Charleston remembers Confederates and rebellious slaves

Monument to leader of a slave rebellion is located
in a park named after a secessionist and Lost Cause progenitor

Amtrak is building a new, multi-modal passenger station in North Charleston, S.C. We thought it odd that the current train station still has telephone booths with working, coin-operated telephones— two in each of the identical waiting rooms. Our Uber driver connected the dots. The station was built in the days of separate but equal, one waiting room reserved for whites, the other for “colored.”

Today, no plaques explain the history to 21st Century travelers who, on a Saturday evening in March 2018, intermingled, regardless of race. This fusty relic of a thankfully bygone era will soon feel the wrecker’s ball. The new staton, at the least, ought to contain an exhibit.

As far as we could determine, only one statue or monument has been amended in the birthplace of the Confederacy, that being Sen. John C. Calhoun, the progenitor of nullification, the theory that led to secession. It is just east of the Old Citadel and the College of Charleston, in Marion Square, named after the Swamp Fox of Revolutionary War fame. (Leslie Nielsen portrayed him in the Walt Disney T.V. series in the 1950s.)

Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey monument erected in 2014 in Hampton Park, Charleston, S.C.

Madison, meanwhile, appears poised to make permanent Mayor Soglin’s unilateral decision to remove one plaque from Confederates Rest Cemetery, the one that referenced the 140 dead POWs as “unsung heroes” and having fought “with valor.” Two of three committees assigned to this weighty issue are siding with keeping the 1906 monument inscribed with the names of the dead and honoring the Madison woman who cared for the burial plot with her own funds and labor.

Somehow, this stone perpetuates the “Lost Cause” movement, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission, which everywhere sees the racism that is its raison d’etre. 

Charleston, on the other hand, is erecting monuments telling of the horrors of slavery. Probably because they had so much of it.

A slave revolt crushed; their church burned

We know Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion thanks to William Styron’s best selling book. Less well known is that of a man named Denmark Vesey. The northern travelers chanced upon his statute in beautiful Hampton Park, ablaze with azaleas of every hue but blue this mid-March day just outside the gates of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.

It’s been up only since 2014 and there was controversy even then, with opponents decrying the man as a would-be terrorist. That may explain its location remote from the tourist mecca farther down the peninsula.

Vesey is depicted carrying a carpenter’s tool box, which was his trade, and a Bible. The man won a lottery (!) and purchased his freedom but could not afford to buy that of his wife or children. Now that has got to be a particular form of hell of its own. Perhaps as a consequence, South Carolina in 1820 required both houses of the state legislature to approve the freeing of any slave. In 1818 Vesey was among the founders of Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

Vesey and his followers were arrested in 1822 for planning a slave insurrection. They planned to sail to freedom in Haiti, which had its own slave rebellion in 1791, resulting in the abolition of slavery two years later and its freedom from France in 1804. Vesey and 34 followers were hung after secret proceedings in front of a city-appointed court that alleged Vesey was planning a bloodbath. For good measure, city officials burned down their church and expelled its minister from the city.

Negro Christianity was blamed for giving slaves “ideas.”

Fearing outside agitators, the state enacted legislation requiring free black sailors on ships that docked in Charleston to be held in the city jail while their ships were in port.

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Hampton Park: named for a racist, redeemed by former slaves

Now, about Hampton Park, wherein the Vesey monument stands. It is named for Wade Hampton III, one of the largest slave owners in the southeastern U.S. Hampton became a Confederate general and, at the end of Reconstruction, elected governor with the help of the paramilitary “Red Shirts,” a variant of the Ku Klux Klan, which disrupted Republican meetings and harassed black voters and murdered 150. The state election of 1876 was disputed, as was the national election for President. The deal was struck to declare Hampton the first Democrat(ic) governor since Appomattox in return for the election of Rutherford Hayes to succeed U.S. Grant, thus ending Reconstruction.

With Gen. Jubal Early, Hampton was a progenitor of the Lost Cause mythology. One of the two statutes representing South Carolina in the U.S. Capitol’s statutory hall is that of Wade Hampton III, who served two terms in the U.S. Senate.

Want another analogy to Madison? Before it was Hampton Park it was a horse race course, converted to a Union prisoner of war camp where 257 POWs died and were buried in a mass grave at the site. At war’s end, 28 black workmen took it upon themselves to re-inter the dead and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Remind anyone of Madison’s Alice Whiting Waterman?

Discuss among yourselves: Did those 257 Union dead “fight with valor”? Are they “unsung heroes”?

For further study: lay your hands on a book published in 1782 by a man named St. John de Crèvecoeur (that’s his last name) titled Letters from an American Farmer. Born in France, he fought with Montcalm in Canada, farmed in New York State, corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, eventually returned to France to be feted at the Parisian salons.

Crèvecoeur writes a chapter on slavery from his visit to Charles Town (as it was known then) that is an early excoriation of the peculiar institution. Invited to dinner at a plantation, he chances upon a slave in a cage suspended from a tree and left to be pecked apart by scavenging birds. Truly harrowing.

His environmentalism anticipates Thoreau. His essay, “What is an American?” predates Toqueville by 50 years and is more readable; he introduces the concept of the American melting pot.

About David Blaska

Madison WI
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3 Responses to Charleston remembers Confederates and rebellious slaves

  1. Patrick M O'Loughlin says:

    It would be quite inconvenient if Hizzoner had to drive to Illinois every time he wanted to flog those dead soldiers for the cameras.


  2. AnonyBob says:

    Dave, nice piece. I honestly enjoy and appreciate your thoughtful travel writings. Hope you’re having/had a good vacation.
    But. Things are still happening in the world. Trump’s deference to Putin and his “reelection” is deeply concerning. Soglin is uninspiring (to put it kindly), but there are bigger idiots to worry about. How much longer are you on vacation?


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