If you’ve ever walked along the east side of Charleston’s East Bay Street, you’ve stood atop a forgotten brick wall that once defined the city’s waterfront. Construction of this half-mile-long “wharf wall” or “curtain line” commenced in the 1690s to separate the street from the harbor, and it formed a significant part of the town’s military defenses through the American Revolution. Knocked down to street level in the 1780s, the wall’s lower half survives just below the modern streetscape, but its precise location is now something of a mystery.

This detail from a 1784 plat of East Bay Street shows the intact brickwork of the curtain line and the redan near the east end of Lodge Alley

The waterfront curtain wall was once a prominent feature of Charleston’s built environment that would have been familiar to every inhabitant and visitor from the 1690s through the 1780s. Despite its long-standing position within the community, few historians have included this structure in their studies of the city’s evolving landscape. This neglect is not the result of bias or a lack of interest, but rather the result of a convoluted paper trail. The long but incomplete story of the construction, maintenance, and demolition of the curtain wall is inscribed within the extant manuscript records of South Carolina’s early government, which few modern readers have the opportunity or patience to peruse. After several years of combing through the surviving records at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, I’ve accumulated a significant amount of information related to the rise and fall of the curtain wall. The resulting mass of data forms a long and tangled narrative that doesn’t make for exciting reading, however. In order to promote a better understanding of the subject, I’ve assembled an overview organized by a series of questions focusing on the most salient points of its history.


What is the curtain wall?

The object in question is a linear structure that follows a roughly north-south axis along the east side of East Bay Street in urban Charleston. The name “curtain wall” is a modern mash-up of earlier terms. The earliest records of its existence describe the feature as a “wharf wall” because it was associated with the creation of the linear “wharf” along Charleston’s Cooper River waterfront that became East Bay Street (see Episode No. 180). In the early years of the eighteenth century, locals frequently called it the “front wall” because it served as the easternmost part of a growing network of defensive fortifications surrounding the town. Starting in 1720, locals began describing this front wall using the standard military term “curtain line”; that is, a linear feature forming a defensive link between a series of gun batteries. 


This 1762 republication of Bishop Roberts’s 1739 ‘Exact Prospect of Charles Town’ presents a stylized view of the town’s waterfront that highlights the strength and beauty of its architecture.


Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve probably seen an image of the curtain wall. The most famous visual depiction is an engraving titled An Exact Prospect of Charles Town, first published in London in 1739 and then reprinted (in a slightly simplified form) in 1762. At the far left edge of that image is Granville Bastion, a diamond-shaped brick fortification with a large flag staff flying a British ensign. The remnants of that bastion are now under the Missroon House at 40 East Bay Street. The brick curtain wall extends northwardly from Granville Bastion to the east end of Tradd Street, where a V-shaped structure called a “redan” projects into the Cooper River. From the north side of the redan, the curtain wall continues northward until it intersects with the Half Moon Battery at the east end of Broad Street. From the north side of the Half-Moon, the curtain line extends to a second redan near the east end of Unity Alley, and then northward to a third redan near the east end of Lodge Alley. The waterfront wall terminates at a junction with Craven Bastion, another large, diamond-shaped structure now under the steps of the U.S. Custom House at 200 East Bay Street. 

It’s important to note, however, that this image, which appears in numerous books about early Charleston, includes a measure of artistic license. The artist purposefully omitted the several large wooden wharves that extended from East Bay Street into the Cooper River at that time. Visitors to colonial-era Charleston arriving by sea would have seen only segments of the curtain wall between the long wharves. The artist Bishop Roberts might have omitted the wharves from his illustration to emphasize the strength and beauty of Charleston’s waterfront architecture, or perhaps he was simply unable to execute the proper foreshortening of the wharves in perspective. 

What was the purpose of the curtain wall?

The structure served two important purposes. Initially, it was conceived and built as a revetment—that is, a continuous wall designed to reinforce the eastern line of Charleston’s first wharf, which we now call East Bay Street. The town’s original Cooper River waterfront was a low, sloping gradient like you see along riverbanks throughout the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Early civic leaders staked a line in the mud, roughly following the river’s high-water mark, and began building up the sandy shore behind the line. The creation of the wharf wall was the first step in creating a broad, level plain along the town’s waterfront that we see today. Its construction allowed Charlestonians to raise the level of the earth behind the wall to keep maritime commerce high and dry. This effort was an engineering first in early South Carolina, but it followed the model of similar revetment walls in other riverfront towns like London, Paris, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Bridgetown, and many more. 

Secondarily, at the turn of the eighteenth century, South Carolina’s provincial government began to regard Charleston’s brick wharf wall as a component in the town’s expanding network of urban fortifications. The creation of six gun batteries arrayed along the length of the Cooper River waterfront in the early 1700s divided the continuous wharf wall into a segmented curtain line composed of five distinct sections. The militarization of the wharf wall also transformed its design. To protect musketeers and cannon mounted on low ship carriages along East Bay Street, civic leaders increased the height of the original wall. The resulting structure served as both a waterfront revetment and a defensive curtain for the town’s defenders in case of enemy invasion.

This story continues at Charleston Time Machine. . . . 


Fearing a Spanish attack on the capital of South Carolina in 1704, English and French colonists directed enslaved Africans to excavate many tons of earth to create a moat and earthen wall around Charleston. This continuous line of entrenchment, stretching nearly a mile in length, included numerous cannon placed within bastions and redans, while a single gateway with drawbridges controlled access into and out of the town. The defensive works of 1704 transformed Charleston into an “enceinte” or enclosed settlement that restricted the community’s growth for decades. 

Today’s program is a continuation of the storyline I started in Episode No. 221. In that program, we talked about the political and military context of 1703 that motivated the South Carolina General Assembly to order the construction of an earthen wall and moat around a portion of urban Charleston. The commencement of a new war between England, France, and Spain in 1702 had triggered a wave of anxiety in South Carolina, primarily because of the proximity of Spanish neighbors in Florida. After Spanish forces from Cuba annihilated the small English settlement at Nassau in the Bahamas, the people of Charleston feared the Carolina capital might form their next target. 

Governor Nathaniel Johnson called the South Carolina General Assembly for an emergency session in early December 1703 to formulate a defensive strategy. During two weeks of intensive work, the provincial government adopted a fortification plan drawn by a French immigrant named Samuel DuBourdieu, and engaged the services of another Frenchman, Jacques Le Grande, sieur de Lomboy (aka James Lomboy), to help the government transfer DuBourdieu’s scaled plan onto the full-sized landscape of the town. On December 23, the South Carolina legislature ratified an act ordering the construction of new fortifications to envelop the core real estate of urban Charleston and appointed Colonel William Rhett to act as sole commissioner or “manager” of the project. 

The fortification act of December 1703 initiated the creation of an “enceinte” or fortified enclosure that encompassed the highest and driest real estate within the colonial capital of South Carolina. This enceinte was not a monolithic structure, but rather a chain of interconnected structures, including several bastions, redans, and one ravelin, all of which were linked by straight curtain walls. Three sides of this enceinte—to the south, west, and north of the town—were built of earth and wood in 1704, while the long waterfront side was composed of brickwork that had commenced several years earlier and continued beyond 1704. 

This difference in material is important because the provincial government assigned different priorities to each. The government ordered the creation of the enceinte in response to what it considered a defensive emergency. At the beginning of 1704, local officials paused the unfinished brickwork along Charleston’s eastern waterfront and pivoted all available labor and resources to complete the task of enclosing the core of the town within a circuit of defensive works. As I described in Episode No. 221, the walls built around urban Charleston in 1704 were entrenchments—hastily-constructed defensive works composed of cheap, readily-available materials to address an emergency situation. Workers excavated a ditch or moat and piled the earth on the adjacent surface to construct a defensive barrier. These entrenchments were designed to last for a few years, after which the inhabitants might scrape the earthen walls back into the adjacent moat without altering the landscape in a permanent manner. The fact that it is now very difficult to find any trace of these early walls is a testament to the success of the emergency plan adopted by the South Carolina General Assembly in late 1703. 

Huguenot immigrant James Lomboy began assisting the provincial government with their fortification plans during the third week of December 1703, but his main contributions commenced in the days after the legislature adjourned for the Christmas holiday. His first task would have been to procure a number of long ropes—the sort of maritime cordage readily available in any port town of that era—to create an outline of the ditch and the walls on the surface of the ground along the proposed path of the works. Numerous fortification textbooks published in Europe during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century describe the use of ropes to perform this preliminary step, so we might assume that Monsieur Lomboy did likewise. The lines of the ropes, augmented by wooden stakes driven at intervals, provided laborers and supervisors with clear visual guides for the digging and piling to be done.

James Lomboy did not leave behind a journal of his labors in 1703–4, but we can construct a hypothetical narrative of his work by visualizing the landscape of urban Charleston at that time. This task is simplified by the existence of a smattering of documentary clues, notes from recent physical explorations, and three contemporary or nearly-contemporary illustrations. The text version of this program on the CCPL website includes images of the well-known Crisp Map of 1711 and John Herbert’s lesser-known plan of the fortifications of Charleston, drafted in the autumn of 1721.[i] These two illustrations depict slightly different and stylized versions of the enceinte surrounding the town, but they provide invaluable visual clues. Herbert’s hand-drawn plan, for example, indicates that the enceinte enclosed just sixty-two acres at the core of urban Charleston. Bishop Roberts traced the outline of the fortified enceinte on his 1739 map titled Ichnography of Charleston at High Water, but that image was created several years after the town’s earthen walls and surrounding ditch had been demolished, and might not provide an entirely reliable visual representation.[ii]

This story continues at Charleston Time Machine. . . . 


[i] John Herbert’s manuscript plat is found at the National Archive (Kew), CO 700/Carolina6. This document, which measures approximately eighteen by twenty-four inches, contains a number of hand-written notes. An inscription at the top left corner reads “The Ichnography or Plann of the Fortifications of Charlestown, and the Streets, with the names of the Bastions[;] quantity of acres of Land, number of Gunns[,] and weight of their Shott, By his Excellencys Faithfull & Obedient Servt. John Herbert. Octobr: 27 1721.” In the lower right corner is a small scale with the following inscription: “A scale of Ten Chaines 66 Feete [sic] in a Chaine [sic] and two Ch: in an Inch.”

[ii] The Ichnography of Charles Town. At High Water, published in London in 1739 by Bishop Roberts and W. H. Toms, includes a note that had misinformed many generations of historians: “The Double Lines represent the Enceinte as fortified by the Inhabitants for their defence against the French Spaniards & Indians without it were only a few Houses & these not thought safe till after the signal Defeat of ye Indians in the Year 1717, at which time the North West & South sides were dismantled & demolished to enlarge the Town.” Contemporary records of South Carolina’s provincial government demonstrate that the lines of the enceinte were maintained, to some degree, until the spring of 1723, when official neglect formally commenced. As late as 1732, however, the local government was protecting the earthen lines of the former fortifications around the town. This topic will form the focus of a future program. 

The Half-Moon Battery is a historic structure in urban Charleston that formed part of the town’s earliest fortifications. Construction of its curving brick wall commenced in the mid-1690s, and the structure was completed and armed in 1702. Its cannon defended the Carolina capital and fired salutes to mark civic occasions until the upper part of the battery was demolished in 1768 to facilitate the construction of the present Old Exchange. Now partially visible within the dungeon of that historic building, the fabric of the Half-Moon Battery provides a valuable glimpse of the city’s colonial past.

Detail of the Half-Moon Battery from Bishop Roberts’s Ichnography of Charles-Town (1739)

Standing at the east end of Broad Street and overlooking Charleston Harbor, the Half-Moon Battery played a central role in the geography and history of South Carolina’s colonial capital. Despite its significance, generations of historians have been frustrated by the paucity of details relating to its creation. The chronology of its demolition has been known for some time, but the story of its genesis and evolution has eluded previous scholars. The summary presented in today’s program is based on a close study of the sparse references to the battery found in the extant records of the colony’s provincial government, which paid for its construction, maintenance, and destruction. We’ll discuss the social and commercial activities that took place around the Half-Moon in future programs; for the moment, we’ll focus on the rise and fall of the structure itself.

Charleston’s Half-Moon Battery is a unique structure within South Carolina, but its design reflects the traditions of European military architecture in the centuries preceding the founding the Carolina Colony in 1670. In the vocabulary of that discipline, the term “battery” describes a defensive structure that is not fully enclosed like a fort. A battery can stand alone as a detached fortification, or it can form part of a continuous line of defensive works. The term “half-moon battery,” also called a demi-lune or lunette, typically describes a semicircular structure projecting outward from a defensive line.

Numerous examples of circular and semi-circular fortifications were built across Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance Eras, but the popularity of such designs began to fade in the sixteenth century. To defend towns and cities against increasingly-powerful artillery weapons, military engineers moved away from the high walls and rounded turrets that characterized older fortifications and embraced new designs featuring lower defensive walls punctuated by angular projections. Half-moon structures continued to be built during this stylistic transition, however, as seen in the early Spanish Caribbean colonies such as Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and during the early-seventeenth century in the English colonies of Bermuda, Barbados, and others.

Rounded defensive structures became increasingly rare as the science of fortification evolved during the long European wars of the seventeenth century. By the 1690s, when Charleston’s Half-Moon Battery was built, its design would have seemed antiquated and outdated to most military engineers. Nevertheless, this Carolina structure was not an isolated anomaly. Sebastian de Vauban, the leading fortification engineer of late-seventeenth-century Europe, for example, designed a similar half-moon structure, called Fort Lupin, during the late 1680s. Standing on the river banks of Saint-Nazaire-sur-Charente, just south of La Rochelle, the semicircular shape of Fort Lupin might have been familiar to some of the French Huguenot refugees who emigrated to South Carolina during that turbulent decade.

As I mentioned in Episode No. 98, the map of Charleston drawn in 1686 by Huguenot immigrant Jean Boyd depicts a physical mass projecting from the east end of Broad Street that we might describe as having a semi-circular or half-moon shape. This feature, which Boyd did not specifically describe or identify, probably represents a combination of natural and man-made elements; that is, a naturally-occurring scarp of dry land projecting slightly from the shore line that the settlers outlined and augmented with wooden pilings driven into the mud to suit their defensive needs during the late 1670s or early 1680s. Although the demolition of this early half-moon is not recorded in any known documents, the brick semicircle erected in the 1690s occupies the same physical space as the feature depicted in Jean Boyd’s map of 1686. Rather than describing Charleston’s Half-Moon Battery of the 1690s as an example of an outdated fortification design, therefore, it might be more accurate to view its construction as the robust renovation of a pre-existing half-moon revetment built of less-durable materials at the same site more than a decade earlier. . . . 

This story continues at Charleston Time Machine.

After the South Carolina General Assembly resolved in the spring of 1696 to build a brick fortification in Charleston at the east end of Broad Street, a series of revisions enacted during the following year altered both its location and its design. The project was moved to a familiar beachfront, still visible today, and expanded into the shape of a formidable, modular structure. Although this imposing design was never completed, terse government documents, combined with drawings held in distant archives and surviving brickwork, provide sufficient clues to reimagine the forgotten Charleston fortress of 1697.

Granville Bastion, in short, is one of the best-remembered features and most intact remnants of the myriad fortifications that were built across Charleston’s urban landscape during the city’s first century. Copious information survives to illuminate the later years of this bastion’s history, but I have to admit that I’ve been struggling for years to interpret the documentary evidence relating to the initial stages of its construction in the late 1690s. The fortifications of early Charleston were built by the provincial government, and the extant government records from the turn of the eighteenth century contain only very sparse and somewhat confusing descriptions of that work. After reviewing the evidence countless times, I’ve reached a conclusion that I think will surprise many people: Granville Bastion began as the southeastern corner of a four-bastioned fort that was never completed. 

Granville Bastion highlighted on the "Crisp Map" of 1711

Granville Bastion highlighted on the “Crisp Map” of 1711

Today’s program is about the beginning of Charleston’s first permanent fortification project, a brick structure commenced in 1697 and later called Granville Bastion. A bastion, for those not familiar with the term, is a diamond-shaped structure that projects outward from the corner of a larger, polygonal fortification. Anyone acquainted with the early maps of urban Charleston, especially the so-called “Crisp Map” of 1711 and the two maps published by Bishop Roberts in 1739 (the “Ichnography of Charles Town” and “An Exact Prospect of Charles Town”) will recognize Granville Bastion as the southeastern corner of a line of fortifications that surrounded approximately sixty-two acres of the early town. Readers of early South Carolina history will recognize Granville Bastion as the site of the colony’s first gunpowder magazine and the official site for the ceremonial proclamation of successive royal governors and successive declarations of war. Fans of historic preservation will recall that the substantial brick remnants of Granville Bastion support the foundations of the Missroon House at 40 East Bay Street, the headquarters of the Historic Charleston Foundation. 

Those of us who are familiar with the urban landscape of colonial-era Charleston tend to take for granted the system of bastions, entrenchments, and redans that formed a trapezoid of fortifications around sixty-two acres of the town in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Many people regard this defensive phenomenon as the result of a unified construction campaign, as if the plan to surround the town commenced with the settlement of Charleston. In reality, however, the town’s earliest fortifications grew slowly and organically, without a grand master plan. When work commenced in 1697 to build the first permanent fortifications in Charleston, the brick structure that became known as Granville Bastion was not intended as the southeastern corner of a large, fortified trapezoid surrounding a major portion of the town, but rather as the southeastern corner of a much smaller, two-acre fort. Like similar enclosed forts built at New Amsterdam (later New York), St. Augustine, and Nassau, among other places, this unnamed four-bastioned fort was designed to stand adjacent to, but separate from, the civic heart of urban Charleston.

The documentary evidence supporting this conclusion is couched within the larger story of England’s nine-year war with France known in Europe as the War of the Grand Alliance and in America as King William’s War (1689–1697). Charles Town (renamed Charleston in 1783), the capital and sole port of the southern part of the Carolina Colony, was the southernmost English outpost on the mainland of North America. The early settlers had fortified the town in the 1680s with some rudimentary fortifications built of earth and wood along the Cooper River waterfront. Back in England during the early 1690s, the Lords Proprietors who owned the Carolina Colony implored the provincial government in Charleston to construct more permanent fortifications, but factional divisions within the local Assembly stunted progress towards that objective. Furthermore, the English colonists here felt less anxious about the threat of a French attack. Carolina was then at peace with her Spanish neighbors in Florida, and the nearest French outpost was a thousand miles away in the Caribbean. . . .  

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

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.

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