Today In Charleston History: April 13


The London Frigate, a slave ship, arrived in Charleston from Guinea with small pox on board. It spread so extensively that there were not enough healthy people to take care of the ill.

1780-The Siege of Charlestown

The British had managed to mount seventeen 24-pound cannons, two 12-pounders, three 8-inch howitzers and nine mortars.  At 10:00 am the batteries in the neck, north of the American lines opened steady fire until midnight.

      Major William Croghan wrote:

The balls flew thro’ the streets & spent their fury on the houses; & those who were walking or visiting in the town, as was usual during the former quiet, now flew to their cellars, & others to their works, as the places of greatest safety.

The first day’s bombardment killed two soldiers, several women and children, two cannons were destroyed and two houses burned to the ground. 

During the day, Governor John Rutledge and a few members of privy council, including Charles Pinckney left the city, heading for the backcountry. Gen. Lincoln persuaded Rutledge to “Preserve the Executive Authority … give confidence to the people and throw in the necessary succours and supplies to garrison.” That left Lt. Governor Christopher Gadsden the leading civil authority in the city.

The governor’s entourage included a number of invalids, including Lt. Colonel Francis Marion and his broken ankle. At noon they crossed the Cooper River leaving behind the constant booming of artillery and a city covered with smoke and fire.


At a Thomas Jefferson birthday celebration in Washington, DC, Pres. Andrew Jackson toasted: “Our Federal union – It must be preserved.” V-P John Calhoun replied, “The union – Next to our liberties the most dear.”

1861 – Civil War

By 8:00 a.m.the upper story of the officer’s quarters at Sumter were burning. The most immediate danger was the 300 barrels of gunpowder stored in a magazine. At one o’clock the flagstaff at Fort Sumter was struck by a Confederate shell and crashed to the ground. The soldiers rushed to rehoist the flag before the Confederates assumed they had surrendered.

About this time, former Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas visited Fort Sumter.During the midst of the bombardment, Wigfall had himself rowed out by slaves. Soldiers at Sumter were perplexed by a man waving a white handkerchief from a sword. The Federals raised a flag of truce and Wigfall, although he had no authority to do so, told the first Federal officers he met, “Let us stop this firing. You are on fire, and your flag is down. Let us quit.”

Anderson arrived a moment later and Wigfall told him:

You have defended your flag nobly sir. You have done all that it is possible to do, and General Beauregard wants to stop this fight. On what terms, Major Anderson, will you evacuate this fort?

ft sumter - interior

Inside Fort Sumter during the bombardment. Courtesy Library of Congress

Anderson felt some relief. His soldiers were half-way starved, exhausted and down to their last three shots. The American flag was taken down and Wigfall’s white handkerchief was raised in its place. The firing from all batteries ceased – the battle over.

Church bells rang across the city. Men on horseback galloped across the city, shouting the news. Spectators on the Battery sea wall cheered hysterically, the sound carrying across the Charleston harbor to the exhausted soldiers into Fort Sumter.

Hermann Klatte, a partner in a local liquor outlet called “Lilienthal & Klatte” on East Bay Street, wrote: 

 Yesterday morning at 4:30 they began fighting at Fort Sumpter…the United States flag was not raised again….Somewhat after 2:00 Sumpter surrendered unconditionally to the southern Confederacy, and soldiers from the same government will take over soon, and the bells are playing…victory.


Henry Ward Beecher, a Northern Congregationalist minister and staunch abolitionist, arrived in Charleston to preach at Ft. Sumter. Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe had written the wildly popular (and universally hated in the South) Uncle Tom’s Cabin. President Lincoln had personally selected him, stating, “We had better send Beecher down to deliver the address on the occasion of raising the flag because if it had not been for Beecher there would have been no flag to raise.”

Henry Ward Beecher, Army Chaplain

Henry Ward Beecher, Army Chaplain

Today In Charleston History: April 10

1693 – Religion

The Huguenots complained to the Lords Proprietors about threats made upon their estates. The Proprietors replied to the Carolina governor:

The French have complained to us that they are threatened to have their estates taken from their children after their death because they are aliens. Now many have bought the land they enjoy of us … God forbid that we should take advantage …

They also complain that are required to begin their Divine Worshipp at the same time that the English doe, which is inconvenient to them in regard that severall of their congregations living out of Towne are forced to come and go by water; & for the convenience of such they begin their Divine Worshipp earlier or later as the tide serves, in which we would have them not molested. 

1780 – The Siege of Charlestown

General Henry Clinton issued a summons of surrender for delivery to Continental Gen. Lincoln who replied that “Duty and Inclination point to the propriety of supporting it [Charlestown] to the last extremity.”

1861 – Civil War

Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard received word from Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker to require the surrender of Fort Sumter from the Federals. All around Charleston, Confederate troops prepare for conflict; a rebel floating battery is stationed off Sullivan’s Island. 


Floating Battery, Charleston, SC – Ft. Sumter in the background left

Today In Charleston History: April 5


The South Carolina Gazette announced festivities to honor James Oglethorpe:

Tuesday last being the day appointed for the Review of the Troop and Regiment of St. Philips Charlestown, the two following commissions of his Majesty were published at Granville Bastion, under the discharge of the cannon both there and at Broughton Battery the one constituting and appointing the Hon. William Bull Lieutenant Governor in and over the province, and the other [for] his Excellency James Oglethorpe, General and Commanders of his Majesty’s Forces in the provinces of South Carolina and Georgia … In the evening his Excellency … made a general invitation to the ladies to an excellent supper and ball so the day concluded with much pleasure and satisfaction. 

1740 – Slavery
Stono Rebellion

Stono Rebellion

In response to the Stono Rebellion, the Assembly passed a new Negro Act – placing high import duty on slaves, which effectively cut off new slave trading. Its stated goal was “to ensure that slaves be kept in due subjection and obedience.”

No slave living in town was allowed to go beyond the city limits; the sale to alcohol was prohibited and teaching slaves to read and write was prohibited. Only the Assembly could grant a slave freedom. Any white person who “shall willfully cut out the tongue, put out the eye, castrate or cruelly scald” a slave was subject to a fine. 

1765 – American Revolution–The Sugar Act 

The Sugar Act was passed by Parliament. The British government had increased its debt during the French and Indian War, and was looking at various means to raise revenue. 

1780 – The Siege of Charlestown
Siege of Charlestown

Siege of Charlestown – British batteries outside the city.

After dark Gen. Clinton ordered the British battery at Fenwick’s Point and the Wappoo Cut, across the Ashley River, to fire upon Charlestown. The cannonballs whistling through the dark sky over the city created a “terrible clamor” with “the loud wailing of female voices.”

One of the British cannonballs struck Mr. Thomas Elfe’s house at 54 Queen Street and two damaged Governor John Rutledge’s house on Broad Street. Rutledge wrote that he was appalled at “the insulting Manner in which the Enemy’s Gallies have fired, with Impunity, on the Town.”

Also, the British galley Scourge fired eighty-five times with “every shot … into town.” During the night three British soldiers deserted to the American side. One of the soldiers “paddled himself over on a plank from James Island.”

Siege marker on King Street @ Marion Square

Siege marker on King Street @ Marion Square


Robert Smalls was born behind his owner’s city house at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, S.C. His mother, Lydia, served in the house but grew up in the fields, where, at the age of nine, she was taken from her own family on the Sea Islands.  The McKee family favored Robert Smalls over the other slave children, so much so that his mother worried he would reach manhood without grasping the horrors of the institution into which he was born. To educate him, she arranged for him to be sent into the fields to work and watch slaves at “the whipping post.”

By the time Smalls turned 19, he was working in Charleston. He was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages a week (his owner took the rest). Far more valuable was the education he received on the water; few knew Charleston harbor better than Robert Smalls.


Robert Smalls

It’s where he earned his job on the Planter. It’s also where he met his wife, Hannah, a slave of the Kingman family working at a Charleston hotel. With their owners’ permission, the two moved into an apartment together and had two children: Elizabeth and Robert Jr. Well aware this was no guarantee of a permanent union, Smalls asked his wife’s owner if he could purchase his family outright; they agreed but at a steep price: $800. Smalls only had $100.

By 1862, Smalls viewed the Union blockade of the Charleston harbor as a tantalizing promise of freedom. Under orders from Secretary Gideon Welles in Washington, Navy commanders had been accepting runaways as contraband since the previous September. While Smalls couldn’t afford to buy his family on shore, he knew he could win their freedom by sea — and so he told his wife to be ready for whenever opportunity dawned.


The Planter

Just before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew of fellow slaves, slipped a cotton steamer, Planter, off the dock, picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated their way through the harbor. Smalls, doubling as the captain donned the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat to help to hide his face. As they sailed out of the harbor Smalls responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints and sailed into the open seas. Once outside of Confederate waters, he had his crew raise a white flag and surrendered his ship to the blockading Union fleet.

In less than four hours, Smalls had accomplished an amazing feat: commandeering a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom. “One of the most heroic and daring adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston,” trumpeted the June 14, 1862, edition of Harper’s Weekly.

On May 30, 1862, the U.S. Congress, passed a private bill authorizing the Navy to appraise the Planter and award Smalls and his crew half the proceeds for “rescuing her from the enemies of the Government.” Smalls received $1,500 personally, enough to purchase his former owner’s house in Beaufort off the tax rolls following the war, though according to the later Naval Affairs Committee report, his pay should have been substantially higher.

In the North, Smalls was hailed as a hero. He lobbied Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin enlisting black soldiers and a few months later after President Lincoln ordered black troops raised, Smalls recruited 5,000 soldiers himself. In October 1862, he returned to the Planter as pilot as part of Admiral Du Pont’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. According to the 1883 Naval Affairs Committee report, Smalls was engaged in approximately 17 military actions, including the April 7, 1863, assault on Fort Sumter and the attack at Folly Island Creek, S.C.

Two months later he assumed command of the Planter when, under “very hot fire,” its white captain became so “demoralized” he hid in the “coal-bunker.” Smalls was promoted to the rank of captain, and starting in December 1863 on, he earned $150 a month, making him one of the highest paid black soldiers of the war. When the war ended in April 1865, Smalls was on board the Planter in a ceremony in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter.

Following the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, and for five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1874-1886).He died in Beaufort on February 23 1915, in the same house behind which he had been born a slave and is buried behind a bust at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.

“My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” — Robert Smalls

Today In Charleston History: March 27

1780 – The Siege of Charlestown.

From St. Michael’s steeple, Peter Timothy reported over thirty British flatboats along the Wappoo Cut “skulking in the marsh.”

St. Michael's Church

St. Michael’s Church

During the months leading up to the British siege of Charlestown, St. Michael’s steeple was used as a lookout tower to report on troop movements outside the city. Peter Timothy, editor/publisher of the South Carolina Gazette was a Revolutionary and published passionate pro-Patriot stories. After the British successfully captured Charlestown, Timothy was one of thirty-three patriots arrested and placed in the provost dungeon of the Exchange Building.

During their passage to exile in St. Augustine, Timothy was “lost at sea” according to British reports. 


Robert Newman Gourdin was born at Buck Hall Plantation in St. John’s Parish. He was the son of Dr. Samuel Gourdin and Mary Doughty Gourdin.

Gourdin graduated from South Carolina College in 1831, read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1834. He and his brother Henry were members of the prosperous mercantile firm Gourdin, Matthiessen, and Company of Charleston. Robert Gourdin was active in city and state affairs; he served as an alderman in Charleston and toward the end of the Civil War he served as a colonel in the South Carolina reserves.

Gourdin was a signer of the Ordinance of Secession from St. Philip and St. Michael’s Parishes, Charleston, at the Secession Convention of South Carolina; he was listed in the Journal of the Convention as a commission merchant, age 48, in 1860. He was chairman of the Executive Committee of the “1860 Association” of Charleston. Gourdin, who never married, died in Charleston February 17, 1894, and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina.

1860. Road To Disunion.

Population trends were going against the South, and Southerners were also becoming dependent on Northern manufacturers. The Mercury noted that:

A church built in Charleston was apt to have its doors, windows, and even pulpit made to order in the North. We thus starve our own artisan-laborers and send out money away to strengthen, enrich and fatten those who are ready to draw the sword of extermination on us.

1888. Lily Langtry Plays Charleston.

The “fair Jersey lily” as she was called, appeared on the Charleston stage at the Academy of Music. As a young woman, Lily Langtry had been celebrated in New England society for her “beauty and charm. Her looks and personality attracted interest and invitations from artists and society hostesses.” In 1874, the 20-year old Lily married Irish landowner Edward Langtry. For the next decade she became famous in European society, becoming the mistress of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, and was befriended by Oscar Wilde and actress Sarah Bernhardt. She also became the mistress of German Prince Louis of Battenberg and Charles Chetwynd, Earl of Shrewsbury.

lily langtry - two views

Lily Langtry, two views. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1881, due to her husband’s financial difficulties (and Lily no longer the official mistress of Prince Albert) she became an actress and quickly was drawing large crowds to the theater, more due to her scandalous celebrity than her skill on the stage.

Her appearance in Charleston met with mixed reviews. Her beauty and style were fawned over in local papers, filled with detailed descriptions of her costumes:

The lower skirt was of satin brocade, trimmed in waves of golden beads, the tight-fitting bodice covered with three glittering pendants … a short puffed sleeve … on the right arm, while from the bare left arm fell a drapery of white crepe which, with the crepe over-skirt and train, gave a very Grecian effect to the whole.

Every seat at the Academy of Music was priced at $1.50; there were no “cheap seats” for Lily’s performance. Although she was praised as a beauty, a reviewer reported that “it was doubtful that one in twenty would care to see her again.”