the factor selling the rice. Over the next seven years Gadsden continued expanding the wharf.

 In March 7, 1774 the South Carolina Gazette reported that the,
“Stupendous work was nearly completed and was believe to be the most extensive of its kind ever undertaken by any one man in America.”
In May Gadsden wrote his friend Samuel Adams describing his
“seven years of hard labor to build the wharf, extending 840 feet that included warehouses that could hold 10,000 barrels of rice.”
1778 – American Revolution

The new Constitution of South Carolina was given a third reading and approved. It deprived the President of the state of his veto. It also stated that only Protestants could be legislators or governor. The Anglican Church, was disestablished, but retained all its property.

President John Rutledge resigned his office because he felt this document surrendered all hope of reunion with Britain. Arthur Middleton was elected to succeed Rutledge but he declined. Rawlins Lowndes was then elected and served until Rutledge replaced him in January 1779. Christopher Gadsden was chosen as Vice-President. 

Today In Charleston History: February 9

1760 – England

 John Rutledge was called to the English bar and sailed home for Charlestown soon after.

1776 – American Revolution

The South Carolina delegation returned from the Continental Congress. During the return trip from Philadelphia aboard the Hawke, the British man-o-war Syren bore down on the small pilot boat. Capt. Joseph Vesey sailed hard for the shore and beached the Hawke on the North Carolina coast. The delegates and crew scrambled to safety in a nearby swamp and made their way overland to Charles Town, leaving the Hawke as a prize for the British.

2000px-Gadsden_flag.svgOnce in Charlestown John Rutledge warned that a British attack in the South was probable. Christopher Gadsden presented his “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to the Provincial Congress. As recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals the proclamation read: 

Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattlesnake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, “Don’t tread on me.”

Gadsden also a presented copy of Thomas Paine’s just published Common Sense, which helped inflame local political sensibilities.