By the middle of the eighteenth century, Charleston was one of the most heavily fortified communities in North America. The town’s urban defenses didn’t appear all at once, however.  They accumulated over multiple decades and successive eras of warfare with our Spanish and French neighbors.  The government campaign to fortify Charleston commenced early in the town’s history, but precisely how early is a bit fuzzy.  Today we’ll focus on the present town’s first few years and ask—how prepared were Charlestonians of the 1680s to defend their little town? The answer just might surprise you.

If you were to travel back in time to visit downtown Charleston at any point between 1704 and 1784, you would find an urban landscape dominated by a network of walls, moats, drawbridges, and cannon that encircled the town—effectively creating what we might call a “walled city.”  Because of ongoing tensions with our Spanish and French neighbors, and Charleston’s relative isolation within the broader landscape of British North America, South Carolina’s early government channeled the modern equivalent of billions of dollars into the construction and maintenance of defensive fortifications that were intended to protect our colonial capital in case of an attack launched by our enemy neighbors.  These fortifications saw little action over the years, and very few of the town’s cannon were ever fired in its defense, but these facts demonstrate that they had fulfilled their purpose.  Charleston’s collective fortifications, which expanded dramatically between 1704 and the 1770s, served as an effective deterrent to anyone contemplating a hostile invasion of one of the richest seaports in colonial North America.  The town’s defensive works were expanded further during our War of Independence in the late 1770s, but they took a significant beating during the protracted and ultimately successful British siege in the spring of 1780.

The colonial community of “Charles Town” was incorporated as “Charleston” in 1783, just after the conclusion of the American Revolution, and the new city and state governments worked together in the post-war years to accomplish a major undertaking—the demilitarization of urban Charleston.  Since that time, visitors have found a civilian city, the landscape of which bears few visible remnants of the colonial-era fortifications.  The early works were effectively demolished and scraped off the face of the earth in the post-Revolutionary decade, after which even locals began to forget about Charleston’s former existence as a “walled city.”  To some, those early defensive works might have seemed like quaint examples of our community’s naïve, colonial infancy.  Few people in the nineteenth century harbored any nostalgic feelings for our early fortifications as the town expanded and became increasingly “modern.”  That sentiment began to change at the turn of the twenty-first century, however, when some people in the community began to realize that the quickening pace of development in urban Charleston was literally churning up physical remnants the city’s militarized past.  Opportunities to study these remnants were at hand and would likely continue in coming years, so a call to arms was sounded.  In 2005, a group of advocates including preservationists, archaeologists, historians, and educators convinced the City of Charleston to create the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force.  Since that time, this volunteer group has worked rather quietly to advocate for the study, preservation, and interpretation of the physical remnants of the colonial-era fortifications that remain below our collective feet in the landscape of urban Charleston.

As a member of this Task Force for the past fourteen years, I have been actively collecting and studying the documentary evidence related the construction and maintenance of defensive fortifications about the peninsular city of Charleston.  This research began with a series of very simple questions: Who paid for these fortifications?  Who was responsible for the construction, maintenance, and demolition of these works?  Are there any surviving records of that activity?  The answers to such questions are both simple and painfully complicated.  The provincial government of early South Carolina ordered and paid for the fortifications.  The government, principally the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, appointed and hired agents to superintend the construction and maintenance of various fortifications over a period of about a century.  These agents periodically reported their activities and submitted invoices to the government, and the legislature periodically surveyed the fortifications as the treat of foreign invasion waxed and waned.  Over the years, I have made a systematic sweep through the surviving records of South Carolina’s colonial government, now housed at our state’s Department of Archives and History in Columbia, and collected more than two thousand pages of single-spaced notes relating to the fortifications of urban Charleston.  In short, there is very robust paper trail for the government’s efforts to defend its colonial capital, but the documentary evidence of this activity is incomplete and inconsistent.  Some projects and eras, such as the works constructed during the mid-1750s, are remarkably well documented, while the paper trail for others—especially the earliest fortifications—is practically non-existent.  To address these documentary shortcomings, and to better understand the context in which these fortifications were built, I’ve had to spend a lot of time studying the history of European military architecture and the international political climate that motivated the government of early South Carolina to expend precious resources on the defense of its capital.

Today’s program represents the beginning of a series of essays in which I’ll attempt to distill and narrate the century-long story of the urban fortifications of colonial Charleston.  After years of collecting information and trying to interpret the data, it’s time to start committing my conclusions to (virtual) paper and share them with the public.  I’ll begin this effort today by focusing specifically on the early 1680s, and in the coming months I’ll periodically roll out additional essays with lots of illustrations.  A few years from now, I’ll gather these essays together and publish them as a proper book.  If additional evidence—documentary or physical—rises to the surface during this process, I’ll have a chance to revise my conclusions and improve the story before handing this project over to the next generation of historians.  Ok, enough of the prelude, let’s get to the main event. . . .

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

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.

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 2016 at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401

How does one find evidence of an earthen wall and moat that were dismantled nearly 300 years ago?  In urban Charleston, a traditional archaeological excavation is not always possible because the built environment is now quite dense, and because there are a myriad of private property concerns.  An alternative is to use ground penetrating radar (GPR), which allows one to “see” features below the surface without disturbing the ground at all.  But can GPR technology identify a centuries-old earthen feature that now might be just a stain in the ground?  That’s the question the Walled City Task force hopes to answer this summer with a test in the school parking lot of downtown Charleston’s First Baptist Church.

In the late afternoon of Tuesday, June 21st 2016, task force members gathered at the First Baptist parking lot to meet with Dr. Jon Marcoux, an archaeologist and professor at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.  While in town conducting an archaeological field school at Charles Towne Landing, Jon offered to work with the Task Force to perform some quick GPR work downtown, and we steered him toward the aforementioned parking lot.  Why?  Because it’s a relatively open area that has been relatively undeveloped, and might afford us the best opportunity to locate and measure the earthen wall and moat that once protected the southern side of early colonial Charleston.

In December 1703 the South Carolina General Assembly voted to surround the highest and dryest 62 acres of the town with a system of fortifications constructed mostly out of earth and wood.  They had obtained credible intelligence that Spanish soldiers from St. Augustine and Havana were massing for an invasion of South Carolina, and there was little time to spare.  The eastern part of the town, along the Cooper River waterfront, was already being fortified with a solid brick wall that had commenced in 1696, but the remaining south, north, and west sides of the settlement were naked.  With great haste, the provincial government pressed the enslaved Africans belonging to both town and country inhabitants into work on an entrenchment—an earthen wall and adjoining moat—to surround the remaining parts of the town.  The resulting fortifications created a “walled city,” which was “largely perfected” by October 1704. The earliest known view of these fortifications was published in London by coffee roaster Edward Crisp in 1711, in a map commonly called “The Crisp Map.”

A portion of the "Crisp Map" of 1711, showing urban "Charles Town."

A portion of the “Crisp Map” of 1711, showing urban “Charles Town.”

The present school parking lot of First Baptist Church is located approximately midway between Church and Meeting and Meeting Streets in downtown Charleston, slightly north of Water Street (which was formerly Vanderhorst’s Creek) and south of Tradd Street.  By laying a 1721 map of the town’s fortifications over a modern Google Earth view of this site, and attempting to rectify the differing scales of these maps, we determined that a significant portion of the earthen wall and moat might be located under the northeast area of the present parking lot.  In the image below, I’ve used a red square to outline the approximate size of the area surveyed on 21 June 2016.

1721_map_South_wall_overlay

With permission from the kind folks at First Baptist Church, we created a temporary grid of approximately twenty by twenty-five meters of uninterrupted space in the asphalt-paved parking lot.  We could have done a slightly larger area, but our efforts were restricted by time, a large storm water drain, and an errant parked vehicle.  Jon used a 400 MHz GPR antenna, which is capable of “seeing” a few meters deep, but in our sandy soil the resolution is a bit compromised.

With the grid established, the process of acquiring the data was pretty simple: Jon pushed the GPR antenna across the parking lot in a series of north-south parallel lines, spaced 50 cm apart.  It’s not very exciting to watch, but here are a couple of images to illustrate the repetitive back-and-force nature of the work (with archaeologist Ron Anthony as human placeholder):

Jon heading north

Jon heading north

Jon heading south

Jon heading south

The GPR equipment includes a real-time display that shows the operator a rough outline of the earth below the antenna.  During our work on Tuesday, Jon observed a repeating pattern of “slumping”—a feature appearing to trail off from shallow to deep—that might indicate an edge of the moat.  If this turns out to be the case, it will be the first time that anyone has located evidence of the town’s early earthen walls and moat that were dismantled in the early 1730s.

Dr. Marcoux is again busy with his field school, and will soon return to Rhode Island.  We’ll have to wait a few weeks for him to compile and analyse the data, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.  If you’d like to learn more about this investigative process and the results, you’ll have a chance in late August, when I’ll host a public program at the Charleston County Public Library.

Searching for Colonial Charleston’s South Wall

  • Tuesday, 30 August 2016 at 6 p.m., at Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 

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.