history


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.

Pedestrians strolling past the swanky restaurants on Charleston’s upper King Street and promenading through the Farmers’ Market in Marion Square probably have no idea they’re treading through the heavily-fortified siege lines that once defined one of the most important battles of the American Revolution. A relatively new historical marker on the east side of King Street in the square commemorates the protracted British siege of Charleston in the spring of 1780, but it’s a minuscule reminder of a much larger scene that requires a lot of imagination to visualize. So, where were the siege lines of that historic battle, and what sorts of fortifications did the opposing forces erect? Two hundred and thirty-four years after the siege, the answers to these questions have been obscured by generations of development, but recent investigations are beginning to make the scene a bit clearer.

First, it is important to state that anyone interested in this topic should begin by reading Carl Borick’s book, A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780 (University of South Carolina Press, 2003). This book provides excellent descriptions and analysis of the battle, based entirely on primary source material, and guides the reader through the many months of turmoil and bloodshed leading to the American surrender of Charleston on 12 May 1780. Mr. Borick’s book does not include a detailed analysis of the fortifications, however, because such an investigation would have derailed his book from its larger theme.

Working towards my own book on the urban fortifications of early Charleston, however, I’ve spent a lot of time gathering fragmentary details about these fortifications from surviving archival resources and the accounts of various eye witnesses to the siege. In addition, I’ve acquired copies of several manuscript maps of the era 1775–1783 that provide visual clues that help elucidate the documentary evidence. There are still more historical documents and maps out there, but locating them and obtaining copies often takes time. Nevertheless, a variety of manuscript maps from archives such as the British Library, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, the Huntington Library in California, Dartmouth University Library, the Library of Congress, the South Carolina Historical Society, and of course the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, depict various parts of the suburban battlefield that is now part of urban Charleston.

Taken together, these maps illustrate, with a reasonable degree of uniformity, the many layers of fortifications employed by both sides. The American defensive lines stretched across the peninsula from the Ashley to the Cooper River, standing in ranks of graduated height from an artificial canal between John and Ann Streets to the mighty Horn Work with its back against the town limit (Boundary Street, now Calhoun Street). After sailing up the rivers and disembarking on the northern “neck” of the peninsula, the British army crept southward and encamped beyond the range of the American guns. At the beginning of April 1780, they began digging a series of siege trenches or “parallels” that zig-zagged southward from Columbus Street to the Americans’ artificial canal between John and Ann Streets. By the time British and Hessian troops drained the canal and penetrated the American defensive lines, just south of the modern intersection of King and John Streets, the end of the siege was a foregone conclusion.

Col. de Cambray's "Plan de la ville de Charlestown" at the Library of Congress

Col. de Cambray’s “Plan de la ville de Charlestown” at the Library of Congress

Most of the aforementioned maps are covered by copyrights held by their respective institutions, and a sense of scholastic respect prevents me from posting them on this website. I will, however, direct readers to a very interesting French map held by the Library of Congress that is available online and downloadable. The manuscript map in question is not signed or dated, but it appears to be the work of Colonel Louis Antoine Jean Baptiste de Cambray-Digny (1751–1822), a French engineer who served in the American army in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia before being captured by the British in Charleston in 1780. Col. de Cambray, as he was known to the South Carolina legislature in Charleston, superintended the American fortifications during the siege, and the map held at the Library of Congress includes his two-paragraph caption (in French, naturellement) that gives a wonderful description of the siege and the American fortifications. A later copy of this map (with a much abbreviated caption) was published by George W. Williams in the South Carolina Historical Magazine in April 1975 (see my bibliography), but the map at the Library of Congress includes valuable, unpublished information about the fortifications. I encourage you to click on the image of the map above and read Col. de Cambray’s caption. If you need a bit of help, here’s my translation:

­Plan of the town of Charlestown of its retrenchments and of the siege made by the English in 1780.

The night of the first of April they opened their trenches. The 10th they summoned the town [to surrender]. The 13th the 1st parallel and its batteries were finished, and began to cannonade. The 18th the 2nd parallel was finished. The 24th the besiegers mad­e a sortie to the extreme right of the 3rd parallel. The 8th of May they summoned the town to surrender. The 3rd parallel and its batteries were completed and commenced a demolishing fire [“á battre en brêche”]. The 11th they made a sap very close to the salient angle of the advance battery on the left, ­and made a passage through the advance moat from which the water had been previously drained. The 13th [sic, the 12th] the town capitulated.

The retrenchments [i.e., defensive lines] of Charlestown consisted of detached redans and curtains, the parapets 7 feet high, 16 feet thick; the moat was 12 feet deep and 26 wide. It was double palisaded, there were three rows of wells [“puits,” or trous-de-loup] beyond and some strong abatis; the contested ground [“le front attaquée,” i.e., the space between the two armies] was covered by a moat full of water 30 feet wide. The retrenchments were made in haste in less than 4 weeks in 1779, and saved the town from invasion by the English under Gen. Prevost. When the English disembarked on Johns Island there were only 200 men in garrison in the town; there was not a single cannon mounted, the abatis had been burned during the winter and had not yet been remade. When the English began their entrenchments, the garrison was about 1200 men, the militia and the sailors did nothing during the whole siege the defense was always directed by Continental troops which extended from one river to the other. During the siege the English shot 10,000 bombs 16,000 bullets and 150 carcasses. The defenders were reduced to live on nothing but rice and molasses for 4 days before the town capitulated. The garrison amounted at that time numbered 1900 [illegible] including sick, injured, servants etc. The English had at the time of the reduction 13,000 men, perfectly enveloping the town by sea and by land, and could [illegble] with success to land in the town which the defenders had guarded so vigorously.

The published diaries and memoirs of several other participants in the 1780 siege of Charleston, including those of Henry Clinton, Banastre Tarleton, Johann Hinrichs, Johann Ewald, and William Moultrie, provide additional details that help us imagine the scene. Walking around the environs of Charleston’s King Street and Marion Square, however, the modern built environment makes it difficult to visualize the battlefield of 1780. I’m in the process of attempting to overlay historic maps onto recent satellite images of Charleston, and this endeavor can prove to be very illuminating. If you’d like to see those overlays and learn more about the siege of 1780, please join me for a program titled:

“Charleston’s Fortifications of the

American Revolution, 1775–1783″

Wednesday, November 19th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Second 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.

William De Brahm’s tenure in South Carolina was as dramatic as it was brief. Within a period of five years between 1752 and 1757 he drafted several different audaciously sophisticated plans for fortifying urban Charleston, charmed the doubting General Assembly, and ultimately roused the contempt of most of his supporters. Along the way he left a paper trail that provides fascinating insight into the most intensive period of fortification construction in pre-Revolutionary Charleston.

The German-born De Brahm initially came to British North America to work as a surveyor for the colony of Georgia, but South Carolina’s governor, James Glen, lured him to move to Charleston with promises of a lucrative contract to design and build fortifications for the port town. Although Governor Glen’s scheme was initially rebuked by the South Carolina legislature, the outbreak of fresh hostilities Between Britain and France—what we now call the French and Indian War—convinced our politicians of the urgent need to repair and expand Charleston’s aging fortifications.

De Brahm's ca. 1755 plan included a fortified canal connecting the Ashley and Cooper Rivers

De Brahm’s ca. 1755 plan for a fortified canal connecting the Ashley and Cooper Rivers

De Brahm’s designs for fortifying Charleston survive among archival collections at the National Archive of the United Kingdom and at the British Library. A total of six drawings survive, illustrating De Brahm’s proposed defensive works for urban Charleston, Fort Johnson on James Island, and a “Fortified Canal across the Neck from Ashley to Cooper River.” From these documents we see not only De Brahm’s considerable skill as a draftsman, but also the depth of his training and understanding of the science of military architecture.

Encouraged by Governor Glen and finally approved by the General Assembly, De Brahm commenced work in 1755 to transform the peninsula of Charleston into the most sophisticated military enceinte in British North America. If he had completed this project, Charleston would have become an island, separated from “the neck” of the peninsula by a fortified canal flanked by two small forts. But De Brahm’s work dragged on at a snail’s pace while the war with France move increasingly northward. By 1757 it was clear that the Canadian frontier was the epicenter of the war, and the perceived need for coastal defenses in South Carolina diminished. De Brahm’s elaborate new works for Charleston were already behind schedule and over budget, and in 1757 he learned that his services were no longer needed in South Carolina.

Fortunately for us, De Brahm left a robust paper trail of his activities in South Carolina. Many (but not all) of the drawings he made in Charleston survive in British archives, and in 1773 De Brahm presented an illustrated summary of his work in South Carolina and elsewhere to his ultimate employer, King George III. From these records, combined with accounts and descriptions in the surviving legislative records of colonial South Carolina, we can learn much about the ambitious efforts to expand Charleston’s fortifications in the 1750s. This era forms one of the most fascinating and well-documented chapters in the fortification history of urban Charleston, and the projects set in motion by De Brahm had long-lasting ramifications for the growth of the city’s built environment.

If you’d like to learn more more about this topic, please join me next week for an illustrated program titled:

“William De Brahm’s Fortification Plans

for Charleston, 1752–1757″

Time: Wednesday, September 24th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second 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.

A map of Charleston's new northern wall of 1745, and the town's second gate (in yellow) at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets.

Charleston’s new northern wall of 1745 (red) and its moat (blue), and the town’s second gate (yellow) at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets.

For most of our colonial era, visitors walking or riding into urban Charleston by land had but one avenue of entry: the so-called “high road” or “broad path” that we now call King Street. Between late 1703 and the early 1730s, the entrance into town was controlled by a ravelin and gate at what is now the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets. Following the outbreak of a new war between Britain and Spain in 1739, the so-called “War of Jenkins’ Ear,” our provincial legislature commenced building new fortifications around the perimeter of Charleston.

The culmination of this defensive project was the completion ca. 1745 of a new earthen wall and moat measuring approximately 3,400 linear feet along the town’s northern boundary, with a new gate in the center of the line. Beginning at its eastern flank, the wall commenced with a battery or bastion next to a marsh at the modern intersection of Market and Church Streets and ran westward approximately 2,000 feet to another bastion at the intersection of what is now Market Street and Beaufain Street (then the town’s northern boundary). From that point the wall turned southwestwardly and ran approximately 700 feet to a third bastion at the modern intersection of Magazine and Franklin Streets. There the wall turned again and headed nearly due south a further 700 feet or so, terminating in a tidal inlet extending from the Ashley River.

By tracing this fortification path on a modern map, as seen in the photo above, we are reminded that the land mass of the Charleston peninsula has grown quite a bit since the 1740s thanks to various landfill projects. The eastern and southwestern ends of this wall were once connected to muddy tidal inlets that provided the town with natural barriers against any invading forces. Thus between its construction in 1745 and its demotion in 1765, this northern wall and moat funneled all traffic in and out of the town through a single portal—a ravelin with two drawbridges and a gate located at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets. This “New Gate,” as it was briefly known, was the second and shortest-lived of Charleston’s three colonial-era town gates. No visible reminders of it appear on our modern landscape, and there are no markers to commemorate its long-forgotten existence. If you have ever walked along Market Street between Church and Archdale Streets, however, you’ve actually walked along the broad moat fronting this 1740s fortification wall.

If you’d like to learn more about Charleston’s new fortifications of the 1740s, please join me Wednesday evening, August 27th, for a program titled:

“Fortifying Charleston during the

War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739–1748″

Time: Wednesday, August 27th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second 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.

Detail from John Muller's 1757 fortification treatise, The Attac and Defense of Fortified Places

Detail from a profile of an earthen entrenchment and ditch, from John Muller’s 1757 fortification treatise, The Attac and Defense of Fortified Places

Earthen walls and moats (or ditches) go hand-in-hand in the history of military architecture, and the same was true in colonial Charleston. At this month’s Walled City lecture, I’ll discuss the evidence—both documentary and physical—of the first system of earthen walls and the associated moat that protected the north, west, and south sides of Charleston from late 1703 to ca. 1734. Very little information about these walls survives, but we can attempt to fill in the blanks in our knowledge by taking lessons from the fortification textbooks of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Such textbooks, including those published by John Muller in the 1740s and 1750s, provide instructions for laying out all sorts of fortifications, and provide very useful formulas and tables for calculating the height, breadth, and slope of walls, as well as the depth and breath of moats. Armed with this knowledge of eighteenth-century “best practices” in fortification construction, we can attempt to postulate the scale, and predict the location, of Charleston’s early earthen walls and the first moat that surrounded the town.

If you’re envisioning towering, forbidding walls, you’ll be disappointed to learn that our walls were probably in the range of seven to ten feet high, and perhaps only twice that size in breath. There is a tendency in Charleston to exaggerate the size of these walls when describing them to visitors, but the truth is we desperately need additional evidence in order to make more accurate estimates. Even a small scrap of physical evidence would be amazingly useful, but unfortunately the town’s early walls were reduced to a mere stain in the ground nearly three hundred years ago. Perhaps future archaeology will provide much-needed clues, but in the meantime we’ll have to make the most of the available data and use our historically-informed imaginations. If you’d like to learn more about the evidence of Charleston’s first moat and its early earthen walls, please join me for the next Walled City lecture titled:

“The Earthen Walls Surrounding

Charleston, 1703–ca. 1734″

Time: Wednesday, June 25th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second 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.

 

 

Determining the location and the scope of the remnants of Craven’s Bastion is not as easy as studying those of Granville’s Bastion. Significant portions of the latter bastion remain standing under the Missroon Building at 40 East Bay Street, while the foundations of the former are obscured by large-scale nineteenth century construction. In short, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the precise location of Craven’s Bastion, and, without engaging in some very destructive excavation, it may be impossible to determine if any of its brick foundations remain below the modern street scape. Nevertheless, the historical record provides some valuable clues that offer hope for determining the approximate location of this once-formidable fortification.

Craven’s Bastion was conceived in late 1703, but its construction dragged on for several years because of the general demand for bricks for the various fortification projects then underway in Charleston. It formed the northeast corner of the “walled city” of early Charleston, one half a mile north of Granville’s Bastion, and stood until the summer of 1789. As the last vestige of the city’s colonial fortifications to be demolished, Craven’s Bastion was surveyed and platted on several occasions because it formed an obstruction in the city’s post-colonial efforts to widen and straighten the northward extension of East Bay Street. The existence of several plats illustrating the growth of that street around—and then over—the vestiges of the bastion allows us to determine, with a moderate degree of confidence, the approximate location and size of this lost defensive work.

A 1789 plat of Craven's Bastion superimposed on a recent satellite image of the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street, showing the approximate size and location of the bastion.

A 1789 plat of Craven’s Bastion superimposed on a recent satellite image of the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street, showing the approximate size and location of the bastion.

Most of Craven’s Bastion is now under the expansive granite steps leading from East Bay Street to the west facade of the United States Custom House (built 1859–79). That site, once a mud flat washed by the tides, was filled with hundreds of wooden piles during the construction of the Custom House. Thus it is likely that the majority of the remnants of Craven’s Bastion were obliterated during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The foundations of the westernmost part of the bastion, including its entry gate and a two-story brick residence, however, might still survive. Those portions probably lie under the broad concrete sidewalk on the east side of East Bay Street, and probably extend into the street itself. As the image to your right illustrates, a person pausing on the sidewalk to read the bronze bastion marker mounted on the south pillar of the Custom House steps is potentially standing a few feet from the gateway into the old bastion. Permission for an exploratory excavation of this site might be impossible to obtain, but the use of ground-penetrating radar technology might reveal the outline of the bastion under the sidewalk.

If you’d like to learn more about the colorful history of Craven’s Bastion, please join me for a presentation next week titled:

“A Brief History of Craven’s Bastion, 1703–1789”

Time: Wednesday, May 28th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second 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.

 

1739 view of the Half-Moon Battery by Bishop Roberts

1739 view of the Half-Moon Battery by Bishop Roberts

Charleston’s Half Moon Battery, located under the Old Exchange Building, is the only remnant of our early colonial fortifications that is currently accessible by the public. Constructed more than three centuries ago, this brick battery served as the center point of the nascent town’s waterfront defenses until it was razed to street level in 1768 for the construction of what was then called the “New Exchange.” Its existence was subsequently forgotten for many generations, but since being rediscovered in 1965 it has been open for public viewing.

The surviving records of South Carolina’s colonial legislature contain very scanty evidence of the design and construction of the Half Moon Battery, and even less information about the “Watch House” that was erected along the western edge of the battery. After a “nice scrutiny” of the evidence (to quote a phrase from those records), however, I have concluded that the brick, Half Moon Battery was constructed in 1701–2, and the one-story “stone” Watch House was erected sometime between 1698 and 1703. Readers familiar with the Bishop Roberts’ 1739 “Exact Prospect of Charles-Town” will note that the latter structure appears in that publication as a two-story building called the “Council Chamber above & Guard House below.” The same aforementioned colonial legislative records also reveal that the early “Watch House” was enlarged into a two-story government structure in 1727, and acquired its new name by the spring of 1731.

What else do the surviving records of South Carolina’s early government reveal about the construction of the Half Moon Battery? Unfortunately, not very much. After pouring over the extant documentary evidence, and a limited amount of archaeological evidence from the 1960s, however, I’ve been working on a three-dimensional model of the battery that will hopefully give us a better idea of its construction and appearance. It’s all a work in progress, but I’ll be offering my latest thoughts and conclusions in the next “Walled City” program this Wednesday:

 

“The Half Moon Battery, 1701–1768: A Charleston Landmark”

Time: Wednesday, April 23d 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second 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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