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.
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.