Reliving the past in Charleston, S.C.

[UPDATED with new photos] Researchers from the Blaska Policy Werkes are on the ground here in Charleston, South Carolina, birthplace of the Confederacy (1860-1865).

This is an old city —  ancient by American standards — founded at the behest of the newly restored King Charles II in 1670, and perhaps the best preserved large city (metro population 713,000). Its architecture is glorious and well preserved, particularly the splendid three-story houses, with as many levels of balconies called “piazzas” facing off to the side or even the back of the house rather than up front. One enters the walled enclave through a door right off the sidewalk not into the house but into the piazza itself, an escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of Low Country summers. The few for sale are listed in the $2 to $4 million range. (Not including the obligatory Audubon prints; the naturalist did much of his work hereabouts.)

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The indentured servants are signed up for home and garden tours and yes, the azaleas, wisteria, and pansies are in full bloom. But it’s been cold; temps in the mid-50s before warming to the 70s by weekend. Daffodils have come and gone.

History is ever-present here. Signers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are buried in crowded church yards next to the victims of the various epidemics and fires that raged through the town — people with names like Rutledge and Pinckney. George Washington worshipped at the St. Philip’s Anglican Church (as it is called here) in 1791 (founded in 1680, the present structure dates from 1835). It did not get its bells back until 1976; they had been melted down for cannon during the Civil War.

Unlike Boston, Charleston was founded on religious tolerance. An ancient Jewish synagogue and a Catholic church sit cheek by jowl. The nation’s only French Huguenot Church was built on Church Street in 1845.

Washington’s statute dominates the cozy park off Meeting Street. He visited the city on his presidential tour of 1791 and was feted at the Old Exchange Building (once the custom house). For a city this old, there are surprisingly few statutes of famous folks. And none of victorious Confederate generals. We espied a plaque to General P.G.T. Beauregard in Washington Park. He’s the general who commanded the firing upon Fort Sumter out in the harbor on April 12, 1861, to start the War Between the States, which it is still called here.

No one died in the 34 hours of shelling. The Union tried to retake the fort almost exactly two years later and kept at it for the next two years, reducing the thing to rubble. Only when Sherman swept up from Augusta, Georgia did the secessionists leave the fort to defend Charleston. That’s some kind of object lesson, one supposes.

We saw a replica of the C.S.A. Hunley, a black metal tube that became the first successful submarine. It sank a Union ship in 1864, signaled its success to Confederates on shore, then disappeared until being pulled from the muck by adventurer and author Clive Cussler and his team in 1995.

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The Daughters of the Confederacy have a headquarters here in a classical Greco-Roman style building but its museum of the Confederacy was closed the Tuesday we stopped by. We may stop by the Old Slave Museum. Charleston was the major port of entry for enslaved African Americans and one realizes the heavy labor — the brick making, cotton picking, rice harvesting and the service that kept these old houses going before electricity — was done by slaves. The Citadel (the Military College of South Carolina) began as an armory in response to an attempted slave revolt. In the news over the weekend, a former Citadel football player, a black man, was apprehended after killing four members of his family, the Manigaults. You can tour the Manigault mansion, built in 1803 on Meeting Street for a very decidedly white, and wealthy, family. It was the threatened destruction of this house for a gas service station that led to the nation’s first historic preservation society in 1920 and the first municipal historic preservation zoning ordinance in 1931.

The sense we get is the city has moved on from its racist past without trying to erase it. We ate at Hyman’s Fish Mart, founded by Jews a century ago and still operated by the family, where celebrities like Sen. Strom Thurmond dined but also Sen. Tim Scott, the sitting junior senator from South Carolina and the only black man in the Senate. He’s Republican. (Along with Charlie Sheen, Andie McDowell, James Brown, Anthony Hopkins, and  a dozen NBA players. You go to Charleston, you got to eat sea food. It’s easier to find a lobster sandwich than a hamburger.)

Out at Boone Plantation, a Gullah descendant of slaves portrayed, in song, dance and spoken word, her heritage. A row of nine slave houses still stand; they’re made of some of the same brick manufactured on the plantation that built Fort Sumter, which was constructed in 1829.

Today, the local news reports that students are playing hooky from school to participate in the national protest against gun violence. Charleston absorbed that terrible murders of nine church-goers at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.

The local weekly version of Madison’s Isthmus carries a talented cartoonist who, like confused liberals everywhere, equates conservative defense of the human life in the womb to indifference to children after they are born.

Back to Washington Park, an obelisk records Civil War battles fought by local boys and records the names of those who gave their lives. Like Madison, Charleston endured a move to pull down its surprisingly few statues to segregationists, mainly John C. Calhoun, U.S. Senator and vice president who died in 1850 but devised the theory of nullification that informed the break-away movement 10 years later. The theory of nullification is now mostly advanced by Leftists trying to subvert federal immigration law. Calhoun’s statute still stands but, that day in Washington Park, we overheard one of the many walking tour guides give nuance to the memorials.

For better or worse, slavery, the firing on Fort Sumter, Beauregard and Calhoun are as much history as are Pinckney, Rutledge and Washington — slavers, all.

Charleston is not erasing its past but, instead, explains it without bitterness or, from what I can gather, apology but more as a disaster not unlike the earthquakes and hurricanes that ravaged the city for the next few decades after Appomattox, although man-made, to be certain.

About David Blaska

Madison WI
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3 Responses to Reliving the past in Charleston, S.C.

  1. madisonexpat says:

    Look up the Battle of Secessionville and ask the nice old lady that is receptionist at the Confederate Museum about the real Confederate flag design.


  2. AnonyBob says:

    Nice slideshow.


  3. Patrick M O'Loughlin says:

    It’s interesting that some Son of The Confederacy from Illinois, stepped up and offered to remove and relocate the offending dead soldiers at Confederate Rest. One would assume this was the perfect solution for Paul Soglin’s dilemma. No need to worry about who might spot and thereby be traumatized by, their very presence in The Emerald City. No expense to the city, county or state (unlike any other option, such as removing plaques or relocating graves.) So why was the offer met with stony silence? Surely Hizzoner would not be so cynical as to keep these non-slaveholding conscripts around as a whipping boy, would he? Why else did he not take that offer in a heartbeat?


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