Civil War Charleston
[Written by one of the Charleston area’s foremost feature writers, Patra Taylor, the article was first published in 2001, at the turn of the 21st century to help encourage tourist from around the world to visit the Holy City.]
A prominent Charleston attorney often recounts the story about the time he was talking to a woman in Boston. As she clicked away on her keyboard, finalizing hotel arrangements for his upcoming business trip, she casually asked him if Charleston was in the same time zone as Boston. He replied, “Yes, same time zone, but different century.”
While the woman only chuckled politely, the wit of the lawyer largely lost on her, the story remains a knee-slapper in Charleston circles. That’s because, in many ways, Charleston is frozen in amber, forever locked in the 19th century — the era of its greatest glory, and of its greatest growing pains. Like Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman climbing into their way-back machine to visit times and places long past, Charleston stands as a doorway to a time and a way of life worthy of reflection.
Charleston author and Civil War tour guide, Jack Thomson, has a knack for time travel. A guide since 1986, Thomson has not only studied the period, he has absorbed it deep within his soul, and discovered a way to transport people back to the Charleston of the 1860s. Through his narrative, the way it was merges with the moment.
On his tours, Thomson urges visitors to withhold judgment of the Confederacy, step into their shoes, their thoughts and their values. Like a respected military advisor giving a situation report to his superiors in early April 1861 Thomson begins:
“People are always underestimating Lincoln,” says Thomson, trying to suppress the urgency in his voice. “ He gives the impression that he isn’t too smart. But he’s a brilliant man…ugly as the word ‘go’…but sharp. He gets elected President and he’s already lost seven states. More will follow. So Lincoln has to put this rebellion down.”
This rebellion. Our rebellion. The rebellion that had begun in Charleston in the last weeks of December 1860 with the signing of the “Ordinance of Secession.” South Carolina was the first state to secede, and Charleston is regarded as a the “Cradle of Secession.”
Thomson continues, “Figure Fort Sumter. It was built there to defend us from being attacked by some foreign power like England or France or Spain or Holland. But it happens to be right in our shipping channel. We depend on our trade with the rest of the world to survive. And now Major Anderson has removed his Federal troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter. Do we want foreigners in the middle of our harbor? No. But they have guns. And if they block off the harbor, we could lose our trade. So as long as they’re there, it’s going make a fraud of our whole idea of secession. We’ve asked Major Anderson to leave, but he wouldn’t. And now we hear Lincoln has dispatched a naval expedition to Charleston. If Sumter gets re-supplied, they’re going to be there forever.” Thomson pauses to take a breath, and to allow the gravity of the situation to sink in.
On April 12, Brigadier-General P.G. T. Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate States, ordered Fort Sumter fired upon. Charlestonians gathered on the rooftops near the battery to watch and cheer. A day and a half later, Major Anderson and his hungry troops surrendered, ending the first battle of the Civil War without injury or death. But injury and death would soon be a constant companion to those living in both the North and the South.
By early 1865, the cheering had stopped and despair had swept over much of the South, including Charleston. “We’ve been shelled for a year and a half,” Thomson says solemnly. “Everyday, at least one shell. The worst was Christmas — over 200 shells. Nearly everything south of Hassell Street has been hit. The whole lower half of the city has been evacuated. There’s grass growing up in the streets, there are foxes and rabbits roaming freely there, owls flying in and out of broken windows. But somehow, life goes on.
“And now Sherman’s troop are boiling up through South Carolina,” continues Thomson, again energized. “One thing about Sherman…he’s never lost his respect for the Confederates. He’s tried to kill our spirit, but he’s having a hard time. We keep coming back and back and back. He’s ripping up the inside of the state. Instead of taking Charleston, he’s bypassed us and is heading to Columbia. But he’s cut all the roads to Charleston, all the railroads, all the bridges. Our port is blockaded, but our blockade-runners are still bringing in guns and medicines. We have warehouses full of supplies for the Confederate troops but we can’t get them out. Our trade is at a standstill. And now our 10,000-man garrison has been sent to chase after Sherman. The effect of all this is we’re not captured, we’re not surrendered, but we are evacuated. We’re useless to the rest of the Confederacy.”
The tale never ends with the tour. Thomson runs his hand over the pages of his book, Charleston At War, a photographic record of Charleston from 1860 to 1865. He’s always looking for a clue that will help him unravel yet another mystery of this awkward era in Charleston history so he can wake up tomorrow in the 1860s with a new story to tell.
Copyright © 2019 by Patra Taylor Bucher. All rights reserved.
John “Jack” Webster Thomson, III
You are missed.