Nic Butler

For the first century of its existence, the urban landscape of Charleston was dominated by an evolving ring of fortifications designed to protect the city against potential invasion by Spanish, French, and later British forces.  Our provincial legislature repeatedly devoted large sums of tax revenue for the construction and repair of walls, moats, bastions, and related works, resulting in what was undoubtedly the largest public works program in colonial South Carolina.  Despite the impressive scale of this work, however, Charleston’s modern streetscape reveals scarcely any physical trace of those early fortifications.  If the city once bristled with cannon, walls, moats, and drawbridges, how and when were such features scoured from the historical landscape?

Many of the details concerning the demilitarization of urban Charleston can be found in the public records created in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War.  Although incomplete, these records provide sufficient information to construct a robust outline of the decisions, issues, and events that took place between 1783 and 1789 and resulted in a dramatic alteration of Charleston’s urban landscape.  During this brief period, both state and city governments worked in tandem to survey, dismantle, and sell the accumulated urban fortifications.  The evidence of this cautious transition from defensive stronghold to peaceful commercial port provides two principal lessons for modern historians to consider.  On the local scale, the demolition of Charleston’s urban fortifications produced some of the most valuable documentary evidence of their dimensions, composition, and location.  On the national scale, this story presents a local example of the larger American struggle to chart a new civic course in the tumultuous environment of the Age of Revolution.

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

This map of Charleston, surveyed in 1788 and published in 1790, was made shortly after the demilitarization of the city. Craven Bastion, located at the foot of the creek that would soon become Market Street, is the sole remaining fortification depicted on this map.

Missed a Walled City program in 2013? Have no fear–I’m going to repeat the entire series in 2014! Each month I’ll present a different lecture on a specific feature of Charleston’s colonial fortifications, fresh with updated conclusions and new digital bells and whistles. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a one-page description of the twelve-part series. Feel free to download and share this flyer. Remember to check this blog site each month to learn the date and time of each program–there may be a few scheduling changes down the road.

Our first 2014 program, on Wednesday, January 22nd, will provide an overview of the first century of Charleston’s fortifications, when the town’s urban landscape was dominated by defensive walls, moats, drawbridges, and cannons. These features dictated the growth of the town, but the story of their evolution and expansion between the 1680s and the 1780s isn’t yet found in any history books. Please join us for this free event!

“The Urban Fortifications of Colonial Charleston, 1680–1789”

Time: Wednesday, January 22nd 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] or 843–805–6968.

2014 Fortification Lectures (PDF file)

2014 Fortification Lectures (PDF file)

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.

For more information, contact Dr. Nic Butler 843-805-6968 or at butlern[at]

Dr. Nic Butler digging at South Adger\'s Wharf in January 2008 At noon this Friday, May 9th 2008, Dr. Nic Butler will be the featured guest on Walter Edgar’s Journal, a weekly radio program broadcast on South Carolina ETV Radio. Dr. Butler is Special Collections Manager at the Charleston County Public Library and historian for the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force. The topic of Friday’s conversation, recorded on February 18th, is the recent archaeology at South Adger’s Wharf and Charleston’s colonial fortifications in general. We’ll hear some insight into the formation of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force and the planning and research that preceded the dig, as well as a summary of our findings and some discussion of the prospects for future archaeology of Charleston’s colonial walls. In short, it will be an inspiring conversation about one of the most unique and exciting aspects of this city’s history.

If you miss Friday’s broadcast, don’t panic! After a delay of about a week you’ll be able to download the free podcast version of the program from Dr. Edgar’s web page or from iTunes. Enjoy!

In the past few days the archaeological excavation at South Adger’s Wharf has attracted the attention of many Charlestonians, tourists, and journalists. If you would like to meet some members of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force and hear the archaeologists talk about their work at the dig, you’re invited to join us for a public program at the Charleston County Public Library on Wednesday, January 30th, at 7:00 p.m.

On that evening, Dr. Nic Butler, Special Collections manager at the library, will host a program titled “New Archaeology in Charleston: The South Adger’s Wharf Dig.” Besides hearing first-person reports from the participants, you’ll learn about the history of the site, see more photographs from the excavation, and even see some of the artifacts uncovered at the dig.

If you’re interested in learning more about this program, you can contact Dr. Nic Butler at at (843) 805-6968 or butlern[at] You can also link directly to a description of the January 30th program on our “Upcoming Events” page. 

Whenever I give a presentation on the history of Charleston’s colonial fortifications, I always start with the wall that once stood on the east side of East Bay Street. This wall, identified in the colonial records as the “wharf wall,” “curtain wall,” or “front wall,” was the starting point for the effort to fortify Charleston more than three hundred years ago, and it was among the last parts to be dismantled after the American Revolution. Here’s a very brief overview of what I know about it so far.

In 1680, when “New Charles Town” was established on the present peninsula, a “wharf” sixty feet wide was laid out on the east side of East Bay Street, stretching from the site of the present Missroon House to the Exchange Building at the foot of Broad Street. Since there are no extant legislative records from the 1680s, we don’t know what this “wharf” was made of, or what it looked like. Similarly, we don’t know anything about the construction of the “tranchée” or entrenchment (probably an earthwork wall) that is depicted along the east side of East Bay Street in the Jean Boyd map of 1686 (published in the 2006 Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina). In 1694, the S.C. legislature passed the first law authorizing the construction of a brick “wharf wall” or “curtain wall” along the east side of the street, but due to a shortage of bricks and bricklayers construction apparently didn’t start until 1696. Governor Nathaniel Johnson reported in late 1704 that this project was still not finished, but the curtain wall was apparently completed by August 1706 when a French and Spanish fleet made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Charleston. Based on account statements from 1704, I estimate that approximately four million bricks were used to build the curtain wall (excluding the bastions) between 1696 and 1705.

Between 1711 and 1728 the brick curtain wall sustained extensive damage from several severe hurricanes, and thus it was substantially rebuilt and apparently enlarged between 1725 and 1739. Near the end of that era the South Carolina legislature and Charleston merchants negotiated over the size of openings to be left in the wall to allow carts to move between the wharves to East Bay Street. The legislature wanted ten-foot openings; the merchants wanted thirty-foot openings. They settled on openings fifteen feet wide. The legislature also passed restrictive measures to prevent the building of residences or any tall structures to the east of the curtain wall. Any structures built in that area, the legislature decreed, would have to be razed in a moments notice in the event of an invasion. In 1745 the curtain wall was described in a London magazine as being “six feet over.” This statement may have meant that the wall was six feet tall, or it may indicate that it was six feet wide at the top. I suspect this number refers to the height of the wall, but we hope to find out in the upcoming archaeology at South Adger’s Wharf.

The wharves projecting out from the on the east side of East Bay Street in to the Cooper River grew substantially between the 1720s and the American Revolution, but the brick curtain wall remained standing throughout these years. After the conclusion of the war with Britain in the spring of 1783, the S.C. legislature waited a full year before authorizing the demolition of the fortifications in Charleston. The work of dismantling the brick wharf wall on the east side of East Bay Street began in late 1784 or early 1785. In the spring of 1787, the legislature finally repealed the old law restricting the size and nature of buildings on the east side of East Bay Street. From that time forward, the wharves of Charleston began to be filled in and built up, leading to the streetscapes that we now see.

Over the past year I have presented a chronological overview of the rise and fall of Charleston’s colonial fortifications for a number of different audiences in the Charleston area. On nearly every one of these occasions, someone has asked if I can give them a summary or outline of this material, which is taken largely from unpublished archival sources. Eventually I do plan to publish the full scope of my research in an illustrated monograph, but in the interim I am happy to oblige with a basic outline of the story.

Under the Educational Resources page of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force website, I have inaugurated a “Time Line” that will eventually contain four sections covering the Proprietary, Royal, Revolutionary, and Post-Revolutionary eras of Charleston’s early fortifications. The first part, covering the Proprietary Era of 1663-1719, is now online. The remaining parts will be posted in future weeks. Please feel free to post questions or comments below, or contact me at butlern[at]

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