Thursday, June 12, 2008

20. Charleston: Slavery and Civil War

This is the “Lowcountry”, a term often used to describe the low coastal region of South Carolina, generally between Charleston and Savannah. The local folks are proud of their Lowcountry traditions, cuisine, etc. As the name implies, the terrain is as flat and low as one can imagine. Rivers and waterways meander through marshes and around and through urban areas. It seems like a one-foot rise in the water level would flood everything, but apparently that doesn’t happen . . . very often.
The southern states flourished from about 1780 to the Civil War, the period considered the Golden Age of the South. Sadly, the prosperity was due in large part to slavery. Charleston was one of the primary ports into which thousands of Africans were brought and sold. When the population of Charleston reached 25,000, 14,000 were slaves and their families. Plantations were created, rice and cotton were major products and large beautiful homes were built in the city and on the plantations.

Bonnie was looking forward to the plantations. Fortunately, our RV park was close to three of the best. Each was unique. Middleton Place was in a beautiful setting overlooking the Ashley River. It had the first formal gardens in the country and most of them are still maintained. The main house was destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War but the site still has some secondary buildings, rice paddies and acres of grass, gardens and ponds.

Hundreds of slaves helped build and operate this plantation and some of their original housing (photo) and workshops have been preserved. The names, specialties and "market values" of all slaves were well-documented as part of the plantation’s record keeping. Some of those records are displayed in this building. Today, the gardens of Middleton Place are popular for weddings, concerts and other major events.

Magnolia Plantation was a few miles up the river. It’s main house was also destroyed in the war but was rebuilt and is now a museum house full of period furnishings and antiques. It also has miles of pathways through beautiful gardens, including a swamp garden, religious garden and other features.

Yes, there are gators in most of the larger ponds. This one was lurking in the reflections under a pedestrian bridge. They occasionally grab a wandering poodle for a snack, but otherwise don't bother anyone and are not a problem.
The third plantation home, Drayton Hall, was built in 1738. It’s the oldest surviving example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the South. It too would have been torched by Union troops, but the quick-thinking owner designated it a hospital for contagious diseases as the army was approaching. They avoided it like the plague (pun) and the house survived. The family later moved to Charleston but continued to use Drayton Hall for vacations. It never had running water, electricity or a heating system other than fireplaces. This house has been “preserved” (not restored) so visitors can see the original construction, old bricks, plaster, glass, wood floors, paint, wallcoverings, fireplaces, and the oldest known hand-carved plaster ceiling (photo). The former Victorian gardens and orchards are long gone, but it’s still a real jewel in the rough.

Prior to the Civil War, slavery was prohibited in the northern states but not in the South. The South saw the handwriting on the wall and prepared to break away to protect their rights. Abe Lincoln vowed to abolish slavery and was elected President in 1860. This triggered the division of the states. South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union. Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana quickly followed.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired in Charleston on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumpter guarded the entrance to Charleston harbor. That's about all I remember from my U.S. History classes. This vacation has been one big history field trip and much more interesting than it was in school.
The Confederacy was taking over and demanded that the U.S. troops leave. When they refused, the Confederate army shelled the fort, took it over and held it for the next four years. During that time, they experienced a two-year siege, during which 46,000 shells were fired at the fort. Some are still lodged in its broken walls. The structure is not what it once was, but just standing on this historic site was a very moving experience.
In 1861, shortly after the war began, Union troops occupied Hilton Head Island and immediately freed about 1,000 island slaves. These were the first slaves to be freed as a result of the Civil War. Most of them had nowhere to go, so they stayed on the island and practiced what is now called the “Gullah” culture, which is celebrated during a month-long Gullah Festival every February. Not knowing much about slavery, it was interesting to learn that as many as 12 million Africans were transported by slave traders who were making deals with African kings. Only about 7% of them came to North America. The rest went to the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil. The importation of slaves into the U.S. ended in 1808, but the trading (sale) of slaves continued for nearly 60 years before being abolished. The story is told at 6 Chalmers Street in Charleston, the site of the last remaining portion of Ryan’s Slave Market of 1859.

Many old guns and monuments to the Civil War are found in Charleston’s Battery Park. The term “battery” refers to the large group of guns and cannons that worked together to protect the city from intruders.

Charleston is known as “The Holy City” because of its many beautiful churches. But it’s residential and commercial districts are also very impressive. We loaded up on maps and brochures at the Visitors Center and started walking south through the commercial district along Meeting Street and King Street toward the Old City Market.
Being on these old business streets is like stepping back in time (if you can ignore the modern vehicles). Most buildings are architectural classics, well maintained and full of thriving businesses, including upscale stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue. Bonnie had a great time window shopping and darting in and out of the shops. She found some very good buys while Ron was ogling the architecture. Unlike Seattle, coffee is not a big thing around here. A Starbucks is hard to find.
The Old City Market buildings (1841) stretch for several blocks on Market Street. It’s a casual flea market sort of operation selling everything from produce, trinkets and souvenirs to high quality art, jewelry and handmade sweetgrass Gullah baskets.
We were hot, hungry and tired of walking when we spotted the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. After visiting the site of Forrest Gump’s park bench in Savannah, we couldn’t pass this restaurant by. Keeping with the theme, we ordered a plate of big delicious shrimp and a tower of onion rings. It was delicious and the waiter was happy to capture the moment for us.

Like Savannah, Charleston also has many old neighborhoods with narrow brick streets, shade trees, pocket gardens, iron fences and gates and tons of character and charm. While the city is known mostly for firing the first shots of the Civil War, it was also the first city to establish a chamber of commerce, a municipal college, a city museum and the first to adopt historic district zoning (1931) to preserve its architectural heritage. Today, the historic district includes more than 2,000 buildings. Many are more than 200 years old and 73 predate the Revolutionary War.
We toured several historic homes and took many more pictures than we can include here. Many of the largest and most expensive homes are along the Bay Street waterfront where Bonnie is standing. It was fascinating to learn how each home played a unique role in local history and about the colorful personalities involved. It’s amazing that these houses have been around for 200 years or more and have survived earthquakes, hurricanes, fire, war and termites.

We spent two weeks in Charleston. During that time, Bonnie flew home for a week to take care of some business and help celebrate the high school graduations of grandsons James and Andy. Ron did a little relaxing and solo sightseeing, but spent most of his time researching the road ahead and doing minor maintenance on the motor home. We love Charleston and could easily spend another two weeks here. But there are other places to go and things to see, so we’ll move on down the road.