fortifications


Johnson’s Ravelin, also known as Johnson’s Cover’d Half Moon, was a man-made triangular island (of sorts) that guarded the only land entrance into Charleston for approximately thirty years.  Designed in December 1703 and dismantled in the early 1730s, this important defensive work was once a major landmark of our city’s built environment.  Today, however, it’s completely unfamiliar to most of the residents and tourists who pass over its remnants at the modern intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets.

The history of Johnson’s Ravelin begins in December 1703, when Governor Nathaniel Johnson called an emergency session of the South Carolina General Assembly in Charleston.  Credible intelligence had just been received, the governor informed the legislators, that Spanish forces were massing at Havana and St. Augustine for an invasion of South Carolina, and immediate action was required to prepare an adequate defense of the colony.  After discussions and debates, the legislature voted to fund a new system of fortifications to surround the highest, driest land in the capital, Charles Town, with a new system of fortifications.  Two French Huguenot refugees were summoned to design the enceinte and to lay out the walls and moats that would encircle the town for the next three decades.

One of the most impressive features of the 62-acre trapezoid enceinte of Charleston was the ravelin, a detached work designed to guard the only landward entrance to the town.  This feature was not a local invention, of course, but rather a standard component of European-style fortifications that was described and illustrated in every military textbook of the late seventeenth century.  French engineers under Louis XIV were among the best and most prolific practitioners of fortification construction during that era, and so it is telling that the English government of early South Carolina turned to French civilian immigrants for advice in this moment of military crisis.  The English borrowed the French term ravelin, but occasionally they used an English equivalent phrase “covered half-moon,” so-called because this feature allows musketeers (that’s the correct term) to “cover” or defend a semicircular sweep of land in front of the town gate.

By October 1704, Governor Johnson reported to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina that the new works around Charleston were “nearly perfected.”  The earliest known illustration of the enceinte of Charleston appears in map published in London in 1711, the so-called “Crisp Map.”  The two images below are details from that map.  The first shows an extreme close-up of the ravelin with features labled “H,” “I,” and “K” (remember that the letters “I” and “J” were interchangeable at this time), while the second image shows the accompanying explanation of those three features.

1711_Crisp_ravelin
1711_Crisp_caption_detail

As you can see, the ravelin or “cover’d Half Moon” named for Governor Johnson included not one, but two drawbridges leading to the town gate.  Persons traveling to Charleston from the country came southward down the “broad path” (King Street) to the site of the modern intersection of King and Queen Streets, then turned to the southeast and approached the ravelin.  The first drawbridge “in ye Half Moon” (letter K) stretched along a northwest-southeast trajectory, perpendicular to the ravelin’s outer moat.  Having crossed over that bridge onto the ravelin proper (letter I), one then turned approximately 45 degrees to face due east and then crossed over a second drawbridge “in ye Line” (letter H) and passed through (or under) the gateway into the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets.

These drawbridges, or at least the outer one, were still present and being repaired in the late 1720s, despite an often-cited but inaccurate notation found on a 1739 map of Charleston stating that the town’s early fortifications were removed in 1717.  In reality, the ravelin and its associated features were dismantled in the early 1730s, though the exact date is lost among some missing legislative records of that era.  It was during the early 1730s that the physical limits of the town began to expand rapidly, as a truce reigned between Britain and Spain and South Carolina—now finally a “Royal” colony—settled into a brief era of peace and prosperity.

The obsolete ravelin was soon forgotten, but remnants of its moat continued to linger for many years. Shortly after the 1743 completion of the provincial armory, near the southwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, the keepers of the public arms complained that the building’s proximity to an adjacent “pond” was causing the weapons to rust and decay. There was no natural “pond” at this site, however; the water was simply a vestige of the old moat. A similar problem was found a decade later at the northwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, where the South Carolina government planned to build its state house (now the Charleston County Historic Courthouse). The commissioners appointed to construct the state house objected to that site, noting in the spring of 1752 that “the ground is so loose and full of quick-sands, as to render it insufficient to support the weight intended to be laid upon it.” That site had once been high, dry ground, but the former moat surrounding the ravelin had compromised the integrity of the soil.

In the image below, I’ve taken a 1995 HABS photograph of the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets and drawn heavy red lines to indicate the approximate location of the moat surrounding Johnson’s Ravelin.  The placement of these lines is not entirely hypothetical; rather, they are based on eighteenth-century documentary descriptions and archaeological evidence from the late 1990s.
1995_HABS_&_ravelin

While the old State House / Charleston County Courthouse was undergoing massive renovations in 1999, workers found the buried remains of several large cedar posts that once supported the outer drawbridge (marked “K” in the Crisp Map above). In addition, archaeologists studying the courtyard immediately north of the courthouse found evidence of the moat on the east and northwest edges of their excavations. By combining these physical clues with local documentary evidence and illustrations taken from published fortification textbooks, we can begin to reconstruct the appearance of Johnson’s Ravelin in the early eighteenth century. It’s a work in progress, but if you’d like to learn more about this topic, please join me for a lecture titled:

“Johnson’s Ravelin: Charleston’s First Town Gate”

Wednesday, May 27th 2015 at 6 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

A 1757 illustration of Lyttelton's Bastion by its designer, William De Brahm

A 1757 illustration of Lyttelton’s Bastion by its designer, William De Brahm

Lyttelton’s Bastion was perhaps the most sophisticated and expensive of all the fortifications built in colonial Charleston. Completed in 1757 and named for newly-arrived Royal Governor William Henry Lyttelton, this work was designed as a “middle bastion” on White Point between Granville’s Bastion and Broughton’s Battery. Its construction employed earth, wood, brick, and tabby, and included a pair of flanking moats and floodgates to harness the tidal waters. More importantly, it featured two levels of cannon platforms to maximize the firepower of its compact, geometric shape. In the end, however, these impressive elements caused William De Brahm’s ambitious fortification designs for Charleston to be both over budget and behind schedule, and De Brahm was sacked before the bastion was completed. It was then finished, and perhaps simplified, by his successor, the young engineer Emmanuel Hess.

If you’ve never heard of Lyttelton’s Bastion, perhaps you’ve encountered descriptions of it under another name. During the American Revolution, some of the older fortifications at Charleston’s White Point were renamed in honor of the commanders who were stationed there in the late 1770s and early 1780s. Lyttelton’s Bastion, for example, appears in maps of that era under the name “Darrell’s” or “Dorrill’s Fort,” because Capt. Edward Darrell was commandant of  the bastion and lived in or next to it. Like the rest of Charleston’s colonial fortifications, Lyttelton’s Bastion was dismantled, subdivided, and sold at auction in 1784–1785. The site was re-used in 1794 for the construction of Fort Mechanic, a smaller, simpler fortification that stood until 1818.

As impressive as the design and construction of Lyttelton’s Bastion sounds, it’s still very much a mystery. We are fortunate to have several good quality illustrations of it, drawn by British agents in the 1770s and 1780s, and we are very fortunate to have descriptions of its construction in the lone surviving manuscript Journal of the Commissioners of Fortifications. Unfortunately, however, Mr. De Brahm’s own written descriptions of the bastion’s dimensions and construction methods are rather muddled. It seems that his mastery of the English language was not as keen as his mastery of the art of military architecture. For that reason, it is difficult to reconcile the surviving illustrations of Lyttleton’s Bastion with the textual descriptions.

As always, I’ve been brainstorming about what this bastion looked like, or, more precisely, how its several parts and pieces functioned. If you’d like to learn more about De Brahm’s “middle bastion,” please join me for an illustrated lecture titled:

“A Brief History of Lyttelton’s Bastion, 1757–1785”

Wednesday, February 25th at 6 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 29401.

IMG_3941

Today’s archaeology at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets focused on one specific feature that is visible at the surface of the ground: the point at which the composition of the sea wall under investigation transitions from brick to stone. We dug on both sides of the wall in search of clues that might help us determine the vintage of the materials and the sequence of construction. Based on what we’ve seen over these two days, it appears that most of our target, the 1769 sea wall, was rebuilt during multiple repair episodes in the first half of the 19th century, and the original construction materials (brick and Bermuda stone) were deconstructed and recycled as fill behind the rebuilt wall.

In response to Robert Behre’s article in today’s edition of the Post and Courier, a number of local residents and tourists stopped by the dig site to peer into the past and ask questions. As always, it was a pleasure to share our discoveries, theories, and enthusiasm for urban archaeology.

The point at which the brick  wall transitions into a stone wall.

The point at which the brick wall transitions into a stone wall.

We commenced digging approximately 40 feet east of King Street, on the south side (water side) of the sea wall. As we learned yesterday, there is a large concrete utility chase in this area running parallel to our wall, so we knew we would only be able to excavate to a depth of two or three feet. Approximately two feet below the surface, we encountered the concrete chase and began to clean the wall for a better view. As you can see in the photo,  some masons in the past took a certain amount of care to fit and mortar irregularly shaped stones into the jagged edge of the brick work. Both of these elements, however, appear to represent nineteenth century repairs. The appearance and size of the bricks, combined with the color and composition of the mortar, suggest that these materials replaced the eighteenth-century bricks and mortar that originally composed the wall. As mentioned in yesterday’s posting, we also know that repairs to this wall were done with stone after 1811. But which came first—the brick repairs seen here, or the stone repairs? That’s a question that will require further digging through the surviving newspapers and other documentary records.

A view of the south side of the wall at the brick-stone interface.

A view of the south side of the wall at the brick-stone interface.

A view of the north side of the wall adjacent to the brick-stone interface.

A view of the north side of the wall adjacent to the brick-stone interface.

 

Unable to dig deeper on the south side of the wall, we turned our attention to its north side to see if there might be other clues to help decipher the brick-stone intersection. Behind (north 0f) the wall we found the same mix of fill materials as yesterday; that is, ballast stone, eighteenth-century brick bats, and a large quantity of fragmented Bermuda stone. We remain in awe of the prevalence of Bermuda stone concentrated in this small area. Whether or not the wall we’re investigating represents work completed in 1769 or extensive repairs in the 1830s, the profusion of otherwise-rare Bermuda stone at this location confirms that we’re in the right place and, at the very least, seeing the city’s attempts to maintain a very useful piece of colonial waterfront infrastructure. Like yesterday’s work, today’s study of the back fill area yielded a number of ceramic fragments that continue to indicate that this site was heavily disturbed during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Looking east at the backfill behind the sea wall (at right), showing the loose and consolidated sections of rubble materials.

Looking east at the back fill behind the sea wall (at right), showing the loose and consolidated sections of rubble materials.

In today’s case, however, we observed a difference in the nature of the fill behind the wall. Careful hand-troweling through the rubble revealed that a reasonably discrete portion of the fill was slathered in mortar, as if in an attempt to create a unified body. The extent and purpose of this mortar-bound fill is unclear, but we have a theory. The consolidated section in question is perpendicular to the wall, and perhaps was intended to act as a buttress or “counterfort” to stabilize the wall against the opposing force of the tides.

Speaking of the tides, today’s downward digging once again found water just a few feet below the surface, and it’s hard to forget that the Ashley River is just a stone’s throw away from our site. And so, hemmed in by modern utilities, streetscapes, and seeping tidal waters, we closed up our units and now begin the work of analyzing the data.

The Mayor’s Walled City Task Force extends its collective thanks to the City of Charleston (especially the Stormwater Services and Parks Departments), Clemson University, the Charleston Museum, the College of Charleston, the Charleston County Public Library, the Post and Courier, and every one who visited the site, for helping to make this brief but very productive collaborative venture a success. Our goal is to pursue and to share knowledge in an effort to increase public understanding and appreciation of Charleston’s history, and I think we’re right on target.

The dig site at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets in Charleston.

The dig site at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets in Charleston.

This morning the Walled City Task Force began a brief exploratory dig at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets, and we found some interesting materials. Did we find physical evidence to confirm the existence of the 1769 sea wall built of Bermuda stone and brick? Well, maybe. It’s a long story, and it’s going to take us a while to sort out the evidence and draw conclusions.

Part of the exposed brickwork at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets.

Part of the exposed brickwork at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets.

If you recall the earlier posting about this topic, we’re seeking to identify the line of bricks and stones that is visible along much of the northern edge of White Point Garden (see the photo below). This line doesn’t seem to be related to either the boundary of the park or the curb of South Battery Street, and so we suspect it is a vestige of a wall constructed in the summer of 1769 as a sea wall to protect the extensive and expensive fortifications that once stood at White Point. There is no documentary evidence to suggest that this wall was ever dismantled, and thus it would have stood as a visible, useful barrier for the neighborhood until a new wall was built around the western extension of White Point Garden ca. 1850.

Most of the early records of the City of Charleston were lost or destroyed during the chaos of the spring of 1865, however, so there is a big blind spot in our historical understanding of this site.  We know from newspaper advertisements that there was some sort of repair or refashioning of this 1769 sea wall during the early years of the nineteenth century, but the extent of that work is unclear. In October of 1811, for example, the city advertised that it needed large “building stone” for construction of the East Battery sea wall (still standing today), and also “building stone of a smaller size from fifty to two hundred weight for South-Bay-street.” In October 1812, and again as late as April 1831, the city advertised its desire to contract with someone to repair “the stone wall on South Bay.” Based on what we found today, it appears that much (but perhaps not all) of the 1769 brick sea wall was rebuilt with granite stones in the early 1800s.

The first hole revealed a bonanza of rubble fill material, including large fragments of Bermuda stone.

The first hole revealed a bonanza of rubble fill material, including large fragments of Bermuda stone.

Using a small backhoe and shovels, we dug (and later re-filled) three holes today. The first hole was on the north side (the land side) of the wall in question, approximately 100 feet east of King Street. Just a few inches below the surface, we encountered a bonanza of ballast stone, brick bats, and large chunks of Bermuda stone. The wall appears to be constructed solely of stones, and back-filled with dense rubble containing almost no artifacts. That description doesn’t match what we’re looking for, but the presence of the Bermuda stone fragments was a pleasant surprise. Charleston’s senior archaeologist, Martha Zierden of the Charleston Museum, says its very unusual to find such a concentration of Bermuda stone, even fragments of it, in Charleston. If this section of the 1769 wall was rebuilt with quarried stone ca. 1811, it would make sense that workers would excavate the surviving Bermuda stone and brick and recycle it as fill material.

The second hole, on the south side of the wall, showing nineteenth-century stone repairs and a late 20th century utility obstruction.

The second hole, on the south side of the wall, showing nineteenth-century stone repairs and a late 20th century utility obstruction.

The second hole was dug on the south side (the water side) of the wall, approximately fifteen feet west of the first hole. Here we found the relatively clean face of a granite stone wall with a slight batter or slope from top to bottom. The soil in front of the wall was completely sterile and new, because sometime in the late twentieth century the power utility company built an extensive concrete chase that runs nearly the width of the park, parallel to the wall we’re investigating. After digging down approximately three feet, that utility line prevented us from exploring this side of the wall any further. As you can see in my photograph, it appears that this section of the 1769 sea wall was also rebuilt with stone in 1811.

Martha Zierden places a photographic scale on the brick wall exposed in our third hole of the day.

Martha Zierden places a photographic scale on the brick wall exposed in our third hole of the day.

The third and final hole of the day was located just a few feet east of the corner of King and South Battery, next to the clearly exposed line of brick. After just a few seconds of breaking the surface on the north side (land side) of the wall, we began seeing fragments of ceramics and glass. Martha Zierden dated them to the first half of the nineteenth-century. We were able to remove enough fill to expose fifteen courses of brick before water began to seep into the hole (remember the Ashley River is just a stone’s throw away). Although we were pleased to finally see some intact, old brickwork, the appearance of the brick was not quite what we were expecting. We found many fragments of colonial-era brick in the fill behind the wall, but as you can see in the photo below, the bond or pattern of the layout of the brick is more reminiscent of post-colonial-era work.

The brickwork of uncertain vintage, exposed in the day's third hole.

The brickwork of uncertain vintage, exposed in the day’s third hole.

Could it be that this section of the 1769 brick sea wall was also rebuilt ca. 1811, but with brick rather than stone? The determining factor in this question might be the presence or absence of Bermuda stone at the base of the brick work. Since the bottom course of bricks was actually below the water level, we couldn’t see what was there. A tactile investigation (that is, reaching into the mud) found only coarse silt and vague fragments, which might actually represent the remnants of degraded Bermuda stone (which is soft when under water and hardens only when exposed to dry air). In short, we’re not sure of the date of this construction.

Looking west toward the intersection of King and South Battery Streets.

Looking west toward the intersection of King and South Battery Streets.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad day of archaeology, despite the high temperature of only 48. We’ll return to the scene tomorrow and try to find further evidence to help us understand the construction history of this mysterious wall. Thursday should be a warmer day, so please drop by and have a look if you’re in the neighborhood. Remember, also, that there will be a public program in late March including recap the history of the 1768-1769 sea wall and a summary of the findings from this dig.

 

A small fragment of Bermuda stone excavated today.

A small fragment of Bermuda stone excavated today.

Oh–and of course I have to include a photo of a Bermuda stone fragment recovered from this morning first dig. This material would have been sawed into a rectangular block originally, but as you can see now it’s quite degraded.

 

Everyone is familiar with Charleston’s famous Battery, the stone and concrete sea wall and promenade that wraps around White Point at the southern tip of the peninsula. In fact, the Battery is our city’s most popular tourist destination, drawing several million visitors every year. Few people know, however, that this picturesque landmark was not the first wall the protect White Point from the daily inundation of the tides. Beginning in the spring of 1768 and concluding the autumn of 1769, the General Assembly of South Carolina funded the construction of a half-mile long wall around this same location, using Bermuda stone, bricks, and palmetto logs. Although it has been almost entirely forgotten, significant portions of this late-colonial-era wall may still exist under White Point Garden. In the coming weeks, the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force will endeavor to raise awareness of the this forgotten wall by way of blog posts, public programs, and even a brief archaeological dig.

The sea wall in question, which didn’t really have a proper name, commenced in 1768 at Granville’s Bastion (now under the Missroon House at 40 East Bay Street) and extended southward past Lyttelton Bastion, turned westwardly around Broughton’s Battery, and ended at Lamboll’s Bridge (a large wharf just west of the south end of King Street). Its primary purpose was to protect the above-mentioned fortifications from the “violence of the seas,” and it replaced the earthen ramparts constructed (at great expense) for that purpose in the late 1750s under engineer William De Brahm. According to the design specifications, which survive in the manuscript “Journal of the Commissioners of Fortifications, 1755-1770” at SCDAH, the brick wall stood at least five feet above ground on a foundation of Bermuda stones. Split palmetto logs were affixed to the outer face of the wall as a sacrificial buffer against tidal forces. The contract for the brickwork was won by the firm of Timothy Crosby and Anthony Toomer, while Hercules Hall was the lowest bidder for the carpentry contract.

The red line indicates the path of the 1768-1769 sea wall around Charleston's White Point

The red line indicates the path of the 1768-1769 sea wall around Charleston’s White Point

As discussed in previous postings on this blog, the various colonial-era fortifications situated around White Point were dismantled shortly after the American Revolution, and the waterfront property on which they had stood was subdivided and sold at auction. When the City of Charleston began planning the southward extension of East Bay Street in 1785, the proposed route extended from Granville’s Bastion toward the former site of Broughton’s Battery, but passing in front (eastward) of the “old” brick sea wall. In the course of the private development along this site, in conjunction with the city’s creation of what is now called “East Battery Street,” the northeastern half of the our late-colonial sea wall was probably obliterated. In contrast to this loss, however, the southwestern half of the old wall appears on several post-Revolutionary plats of White Point and South Battery, and, despite private development in this area in the late 1700s, significant portions of this wall may survive under the grass of White Point Garden, the seven-acre park developed between the late 1830s and the early 1850s.

In the coming weeks there will be several opportunities to learn more about this long-forgotten sea wall, so stay tuned to this blog for updates. For the moment, however, I encourage you to mark your calendar for an upcoming free public lecture, titled:

“Charleston’s First Battery Sea Wall, 1768-1769”

Tuesday, January 27th at 6 p.m.

Charleston Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

« Previous PageNext Page »