Today In Charleston History: July 18

1800-Deaths

John Rutledge died from “the wearing out of an exhausted frame rather than … positive illness.” He was buried in St. Michael’s graveyard. He died without ever recovering from the crippling financial debt accrued during the Revolution. 

John Rutledge

John Rutledge

One of Charleston’s “founding fathers” Rutledge, a lawyer, served as provincial attorney general (1764), and was voted to the Stamp Act Congress (1765). He served in the 1st Continental Congress (1774) and 2nd Continental Congress (1775). In 1776, he helped South Carolina write a new state constitution, and was elected president of the new state government.

During the Constitutional Convention, he maintained a moderate nationalist stance and chaired the Committee of Detail, he attended all the sessions, spoke often and effectively, and served on five committees. Like his fellow South Carolina delegates, he vigorously advocated southern interests. In 1787 he was one of the signer of the Constituion of the United States. 

President George Washington appointed Rutledge as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1791 he became chief justice of the South Carolina supreme court. Four years later, Washington again appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice to replace John Jay. But Rutledge’s outspoken opposition to Jay’s Treaty (1794), and the intermittent mental illness he had suffered from since the death of his wife in 1792, caused the Federalist-dominated Senate to reject his appointment and end his public career. Meantime, however, he had presided over one term of the Court.

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John Rutledge’s grave, St. Michael’s Church

 

1863-Civil War. Assault on Battery Wagner

Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 of his troops were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Shaw was commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, perhaps the most famous regiment of African-American troops during the war.

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Images of Battery Wagner, Harper’s Weekly

Fort Wagner stood on Morris Island, guarding the approach to Charleston harbor. It was a massive earthwork, 600 feet wide and made from sand piled 30 feet high. The only approach to the fort was across a narrow stretch of beach bounded by the Atlantic on one side and a swampy marshland on the other. Union General Quincy Gillmore headed an operation in July 1863 to take the island and seal the approach to Charleston.

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Col. Robert Shaw

Col. Robert Shaw

Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the attack of July 18. Shaw was the scion of an abolitionist family and a veteran of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley and Antietam campaigns. The regiment included two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the grandson of author and poet Sojourner Truth.

Confederate General Samuel Jones wrote:

The First Brigade was formed in column by regiments, except the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts … it was a negro regiment, recruited in Massachusetts, and was regarded as an admirable and reliable body of men. Half the ground to be traversed before reaching Wagner was undulating with sand hills, which afforded some shelter, but not so much as prevent free and easy movement; the other half smooth and unobstructed up to the ditch. Within easy range of Wagner the march encroached so much on the firm sand of the island as leave a narrow way between it and the water.

Union artillery battered Fort Wagner all day on July 18, but the barrage did little damage to the fort and its garrison. At 7:45 p.m., the attack commenced. Yankee troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to the stronghold, facing a hail of bullets from the Confederates. Shaw’s troops and other Union regiments penetrated the walls at two points but did not have sufficient numbers to take the fort. Over 1,500 Union troops fell or were captured to the Confederates’ 222.

The Storming of Ft. Wagner, lithograph by Kurz and Allison,1890

The Storming of Ft. Wagner, lithograph by Kurz and Allison,1890

Despite the failure, the battle proved that African-American forces could not only hold their own but also excel in battle. The experience of Shaw and his regiment was memorialized in the critically acclaimed 1990 movie Glory, starring Mathew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman. Washington won an Academy Award for his role in the film.

To read more about the assault on Fort Wagner, read here

1864-Civil War
George Trenholm

George Trenholm

George Trenholm replaced Christopher G. Memminger as Secretary of the Treasury in President Jefferson Davis’s Cabinet. As skilled as he was with money, Trenholm couldn’t rescue the Confederate economy. After the fall of Richmond, he took flight southward with the rest of the Cabinet, but in ill health, was unable to continue running.

Today In Charleston History: July 16

1783 – Gazette Resumes Publication

Ann Timothy, widow of Peter Timothy, resumed publication of the Gazette of the State of South Carolina, continuing the tradition started by her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Timothy. Peter was arrested in 1781 by the British and transported to St. Augustine for imprisonment during the Revolution. He was “lost” at  sea during the voyage from Charlestown. 

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Capt. Joseph Vesey leased two town lots in Charlestown from John Christian Smith. Vesey and his wife lived at 281 King Street, and the other building on East Bay Street, became Vesey’s business office.

He set himself up as a ship chandler – an importer and retailer of various commodities including naval stores, rum, sugar and African slaves. To raise the capital for his business, Vesey sold his ship Prospect and liquidated his interest in two other Caribbean slave trading vessels, the Dove and the Polly.

Vesey’s trusted manservant, Telemaque (Denmark) enjoyed quasi-freedom in the urban environment of Charlestown. He discovered a thriving black community living an illicit social life in the city’s back alleys, hidden courtyards, street corners and church basements. 

1863 – Civil War

In the Battle of Sol Legare Island, Union troops attacked the fortifications on James Island and Folly Island, but were repelled by the confederate forces. One of America´s first African American Army Regiments, 54th Massachusetts, organized in the North, fought during the Sol Legare Island battle, losing 14 men. 17 were wounded and 12 missing. 

This defeat lead to the grand assault on Battery Wagner two days later, featured in the movie Glory which was based on the true story of Massachusetts’ infamous 54th brigade, comprised from the first all-black volunteer company, fighting the prejudices of both the Union army and the Confederate army.

Soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.