Here’s a conundrum I’ve been struggling to decipher for several years: how can we reconcile the fact that water once flowed from the Cooper River, across East Bay Street, into Dock Street (now Queen Street), with the fact that there was supposedly a solid brick “wharf wall” along the eastern line of East Bay Street? After a lot of head scratching and research, I think I’ve found the answer. Prior to the early 1740s, South Carolina’s colonial legislature made a special exception in the law empowering the brick “wharf wall,” which allowed a “breach” in the wall to exist at the east end of Dock Street, to permit the flow of water. This authorized exception is first mentioned in a 1714 law authorizing improvements to the wharf wall, and it seems to have continued until the “water course” in Dock Street (renamed Queen Street in 1734) was finally obliterated in the the 1740s.

Charleston Time Machine

It’s Spoleto season in Charleston, and each day of the festival the Dock Street Theatre is crammed to the rafters with amateurs of chamber music and opera.  This “historic” venue opened in November 1937 on the site of the site of a much smaller 1736 theater that was briefly known by the same name.  Visitors will be excused for expressing some confusion when they are directed to find the Dock Street Theatre at the southwest corner of Church and Queen Streets.  The inevitable question, “What happened to Dock Street?” is routinely met with the curt answer, “the watery street was filled and renamed Queen Street a long time ago.”  The details are obscure, and you won’t find very much at all about this topic in any book about the history of Charleston.  Behind this seemingly arcane matter, however, is a much larger and much more interesting story that tells us much about the early development of…

View original post 666 more words

Advertisements

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.

The walls of early Charleston were not just designed to discourage potential invaders. They were also meant to protect the population, as a “place of refuge,” in times of alarm. During the Yamasee War of 1715–1717, the fortifications of urban Charleston served exactly this role, sheltering many hundreds of refugees fleeing the frontier violence in Granville and Colleton Counties. First-hand accounts of that era confirm that settlers fled to the colonial capital, where a strong gate at Johnson’s Ravelin was the only land entrance into the town.

Please join me for a free program about the Yamasee War on May 20th, and stay tuned for more details about the upcoming program on Johnson’s Ravelin on May 27th!

Charleston Time Machine

In the spring of 1715, the Yamasee Indians and allied tribes in the lowcountry of South Carolina rose up against their European neighbors and began a campaign of terror and destruction.  After two years of bloody warfare that claimed hundreds of lives, Colleton County had been completely depopulated, the colony’s treasury was empty, and South Carolina was on the brink of collapse.  Three hundred years later, it’s time for a reappraisal of this pivotal, yet largely forgotten chapter in our state’s history.

The Yamasee (spelled variously) were/are a tribe of indigenous people who once lived in the vicinity of northern Florida and the original southern boundary of South Carolina (now Georgia).  Although originally allied with the Spanish, the Yamasee broke ties with Florida, pledged friendship with the English, and moved northward into lower South Carolina in the 1680s.  As late as 1713, the English government of South Carolina counted the Yamasee as being among their best allies among…

View original post 567 more words

Effective fortifications require support structures in which to store and maintain the supplies, accessories, and tools that enable a successful defense in times of military crisis. The colonial-era government of South Carolina funded several magazines for the storage of gunpowder, for example, and that story is admirably interpreted at the venerable 1713 Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street. Our colonial lawmakers also knew, however, that it was unwise to store metallic objects like guns and bayonets, which might produce sparks when moved, in close proximity to gunpowder. So where were the publicly-owned muskets, cutlasses, and cannon of early Charleston stored? The answer is two-fold: “small arms” were stored in an armory, while cannon and carriages were stored in an arsenal. So where were those buildings in colonial Charleston?

In the early years of South Carolina, the government owned a relatively small number of small arms and cannon, and the storage and maintenance of these weapons was not well regulated. Armaments were supposed to be stored in public facilities, but since such structures were few in number, the government struggled to keep track of its weapons. As the inventory of muskets, cutlasses, cannon, and mortars grew in the early eighteenth century, the situation finally came to a head.

In the late 1720s, the government “fitted up” a large attic apartment with dormer windows above the Council Chamber in the Half-Moon Battery at the east end of Broad Street. Owing to the proximity of this makeshift armory to the harbor and sea breezes, however, the weapons quickly rusted and corroded. By 1735, the colony’s publicly-owned small arms were entrusted to two local gunsmiths who were paid to house and maintain them—at their private residences. With the outbreak of a fresh war with Spain in 1739, the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear, the South Carolina legislature finally committed funds to build a proper armory for the provincial weapons. After various construction delays, not the least of which was the great fire of 18 November 1740 that crippled the town, the new armory finally opened in early 1743.

An 1889 plat of the building believed to be the 1743 armory. Image from the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

A detail from an 1889 plat showing the 1743 armory. From the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

The armory was a one story brick warehouse of sorts, measuring approximately 21 feet wide and approximately 84 feet deep, located (after much debate) on the west side of Meeting Street, approximately 135 feet south of Broad Street. For nearly twenty years this building housed several thousand muskets, bayonets, cartridge boxes, cutlasses, and related accessories purchased with public funds. By 1762, however, due to the new war with France and Spain (the French and Indian, or Seven Years’ War), the armory was deemed insufficient to store and maintain South Carolina’s expanding inventory of of public arms. An auxiliary “shed” was built behind the armory for the accommodation of new cannon and their carriages. In 1765, the attic space of South Carolina’s new State House, at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Street, was “fitted up” to receive the public’s small arms, and that site effectively became the state armory. By the late 1760s, the 1743 brick warehouse facing Meeting Street was known as “the old armory,” or, more commonly, “the arsenal” and “arsenal yard.”

Between 1768 and 1886, the main Guard House(s) of the city’s police department stood at the southwest corner of Meeting and Broad Street, in front of the old armory/arsenal buildings, which continued to operate as an official state “laboratory” for artillery storage and maintenance. The destructive earthquake of 1886 shattered the Guard House, however, and the site was cleared for the erection of the present Federal Post Office (completed in the 1890s). A plat of the public property at this site, made in April 1889 and shown above, indicates the outline of the proposed Federal building, surrounded by ancient auxiliary buildings that were also slated for demolition.

As you can see, the plat includes a long, narrow brick building facing Meeting Street that is very likely the 1743 armory/arsenal building. This historic structure was demolished and cleared in the early 1890s, and the site is now occupied by the courtyard of the Hollings Judicial Center at 83 Meeting Street.

To my knowledge, the history of the 1743 armory/arsenal building seems to have slipped through the cracks of Charleston’s collective memory. That’s unfortunate, because the surviving public records of early South Carolina contain ample evidence of its construction, transformation, and long use. In fact, it’s been a struggle to digest the copious data about this structure that I’ve collected over the years. If you’d like to learn more about this important building that, historically speaking, is hiding in plain sight, please join me for a program titled:

The 1743 Armory: Charleston’s Colonial Arsenal

Wednesday, 22 April 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.

Charleston Time Machine

If you’d like to learn more about the recent, brief archaeological dig at Charleston’s South Battery Street, you’ll have two opportunities this month to hear a recap of the project. On Saturday, March 21st, and Wednesday, March 25th, I’ll present an illustrated overview of the target of our search, what we found, and why it’s significant for understanding the history of Charleston.

The brick seawall stood five feet above ground, on top of a Bermuda stone foundation, and was faced with split palmetto logs. Drawing by Nic Butler The brick seawall stood five feet above ground, on top of a Bermuda stone foundation, and was faced with split palmetto logs. Drawing by Nic Butler.

In case you missed the local headlines in late January 2015, the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force undertook a two-day dig on the south side of South Battery Street in White Point Garden. We sought and found physical evidence of a brick and Bermuda stone wall that was constructed in 1768-1769. That wall represented the first steps toward enclosing the expansive beach at White Point…

View original post 70 more words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 25th at 6 p.m.

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

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.