Visitors to Charleston this time of year get a special treat with the blooming beauty of the small tree known as Confederate Rose. The species is actually of the Hibiscus family, not a rose, and is certainly not Confederate, considering it originates in Asia, but its florid petals look very much like roses, and were very popular in the antbellum South, thus the name. The Confederate Rose is scientifically known as Hibiscus Mutabilis, and as the name suggests, it undergoes a remarkable mutation, changing petal colors in the space of a single day. Flowers that burst forth lily white in the morning will turn light pink by day’s end, and eventually shrivel to blood red. Botanists are not in complete agrement as to what causes the change, but the catalyst appears to be a pigment enzyme in the petals that is triggered by sunlight.
According to Southern legend, the flower got its name from an incident during the War Between the States, when a wounded Confederate soldier clutched the flower as he lay dying, and his slowly-dripping blood changed its color from white to red. It is a great story and a great looking tree in bloom, and in Charleston’s sub-tropical climate, this Asian transplant grows as if it were native.
Defiance is a long-standing Charleston trademark, and many of the flags such as this distinctive one flown from downtown houses remind us of the city’s passion for independence. Charlestonians have actually declared independence three times – in 1719 from the Lords Proprietors who ran the early colony, in 1776 from the King that we had briefly acquiesced to royal authority, and in 1860 from the Union that we had joined with the idea that we were free to extract ourselves.
The flag shown here is the famous Gonzalez flag from Texas. Many South Carolinians had moved west in the 1820’s, and some became famous in the formation of Texan independence and statehood, such as William Barrett Travis, commander of the Alamo, and Francis Richard Lubbock, who would become governor of the Lone Star state.
In the 1830’s, the town of Gonzalez was largely settled by easterners, but was still under the authority of Mexico. Because of constant attacks by Indians, the townspeople asked the Mexican government for a cannon to defend the town. They got one, and then joined the fight for Texas independence, so the Mexicans demanded the cannon back. In defiance, the town raised the “come and take it banner” and never gave up their gun, becoming part of the new state in 1845.
These old friends come out each year at 60 Meeting Street. I tell folks on the tours that they are the original builders of the 1771 house and like to “bone up” on their skills every Halloween. The corner structure is typical of so many Charleston buildings from the antebellum and colonial periods that were “Victorianized” in the late 1800’s. Charlestonians were property-rich and cash-poor in the decades after the War Between the States, and when new Victorian styles became popular in America by the late 1880’s, few Charlestonians had the money to ter down old houses and build new, so they simply added details that made the buildings seem new. The house at 60 Meeting was redesigned with both Oriel windows and a Mansard Roof in the 1890’s. The term “Oriel” is latin for “golden”, and refers to a protruding bay window typically on an upper floor. The Mansard roof comes from French architect Francois Mansart, whose high-hipped design became the rage in France during the reaign of Emporer Louis Napoleon, and is also known as Second Empire Style. If there are any other questions about the structure, feel free to ask the old builders who are still hanging around.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse came to Charleston in 1818 as a portrait artist and had a gallery on Broad Street whose rear area faced St. Michael’s Alley. Morse, who would later become world-famous as the creator of the telegraph signal code that still bears his name, was known as “Finely”, and came from Charlestown, Massachusetts in hopes of making a start in Charleston, where a booming cotton economy made for a wealth of potential patrons. Morse did well enough that he was chosen by the city council to paint president James Monroe’s portrait when Monroe visited Charleston in 1819.
Morse’s talent is evident in numerous other portraits, but he became fascinated with electro-magnetism, and in 1845 opened his Magnetic Telegraph Company with lines between major cities. The Morse code would be a standard for communication until the advent of the radio in the early 1900’s.
The old privy vault that faced St. Michael’s alley is gone, but a replication shed shows what was typical of the old outhouses, with its cap-and-pan tile roof that helped keep the hot sun from pounding on a flat surface. American history benefitted from Morse’s business skill, and is this perhaps the location where he took care of other important business?
During the War Between the States, Charleston was under attack from Federal ironclads called monitors, but in later years monitors were a welcome sight in Charleston harbor. After the war, the monitor design was modified with newer engines and bigger guns, and by the turn of the 20th century, the monitor was similar to a battleship. In 1900, the US Navy built a new class of monitors called the Arkansas class. One, the USS Nevada was built 252 feet long, with a crew of 220 officers and men. It was armed with two 12-inch guns. What made the monitors unique was their low free board which harked back to Swedish inventor John Ericsson’s original monitor design in the 1860’s. Theoretically it made them harder to hit by enemy shells, but also proved more susceptible to heavy seas, so the Nevada was relegated to duty as harbor defense and as a tender to the first submarines created by the US Navy. By 1908, the navy decided to build a bigger battleship class and name them after states, so the Nevada’s name was given to a ship which would go on to be bombed at Pearl Harbor. Because an historic feature of the Civil War monitors was giving them Indian names, such as Passaic, Weehawken, Patapsco, etc., the old Nevada was renamed the Tonopah, an as the USS Tonopah served in Charleston before World War I, before eventully being decommissioned in 1920.
We see Spanish Moss all over coastal South Carolina, but few people really know exactly what it is or why it’s there. The plant is actually not a moss, but an angiosperm, scientifically known as Tillmandsia Usneoides. It gets its name from English settlers who thought it looked like the beards of Spanish explorers. The plant uses trees as platforms from which to absorb nutrient from the air – it’s not a parasite, it’s an epiphyte. From its perch in large live oaks, which are ideal platforms for the Spanish Moss, it absorbs water and minerals (mostly calcium).
During the northern blockade in the Civil War, Confederate supplies were stretched so thin that southerners began weaving blankets out of Spanish Moss. If soaked in water for long periods of time, the outer gray cortex of the plant will separate from its inner fiber core, which is strong enough to weave into garments.
Another great story, which has never been verified, is that Henry Ford sent workers south to gather tons of Spanish Moss to stuff into Model-T seats. The plant had to be removed, so the story goes, because people were complaining about itching backsides. Spanish Moss is often crawling with itching mites call “chiggers”, so be warned, don’t pick it up and stuff it in your pocket.