Charleston


Charleston was a small, defenseless settlement when King William III declared war on France in 1689, and the inhabitants feared for their safety. The earliest surviving legislative discussion of fortifying the nascent port town commenced in the autumn of 1695 and continued into the following spring, motivated by the ongoing French war and a persistent fear of marauding pirates. The legislature’s 1696 plan to build a permanent waterfront fortress, flanked by militiamen “arrayd for battle,” was later substantially revised, but it forms a significant chapter in the physical evolution of South Carolina’s colonial capital.

Before we launch into the story of planning Charleston’s first permanent fortifications in the mid-1690s, let’s review the state of defenses in early Charleston. South Carolina’s provincial government was responsible for erecting and maintaining all of the defensive works built in and around the colonial capital between the 1680s and the 1780s, using tax revenue collected from the inhabitants. I’ve spent the past fifteen years pouring over the surviving government records from this era and collecting information in an effort to construct a narrative of this century-long story. The urban fortifications built in the 1680s and 1690s literally formed the foundations of later works, but the paucity of extant documents from those years makes it very difficult to understand the early landscape. In order to make sense of the surviving scraps of information, therefore, I believe it’s very important to understand the larger context in which they were created, and the continuity of the story over a longer trajectory of history.

An excerpt of South Carolina's "wharf wall" act of March 1696 (Act No. 131), from the engrossed manuscript held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

An excerpt of South Carolina’s “wharf wall” act of March 1696 (Act No. 131), from the engrossed manuscript held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

The removal of South Carolina’s colonial capital, Charles Town (now Charleston), from Albemarle Point to Oyster Point in 1680 was undoubtedly accompanied by some discussion of defensive fortifications. The original settlers at Albemarle Point had constructed some temporary fortifications shortly after their arrival in 1670, and the government ostensibly planned to do the same at the capital’s new location. As Maurice Mathews described in a letter written in May 1680, the settlers at new Charles Town intended “to make fortifications when wee have brought our great guns from the old town whereby wee shall be able to deale with the greatest force of ane enemy that can on a sudden come upon us from [the] sea.”[1]

In the ensuing weeks, months, and years, however, there are precious few surviving documents to inform us what sort of fortifications—if any—were actually built, and when and where the cannon were mounted. In fact, the surviving evidence seems to indicate that the people of Charles Town in the 1680s continued to pursue various private interests while ignoring their collective defense. Houses were built, trade networks were established, and plantations carved out of the native wilderness. News of a Spanish force supposedly marching toward Charles Town in August 1682 inspired the Grand Council of South Carolina to order the immediate removal of twenty cannon from the “place where the town was first designed to be made” to the new town.[2] When that intelligence proved false, however, the inhabitants of Charles Town returned to their private interests and, for the remainder of the decade, ignored their defensive needs. The false alarm of 1682 apparently spurred the local government to transport eleven cannon (not twenty) from Albemarle Point to the new town site on Oyster Point, but those iron tubes apparently languished in the sand for more than a decade.

Shortly after his arrival in Charles Town in the spring of 1686, the Huguenot immigrant Jean Boyd wrote a detailed letter to his family back in England about his new home. The surviving copy of Boyd’s letter includes a small, hand-drawn map of the town—the earliest known illustration of urban Charleston in its infancy. As described in an earlier essay (see Episode No. 98), Boyd’s map, ostensibly dated 1686, depicts a connected series of rudimentary fortifications along the town’s first wharf now known as East Bay Street. Nothing is known about the chronology or the nature of these fortifications, however, owing to the loss of South Carolina’s legislative records from this era. 

The Spanish invasion of the southern coast of South Carolina in the autumn of 1686 caused a panic in Charleston, but the political paralysis that accompanied Governor James Colleton’s administration prevented the community from making any real defensive preparations in 1687. Then the flight of King James II from England in late 1688 and the ascension of King William III in early 1689 triggered a new war between England and France, called King William’s War in North America. Among the English colonies, most of the action in that nine-year conflict was confined to areas adjacent to French settlements; that is, from New York to Massachusetts and parts of the Caribbean. South Carolinians of that era were certainly wary of a French invasion, but the threat of a direct assault remained low. Governor James Colleton’s reckless decision to proclaim martial law in South Carolina in February 1690 inflamed local anxieties, however, and ultimately led to his downfall.[3]

Although there was no standing parliament or legislature in South Carolina in the spring of 1690, the citizens of Charleston apparently rallied to create some sort of emergency defenses along the Cooper River waterfront. Our only knowledge of this activity stems from one sentence within a letter written in late April 1690. John Stewart, a Scotsman residing in Charleston, described to a friend back in Edinburgh the latest news from the West Indies and the state of affairs in the Carolina capital: “We expect every day to be atackt by the French corsairs and we ar about to fortifye the whole front of the town like Mr. Smith’s pallisaded breistwork [breastwork] adjoyning to his wharfe.”[4] The extent and nature of such defensive works ostensibly erected along the “front of the town” in 1690 are completely unknown, as they are not mentioned in any other known documents. It is possible, however, that they were continued and improved during the brief administration of colonial South Carolina’s most notorious governor.

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

 


[1] Samuel G. Stoney, ed., “A Contemporary view of Carolina in 1680,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 55 (July 1954): 153–54. The original source of this item is a “Coppie of a Letter from Charles Towne in Carolina,” located at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections, Laing Collection, La. II, 718/1. Throughout this essay, I have reproduced the original spellings and misspellings found in the primary sources here cited.

[2] Letter from Thomas Newe to his father, dated 23 August 1682, in Alexander S. Salley Jr., ed., Narratives of Early Carolina 1650–1708 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 185–86.

[3] M. Eugene Sirmans, Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663–1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 47–48.

[4] Mabel L. Webber, ed., “Letters from John Stewart to William Dunlop,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 32 (January 1931): 32.

Over a period of nearly a year and a half in the late 1750s, the people of Charleston watched scores of laborers transform tons of oyster shells into a towering concrete barrier designed to protect the town’s northern boundary from invading enemies. Its construction was deemed vitally important in 1757, but the changing tide of world events convinced local authorities to abandon the tabby Horn Work before it was even finished. This turbulent genesis forms a long-forgotten prelude to the gallant defense of South Carolina’s capital during the American Revolution. 

Let’s begin with a brief review of last’s week’s program. In mid-June 1757, during the early stages of the Seven Years’ War with France, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bouquet came to Charleston with five companies of the British 60th Regiment of Foot (the “Royal Americans”). New defensive fortifications were then underway at White Point, at the town’s southern tip, but Bouquet convinced the South Carolina provincial government to construct a new fortified gate to defend the back or north side of the capital town. Lieutenant Emanuel Hess, an engineer with the 60th Regiment, drew a plan for a horn work composed principally of oyster shell concrete (tabby), with a narrow gate straddling the Broad Path (King Street) leading into Charleston. Governor William Henry Lyttelton approved Hess’s plan in late August, and planning commenced. In mid-October, Lt. Col. Bouquet and Lt. Col. Archibald Montgomery of the newly-arrived 62nd Regiment offered for some of their men to labor on the Horn Work. In early November, the South Carolina Commissioners of Fortifications acquired a rectangular tract of fifteen acres necessary for the new town gate, located just beyond the northern boundary of urban Charleston, and selected three of their own board members to personally superintend the project. The commissioners then directed one hundred soldiers, equipped with a sufficient number of wheelbarrows and spades, to begin digging the foundations of the Horn Work on the morning of Monday, November 14th. 

Beginning Construction

A detail from James Cook's 1773 map of South Carolina, showing urban Charleston.

A detail from James Cook’s 1773 map of South Carolina, showing urban Charleston.

During the initial weeks of labor in late 1757, the superintendents and soldiers apparently cleared the site of trees and obstructions, laid out the lines of the Horn Work on the ground, and then began to dig trenches for its foundations. The surviving records of this work do not mention the presence of Lieutenant Hess, but he likely attended and directed the effort in some capacity. As this preliminary work neared a conclusion in late December, the Commissioners of Fortifications hired Thomas Gordon, a well-known local bricklayer, to “conduct” the tabby work both in Charleston as well as at the new powder magazine in Dorchester, twenty miles away. To facilitate his dual management duties, the commissioners agreed to pay Gordon the large sum of £125 (South Carolina currency) per month on condition that he agreed “to furnish one man in Charles Town & another in Dorchester in his absence & himself to go from one to the other as he shall find it necessary.”

To direct the enslaved laborers who would soon join the hired soldiers, the commissioners employed John Holmes to act as “overseer” or foreman of the work “on the North Line.” In addition, Holmes brought his son and another “white lad” to the site to act as his assistants, brought his own “Negro carpenter,” and included his own “boat & Negroes” in the bargain. For the duration of the Horn Work construction, from late December 1757 to the end of March 1759, Thomas Gordon periodically supervised the tabby work while John Holmes managed the daily labor force, the delivery of materials, and the job site in general.

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

 

The tabby Horn Work that once guarded the northern approach to Charleston formed the citadel of American resistance during the British siege of 1780, but the story of its construction commenced decades before the Revolution. It arose from prolonged conversations about the best manner of defending the backside of South Carolina’s colonial capital, and was intended to supersede earlier, less remarkable works. Prompted by the outbreak of a new war with France in 1756, local officials and royal engineers bit the bullet and ordered the construction of several new fortifications that would transform the Lowcountry landscape.

Last week I provided an overview of a neglected fortification called the Horn Work that once straddled King Street along the northern edge of colonial Charleston. Having already described the highlights of that structure’s general design, materials, and dimensions, I’d like to segue into a more detailed investigation of its construction in the late 1750s. That era marked the final phase of a long series of fortification projects in urban Charleston that stretched back to the 1670s. Time doesn’t permit a full recital of the several construction campaigns leading up to the 1750s, but a brief synopsis of some of that material will help set the stage, so to speak, for the rise of the Horn Work and help us appreciate its role in our community’s long history. 

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

Have you heard the story of the Horn Work in Marion Square? You know—that mysterious, unobtrusive, lumpy slab of concrete covered with oyster shells standing in the park near King Street? Did you know it’s actually a tiny remnant of a massive fortress that once controlled access to colonial-era Charleston? And it was the city’s first citadel during the American Revolution? The Horn Work is one of Charleston’s biggest secrets hiding in plain sight, and today we’ll review the most salient chapters of its must-read story.

Horn_Work_looking_northeast_2008Marion Square is Charleston’s most popular public gathering space, but few visitors recognize one of the city’s most valuable historical treasures within the park. Behind a modest iron railing located approximately 125 feet east of King Street stands a mysterious slab of gray, concrete-like material. It stands approximately six feet high, is nearly ten feet long, and just over two feet wide at its base. A small metal plaque affixed to the railing is inscribed with a few disjointed words: “Remnant of Horn Work. May 1780. Siege of Charleston.” This brief text, installed in 1883, has provided little to inspire the imagination of successive generations of tourists and locals, who often pass the familiar object without a second look.

The homely remnant preserved within that iron fence merits much more attention than it currently receives, however. The brief text on its humble plaque imparts little of the dramatic story behind the massive structure that once dominated the site of Marion Square between 1758 and 1784, and which formed one of the most impressive military posts of the American Revolution. The documentary trail of evidence that illuminates the rise and fall of Charleston’s forgotten Horn Work is fragmentary, incomplete, and scattered across the globe. It’s also a complex narrative, drawn out over a number of decades and embedded within a deep context of international political and military issues.

In short, it’s a difficult story to tell in a brief synopsis. After struggling with this topic for some years, I’m going to attempt to provide an overview of the subject today, followed by a series of more detailed segments in the near future. In my experience, one of the best ways to whittle a complex topic down to a manageable size is to create a series of questions and answers that address the most salient issues. You might have heard me describe the Horn Work in recent years as “Charleston’s tabby fortress.” All of these words, drawn from the vocabulary of eighteenth-century European military engineering and the vernacular architecture of early South Carolina, might not mean anything to readers today, so let’s begin with the basics.

What is a Horn Work?

Horn_work_illustrationIn the vocabulary of military architecture, a “horn work” is a sort of broad fortress with a central gateway situated on the outskirts of a fortified town, the main purpose of which is to defend the approach or path to the settlement from the advance of potential enemies. The name itself is derived from a characteristic feature common to all horn works: a pair of half-bastions projecting outward to the left and to the right of a central wall or “curtain” that includes a gateway straddling the pathway into town. These half-bastions, which provide defenders additional angles to fire at approaching enemies, resemble horns projecting from the sides of an animal’s head. Similarly, if such a fortification included a third bastion in the center of the curtain wall, it would be called a “crown work” because of its resemblance to a monarch’s crown.

A horn work, in the general sense of the term, is a species of military architecture described in scores of fortification textbooks published in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. It was just one of a number of different types of defensive works that all military engineers of that era were expected to understand. Every species of fortification—like a bastion, a ravelin, or a redout—served a specific function and was suited to a specific situation, and their respective designs were all dictated by a well-established set of geometric rules. In the international landscape of military fortifications, Charleston’s eighteenth-century horn work was not a unique entity. In the long history of South Carolina, however, our Horn Work (for which I’m using initial capitals) was a unique and exceptional structure that merits our attention and appreciation. If nothing else, this structure might have been the only horn work ever built of tabby.

What is Tabby?

Tabby is a type of concrete that was once commonly used in the Lowcountry of early South Carolina and elsewhere. Occasionally spelled “tappy” in historic sources, this building material transformed locally-abundant natural resources into a relatively simple and cheap alternative to traditional masonry construction. Laborers transported sand, ash, broken oyster shells, and powdered lime (derived from burnt oyster shells) to a job site or retrieved them from sources on the spot. After combining those ingredients with water to form a viscous slurry, laborers poured the tabby mixture into a temporary vertical form made of parallel wooden planks connected by wooden dowels. The dimensions of the form varied but were generally in the range of one to three feet in breadth and one to two feet in depth; the length of the form was determined by a number of variables. Once the slurry had dried sufficiently to form a solid mass, the form could be dismantled by sliding the wooden dowels out of the recently-poured slab and removing the wooden planks from each side. By reassembling the same wooden form on top of the cured tabby and repeating the process a number of times, the successive layers of tabby eventually formed a solid vertical wall of any desired height. Surviving examples of tabby work in the South Carolina Lowcountry often include dowel holes and horizontal lines that illustrate such a repeated sequence of actions.

Tabby was often used in early South Carolina to pour slab floors, to construct foundations for wooden buildings, and occasionally to form the walls of entire structures. Its use seems to have been more common around Beaufort and the Port Royal area, however, as fewer examples of historic tabby construction have been found in the vicinity of Charleston. Whatever the reason behind that fact, we know that tabby was considered a novel construction material for fortifications in the Charleston area in 1757. In February of that year, the South Carolina Commissioners of Fortifications, an administrative board created in 1736 and appointed by the governor, ordered “a trial of tabby work” for some repairs to Fort Johnson on James Island. Thomas Gordon, a local bricklayer and tabby expert, then poured a pair of parallel tabby walls to form the inner and outer faces of a broad parapet that was later filled with earth to create a solid mass. The experiment apparently convinced the commissioners that tabby was more permanent that earthen fortifications and cheaper than brickwork, and they hired Gordon to do further work at Fort Johnson and elsewhere. . . .

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Charleston was one of the most heavily fortified communities in North America. The town’s urban defenses didn’t appear all at once, however.  They accumulated over multiple decades and successive eras of warfare with our Spanish and French neighbors.  The government campaign to fortify Charleston commenced early in the town’s history, but precisely how early is a bit fuzzy.  Today we’ll focus on the present town’s first few years and ask—how prepared were Charlestonians of the 1680s to defend their little town? The answer just might surprise you.

If you were to travel back in time to visit downtown Charleston at any point between 1704 and 1784, you would find an urban landscape dominated by a network of walls, moats, drawbridges, and cannon that encircled the town—effectively creating what we might call a “walled city.”  Because of ongoing tensions with our Spanish and French neighbors, and Charleston’s relative isolation within the broader landscape of British North America, South Carolina’s early government channeled the modern equivalent of billions of dollars into the construction and maintenance of defensive fortifications that were intended to protect our colonial capital in case of an attack launched by our enemy neighbors.  These fortifications saw little action over the years, and very few of the town’s cannon were ever fired in its defense, but these facts demonstrate that they had fulfilled their purpose.  Charleston’s collective fortifications, which expanded dramatically between 1704 and the 1770s, served as an effective deterrent to anyone contemplating a hostile invasion of one of the richest seaports in colonial North America.  The town’s defensive works were expanded further during our War of Independence in the late 1770s, but they took a significant beating during the protracted and ultimately successful British siege in the spring of 1780.

The colonial community of “Charles Town” was incorporated as “Charleston” in 1783, just after the conclusion of the American Revolution, and the new city and state governments worked together in the post-war years to accomplish a major undertaking—the demilitarization of urban Charleston.  Since that time, visitors have found a civilian city, the landscape of which bears few visible remnants of the colonial-era fortifications.  The early works were effectively demolished and scraped off the face of the earth in the post-Revolutionary decade, after which even locals began to forget about Charleston’s former existence as a “walled city.”  To some, those early defensive works might have seemed like quaint examples of our community’s naïve, colonial infancy.  Few people in the nineteenth century harbored any nostalgic feelings for our early fortifications as the town expanded and became increasingly “modern.”  That sentiment began to change at the turn of the twenty-first century, however, when some people in the community began to realize that the quickening pace of development in urban Charleston was literally churning up physical remnants the city’s militarized past.  Opportunities to study these remnants were at hand and would likely continue in coming years, so a call to arms was sounded.  In 2005, a group of advocates including preservationists, archaeologists, historians, and educators convinced the City of Charleston to create the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force.  Since that time, this volunteer group has worked rather quietly to advocate for the study, preservation, and interpretation of the physical remnants of the colonial-era fortifications that remain below our collective feet in the landscape of urban Charleston.

As a member of this Task Force for the past fourteen years, I have been actively collecting and studying the documentary evidence related the construction and maintenance of defensive fortifications about the peninsular city of Charleston.  This research began with a series of very simple questions: Who paid for these fortifications?  Who was responsible for the construction, maintenance, and demolition of these works?  Are there any surviving records of that activity?  The answers to such questions are both simple and painfully complicated.  The provincial government of early South Carolina ordered and paid for the fortifications.  The government, principally the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, appointed and hired agents to superintend the construction and maintenance of various fortifications over a period of about a century.  These agents periodically reported their activities and submitted invoices to the government, and the legislature periodically surveyed the fortifications as the treat of foreign invasion waxed and waned.  Over the years, I have made a systematic sweep through the surviving records of South Carolina’s colonial government, now housed at our state’s Department of Archives and History in Columbia, and collected more than two thousand pages of single-spaced notes relating to the fortifications of urban Charleston.  In short, there is very robust paper trail for the government’s efforts to defend its colonial capital, but the documentary evidence of this activity is incomplete and inconsistent.  Some projects and eras, such as the works constructed during the mid-1750s, are remarkably well documented, while the paper trail for others—especially the earliest fortifications—is practically non-existent.  To address these documentary shortcomings, and to better understand the context in which these fortifications were built, I’ve had to spend a lot of time studying the history of European military architecture and the international political climate that motivated the government of early South Carolina to expend precious resources on the defense of its capital.

Today’s program represents the beginning of a series of essays in which I’ll attempt to distill and narrate the century-long story of the urban fortifications of colonial Charleston.  After years of collecting information and trying to interpret the data, it’s time to start committing my conclusions to (virtual) paper and share them with the public.  I’ll begin this effort today by focusing specifically on the early 1680s, and in the coming months I’ll periodically roll out additional essays with lots of illustrations.  A few years from now, I’ll gather these essays together and publish them as a proper book.  If additional evidence—documentary or physical—rises to the surface during this process, I’ll have a chance to revise my conclusions and improve the story before handing this project over to the next generation of historians.  Ok, enough of the prelude, let’s get to the main event. . . .

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

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