Granville Bastion

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.

In the one hundred years between the settlement of Charles Town on Oyster Point in 1680 and the American surrender of Charleston to the British Army in 1780, South Carolina’s provincial legislature directed massive amounts of money, resources, and labor toward the erection of defensive fortifications for the protection of the colony’s capital and main port. During that long era, South Carolinians carefully watched the movements of our Spanish and French neighbors in St. Augustine, Havana, Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans, ever mindful of the treat of foreign invasion. The Treaty of Paris in 1763, signed by Britain, France, and Spain, marked the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity in the American colonies. For the first time in our colonial history, South Carolinians no longer worried about the threat of foreign invasion, and the commerce of our ports expanded rapidly.

The rift between the colonists and Britain in 1775 brought a sudden end to what had been a very prosperous decade, however, and induced South Carolinians to make rapid preparations for an imminent engagement with a new enemy. After refurbishing and expanding our fortifications, Charleston was eventually overwhelmed by the might of the British Army and capitulated on 12 May 1780. Between that time and the British evacuation of Charleston on 14 December 1782, the occupying forces maintained and even expanded some of the town’s urban fortifications as a precaution against an American counterattack. But the dawning of the year 1783 brought a fresh outlook to South Carolina. All of our enemies had retreated, and, for the first time since the founding of the colony, South Carolina’s sovereignty stood unchallenged on the world stage. At that moment our legislators, military leaders, and private citizens asked themselves, what should become of the long-standing urban fortifications crowding our principal port and capital town?

1784 newspaper notice for sale of fortifications in Charleston

1784 newspaper notice for sale of fortifications in Charleston

In retrospect, we look back at the year 1783 as the official beginning of the happy sovereignty of the United States of America, but at that time not everyone was so sanguine about our future. Following legislative debates and petitions from the merchant community, South Carolina’s General Assembly voted in March 1783 to preserve, maintain, and even expand Charleston’s urban fortifications. In the meantime, peace negotiations were proceeding in Paris between American and British diplomats, and the news of their progress was amply reported in our local newspapers.  When the City of Charleston was finally incorporated on 13 August 1783, local conversations began about who had jurisdiction over the urban defenses, and how long they might remain. Finally, at the end of its spring session in late March 1784, the South Carolina legislature voted to divest the state’s interest in Charleston’s urban fortifications. The state appointed three commissioners to manage the process of surveying, subdividing, and selling “the public lands whereon the forts and fortifications were erected, and low-water lots in Charleston,” as well as a few other non-military sites. Commencing in April 1784 and continuing to August 1789, these commissioners superintended the relatively rapid removal of the urban fortifications that had preoccupied South Carolina’s public treasury for more than a century.

The significance of this process of fortification removal, or demilitarization, for the City of Charleston cannot be overstated. The Charleston that has garnered so much devotion and praise from its denizens and tourists alike is the product of generations of civilian activity, a marriage of private enterprise and public appropriations. But the present landscape of Charleston—its infrastructure and its built environment—was shaped in part by the dominating presence of our early fortifications and by their removal in the 1780s. Understanding the physical evolution of Charleston thus requires an understanding of the physical growth of the now-absent fortifications. Fortunately for us, the five-year process of dismantling the fortifications generated a paper trail that provides important information about the location, dimensions, materials, and construction of the old works. Such information, combined with documentary evidence from colonial-era records, helps us understand how and where the fortifications were built, but it doesn’t answer all the lingering questions. The absence of many crucial documents has been a constant source of frustration in our efforts to research this topic. It is somewhat comforting, though, to see that in the 1780s some of the best legal minds in South Carolina were as confused about the legal title to some lands fortified in the colonial era as I am today.

The story of the removal of Charleston’s urban defenses forms the final installment of our 2014 lecture series on Charleston’s colonial fortifications. Please join me for a program titled

“The Demilitarization of Urban Charleston, 1784–1789”

Wednesday, December 17th at 6 p.m.

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

Looking north along the east face of Granville's Bastion

Looking north along the east face of Granville’s Bastion

Last week I had an opportunity to visit Granville’s Bastion, under the Missroon House (headquarters of the Historic Charleston Foundation) at 40 East Bay Street, with Walled City Task Force co-chair, Katherine Pemberton. With the aid of a couple of shop lights, a tape measure, and a compass, we were able to take a number of photos and measurements that will aid our future efforts to document and re-imagine the former appearance of this late-seventeenth-century structure. As you can see in the photo here, a significant portion of the bastion’s once-mighty walls remain intact under the Missroon House, even after the bastion was razed to street level in 1785. In fact, nearly the entire length of its east face, measuring approximately ninety feet from south to north, still stands approximately four feet above the sand. Using plats and descriptions dating from the 1690s to the 1990s, in conjunction with these physical remains, there is still much to learn about the design and construction of this historic structure.

Want to learn more about Granville’s Bastion, the brick “fortress” that guarded the southeast corner of colonial Charleston? Please join me for a free program at the Charleston County Public Library titled:

“Granville’s Bastion, 1696–1785: Charleston’s First Brick Fortress.”

Time: Wednesday, March 26th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun St., 29401.

Granvill's Bastion in 1739

Granville’s Bastion as it appeared in 1739

Commissioned in 1696 and dismantled in 1785, Granville’s Bastion was Charleston’s first brick “fortress” and the principal defensive work along the Cooper River waterfront. Here twelve cannon guarded the southeast corner of the town, overlooking a small beach where royal governors and visiting dignitaries were received with pomp and ceremony. Only its foundations remain today, under the present Missroon House, but the surviving materials provide sufficient clues to facilitate a conjectural reconstruction. Please join historian Nic Butler on November 28th for an illustrated review of the history of Granville’s Bastion, and learn how new technology can be used to render a 3D model of this once-formidable structure.

Granville’s Bastion: Charleston’s First Brick Fortress

Place: Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom

Time: Wednesday, November 28th 2012, at 6:30 p.m.

Missroon House (center)

On 21 December 2009, a City of Charleston’s stormwater drainage crew parked next to the Missroon House, No. 40 East Bay Street, to address a routine problem. Their equipment had detected a subterranean leak in the main drain running down the center of East Bay Street, near the point where East Bay Street becomes East Battery Street. After opening a small hole in the asphalt road surface, the work crew dug a few feet down and found the leak in the old nineteenth-century brick arched drain. In the process, they also uncovered a small portion of the south wall of Granville Bastion.

Walled City Task Force co-chair Katherine Saunders was right on the spot since the Missroon House, the home of the Historic Charleston Foundation, literally sits directly on top of the eastern portion of Granville Bastion. With her iPhone, she snapped a few photographs to document both the location and the materials. As you can see in the photos below, the nineteenth-century drain, constructed of grayish bricks on the right, intersects the bright reddish-orange bricks of the colonial bastion. The Task Force encountered a very similar phenomenon while digging at South Adger’s Wharf in January 2008. In both cases, the colonial brickwork was excised just enough to make room for the drain

Granville Bastion was the first and the largest of Charleston’s brick bastions, commissioned by an act of the legislature in late 1696. During the early years of the eighteenth century it was frequently called simply “the Fort” because of its size and its importance to the town’s waterfront defenses. It was here that each of the colonial governors was formally welcomed, and the birthdays of the king and queen of England were publicly toasted.

While this brief sighting on 21 December 2009 did not include any exploratory digging or archaeological investigation, it did provide valuable confirmation that substantial remnants of Granville Bastion survive under the roadbed of modern East Bay Street. A substantial portion of southeast corner of Granville Bastion is exposed under the foundation of the Missroon House, several yards east of the street, but that area is not easily accessible and is not open to the public. For the time being, the remnants of Charleston’s first brick “fort” lie safely hidden beneath the modern hardscape, invisible to the throngs of tourists walking along the High Battery along Charleston’s picturesque waterfront.