history


On a quiet morning three hundred and ten years ago, in September 1706, five French warships sailed into Charleston harbor carrying a thousand French, Spanish, and Native American warriors.  Their mission, sanctioned by King Louis the 14th of France, was to destroy Charleston and to force the English to abandon the young colony of South Carolina.

Detail of an illustration from P. C. Coker's book, Charleston's Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865

Detail of an illustration from P. C. Coker’s book, Charleston’s Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865

Our colonial militia bravely resisted, however, and over a period of two weeks these international forces clashed in a number of skirmishes, from the Charleston peninsula, to James Island, Hobcaw Point, Shem Creek, all the way to Sewee Bay.  In the end, the South Carolina militia was victorious, and the surviving French and Spanish forces retreated in humiliation.

For several generations after the invasion of 1706, this dramatic episode was remembered in our community as a major turning point in the preservation of South Carolina. As part of the larger international struggle for empire in North America, the failed French and Spanish attempt to destroy Charleston helped to ensure that English (later British) settlers would continue to dominate the mainland.

Unfortunately, the story of the 1706 invasion is unfamiliar to most South Carolinians today.  The Mayor’s Walled City Task Force, as part of its efforts to promote knowledge of Charleston’s colonial-era fortifications, would like to increase public awareness of this awesome episode.  We think it’s an exciting story of action and international intrigue that every Sandlapper should know, and we’re inviting the public to a free program titled

Invasion 1706: South Carolina

vs. France and Spain

  • Wednesday, 21 September at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401

Questions? Drop me a line at butlern[at]ccpl.org or call 843–805–6968 for more information.

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The accumulated fortifications that surrounded urban Charleston in the spring of 1780 proved insufficient to withstand a powerful British siege, and the town ultimately surrendered to the invading army on the twelfth day of May.  The details of that long, bloody siege have been discussed by many historians (most ably in Carl Borick’s 2003 book, A Gallant Defense), but the relative calm that settled over the Charleston after the surrender has received far less attention.  During that period of two years, seven months, and two days, the denizens of urban Charleston lived under a repressive yet oddly conscientious shadow of British martial law.  Those who publicly pledged loyalty to the Crown enjoyed greater personal and commercial freedoms, of course, while those who scorned the occupying power enjoyed few liberties and lived under the eyes of constant surveillance.

1780_Investiture_Charleston

The Investiture of Charleston, S.C.,” a ca. 1780 British map now among the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress

Carl Borick’s 2012 book, Relieve Us of this Burden, provides a much-needed examination of the British treatment of American prisoners of war following the capture of Charleston.  But what about the lives of the town’s civilian population? The British military authorities created a “Board of Police” to administer the town, a system that actually marked an improvement over the old Provincial government’s relatively negligent rule of unincorporated Charles-Town.  Commissioners were appointed to oversee the markets, interments, streets and address numbers, and civil suits.  For many loyalist citizens, the town was running smoother than ever and business opportunities were ample.  For most rebels, however, the two-and-a-half year occupation reinforced their anger and fueled their desire to push their enemy out of South Carolina.  The British intended used the capture of Charleston as an example to pacify the rest of the state into submission, but their gross mismanagement of the situation ultimately gave strength to the American resistance.

If you’d like to learn more about this unsung episode in South Carolina history,  please join me for a new lecture titled

The British Occupation of Charleston, 1780–1782

  • Wednesday, 13 April 2015 at 6 p.m., at Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

In past programs we’ve discussed the histories of the most prominent features of Charleston’s early fortifications, such as Granville Bastion, Craven Bastion, and the Half-Moon Battery. Numerous details regarding these works can be found among the surviving records of South Carolina colonial General Assembly and other archival sources, so we know a good bit about their design, location, and demolition.

For the next program, however, I’m going to attempt to tell the story of the lesser-known bastions of the walled city; specifically, the bastions named Ashley, Carteret, and Colleton, as well as the enigmatic structure known as Blake’s Bastion or Blake’s Battery. These structures existed contemporaneously with the aforementioned bastions, during the early years of the eighteenth century, but relatively little is known about them. For a variety of reasons, these lesser bastions merited less attention from the denizens of early Charleston, and thus it’s now difficult for us to tell their stories. The following is a brief summary of what I’ve been able to learn by reading all of the surviving journals of our colonial government.

When credible intelligence of a Spanish plan to invade Charleston reached the South Carolina General Assembly in December 1703, the town’s fortifications consisted of an unfinished brick “fortress” at the south end of [East] Bay Street, a recently finished brick “Half-Moon Battery” at the east end of Broad Street, and a brick wall along the waterfront connecting the fortress and the battery. The assembly voted to begin immediately the construction of fortifications around the most defensible part of the town (roughly 62 acres of high land between Vanderhorst Creek to the south and Daniel’s Creek to the north), by means of a chain of bastions and redans (also called “salient angles”) connected by an earthen wall (or “entrenchment”) and surrounded by a moat. These works, which were “largely perfected” by October 1704, transformed urban Charleston into a “walled city” and endured for nearly three decades.

The corners of the trapezoid-shaped walled city were protected by diamond-shaped works called bastions, each of which was named for one of the Lords Proprietors who owned the Carolina colony. The brick “fortress” at the southeast corner was named Granville Bastion, while the new brick work at the northeast corner was named Craven Bastion. These large structures were maintained and used into the 1780s, and consequently we know a good bit about their history. The other bastions didn’t last nearly as long, and we know far less about them.

A close-up view of the map of Charles Town published in 1711 by Edward Crisp, highlighting the

A close-up view of the map of Charles Town published in 1711 by Edward Crisp, highlighting the “lesser-known” bastions.

Colleton Bastion, the southwest corner of the walled city, stood approximately on the site now occupied by the First Scots (Presbyterian) Church at the southwest corner of Tradd and Meeting Streets. It was constructed and armed in 1704, but its cannon were removed to the “curtain line” along East Bay Street sometime between November 1721 and November 1723. No descriptions of its appearance or dimensions are known to exist. Colleton Bastion was gone by the spring of 1733, when the newly formed Presbyterian congregation purchased the site and began building their first church.

Carteret Bastion formed the northwest corner of the town wall, but its precise location is a bit of a mystery. It probably stood somewhere very near the northwest corner of Meeting Street and Horlbeck Alley/Cumberland Street, but we’re not yet sure. The matter is complicated by the fact that the northward trajectory of Meeting Street was altered slightly in the years immediately after the bastion was removed. Archaeological testing in the early 1980s and early 2000s eliminated the southwest and southeast corners as possible sites of this bastion, and anecdotal evidence suggests that at least part of it may have covered the northeast corner of that intersection. Like Colleton Bastion, we know that Carteret Bastion was armed and ready by late 1704, but by December 1723 its cannon had been removed to augment the arsenal at Craven Bastion. Similarly, we know nothing about the appearance or dimensions of Carteret Bastion.

Ashley Bastion stood due west of Granville Bastion, and may have originally been intended to form the southwest corner of a square “fortress” planned in 1696–97. Its shape is unclear in the “Crisp Map” of 1711, but in Col. John Herbert’s “Ichnography or Plann of the Fortifications of Charlestown,” drawn on 21 October 1721 (now among the records of the National Archive of the United Kingdom), Ashley Bastion is drawn as a hexagonal structure of indistinct size. Although its placement between Granville Bastion and Colleton Bastion may seem irrational, we know Ashley Bastion stood on the west side of a creek or inlet and swamp, and thus its location enhanced the security of the town’s southern side. Beyond these facts, we know little about the size, construction, or precise location of Ashley Bastion. Like the other lesser bastions, it had been stripped of its armaments (and probably demolished) by December 1723.

Blake’s Bastion, also called Blake’s Battery, was not technically a bastion. Rather, it was a “V”-shaped detached work, like a fleche, placed a short distance due south of Granville Bastion. Due to the sparse number of surviving documentary references to its existence, however, it is unclear whether Blake’s Battery was built before or after the construction of its neighboring bastion. Tactically, the purpose of this work was no doubt to defend the mouth of the small creek or inlet that ran between Granville Bastion and Ashley Bastion. Although we know nothing about its size or precise location, we know that Blake’s Battery was built at least partly of brick. In December 1712, when work commenced on the construction of “the new brick church” that became St. Philip’s Church, the South Carolina General Assembly (who funded the church) ordered Col. William Rhett to oversee the removal of “the bricks that compose the battery called Blakes Battery” to the site of the new church. After that reference, Blake’s Battery disappears from the historical record.

If you’d like to learn more about these long-forgotten fortifications, and perhaps help me puzzle through the documentary evidence, please join me for an illustrated lecture titled:

“The Lesser-Known Bastions of Early Charleston”

Wednesday, August 12th 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

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.

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

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.

 

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.

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

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