Each day on my walking tours, we go by the great Catholic Cathedral on Broad Street, which is the seat of the Diocese of Charleston that once covered three states and more than 140,000 square miles. There were few practicing Catholics in the Charleston area when Pope Pius VIII created the Diocese of the Carolinas and Georgia, and installed Irish-born John England as the first bishop. Bishop England quickly inspired lay people with his insistence on a diocese that was built on collegiality, with all parishes given a degree of independence and input. Bishop England calmed fears among anti-Catholic Protestants with his remarkable gift of oratory, speaking before Congress in 1826 to reaffirm the “distinct and separate” nature of Catholic dogma as not being a threat to the authority of American governing bodies. Bishop England built a diocese that consisted of three priests and a few hundred congregants to one of the most vibrant Catholic areas in America by his death in 1844, and the grand Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar was built in 1853 as a tribute and a testimonial to his work.
This is a picture of the original South Carolina Palmetto Flag, created in 1861 and flown over the State Capitol in Columbia. When Sherman’s troops torched that city and terrorized its inhabitants in 1865, an Iowa regiment took down the flag and carried it home as a trophy of war. Today it remains in the hands of the Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, and although I’ve sent several messages requesting that they return it to South Carolina, they refuse, citing some nonsense about collections rules. This historic flag shows the true hypocrisy of the entire Union campaign against the South, as they have always claimed that it was a fight to “restore the Union”. If indeed that were true, the restored state of South Carolina should have its state flag restored. The fact that it has not been returned simply shows what the Union fight was really about in the 1860’s – a war of conquest.
After people have joined me on walking tours of historic Charleston, they often ask for suggestions for other parts of the city to visit. I always include the Ansonborough area as a scenic walk. Just north of the busy city market, Ansonborough is very quiet and serene and filled with wonderful architecture and gardens. This area was largely burned in the fire of 1838, and afterward, the city offered low-interest “fire loans” as a mean of rebuilding. As a result the Ansonborough neighborhood is largely made up of 1830’s and 1840’s construction, which has a distinctive appeal.
One of the very unusual plants found in Charleston gardens is the Mahonia, also known as Oregon Grape. This is primarily a shade plant, and adds quite a luster to scenic and historic locations in old Charleston such as the Garden Walk between King and Archdale streets. The plant was discovered by a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was named for him, and the fact that it was found in the Oregon territory makes it the state flower there. Most notable for spiny leaves and succulent purple drupes, the Mahonia is not a plant soon forgotten.
Visitors to Charleston who join my walking tours of the historic city are enjoying the first blooms of the Magnolia Grandiflora, or Southern Magnolia. These grand trees add greatly to scenic gardens and houses around our coastal city, and the blooms have a subtle, but distinctive aroma reminiscent of linen. The big white blooms are often used as centerpieces in historic houses, featuring their large, puffy white petals and colorful interior carpels. It is a wonderful experience to press the face into a fresh Magnolia bloom and enjoy its fresh fragrance.
Here is a visitor who came into my garden today, our state butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The species is common throughout the Southeast, and is one of the most eye-catching butterflies, not only because of its vibrant color, but the fact that it is typically much larger than most other butterflies that live in or migrate through this area. This particular creature had a wing span of nearly 6 inches, and when it first flew past my face, I though it was a bird. They love the plant Lantana, which does very well in gardens around Charleston.
I take my walking tours down to scenic White Point Garden, where we get to see the Keokuk gun on display – a cannon that fought for both sides during the Civil War. The gun was aboard the US warship Keokuk firing at Charleston’s defenders in Fort Sumter when it was sunk by cannon fire and sank in shallow water with its gun turrets exposed. Charleston engineers pried open the turrets and retrieved the gun, mounting it to fire back on the fleet it with which it came.
Touring by walking in scenic, historic Charleston SC is a wonderful thing for visitors to do who want the best experience during their stay. This architecture-rich, waterfront city blends the beauty of the pristine South Carolina coast with the amazing character of a storied past. Now that we are officially in Spring, blooms will be bursting forth in gardens and landscapes all around the city, adding an eye-pleasing luster to wrought iron gates, classic steeples, charming parks, cobblestone streets and moss-covered oaks.
People who visit historic Charleston are often told things that simply are not true, such as the oft-repeated story about 27 East Battery. People are told that it’s called “The Compromise House”, with the explanation that the alternating squared and rounded details were agreed to by a couple living there as a compromise because “he wanted square and she wanted round”. That is pure nonsense. There are other houses in Charleston with very similar contrasting Renaissance Revival details, such as over at 68 Meeting Street, which also features that alternating squared and rounded look. Neither house had these built originally, by the way, as in both cases, the details were Victorian-era additions.
I have written two books about Charleston – The Charm of Charleston and Charleston, Yesterday and Today – which include the history, architecture, legends, gardens and gates, and wildlife that are unique to this city. Both are coffee table books with plenty of pictures and illustrations from past and present. A good place to find them is the Historic Charleston Foundation gift shop at 108 Meeting Street where I begin my walking tours.