Civil War Captives

Lots of people who make a trip to visit historic Charleston are interested in seeing Civil War sites. We do have harbor forts that are very popular, but one fascinating structure that most don’t know about is the old District Jail on Magazine Street. Built back in the early 1800’s to resemble a towering castle, the imposing structure has a long history of suffering prisoners. In 1864, in the last stages of the Civil War when Confederate prison camps were being threatened by invading northern troops, hundreds of Federal prisoners were sent by train to Charleston and kept at the old district jail. There were so many that there wasn’t room for them in the structure, and many camped in tents outside.

Ship Shaping

Many tourists visiting Charleston are fascinated by the city’s extensive maritime history, and some of the best things to do is some kind of boat trip in Charleston harbor. From 1740 to 1773, there were more than 300 ships built in local shipyards, most of them 20 tons or less. The most popular designs were schooners and sloops, whose “fore and aft” rigging was more practical than square-rigged to allow more maneuverability along the coast and in rivers. There were some larger brigantines built that combines fore-and aft with square rigging, and numerous plantation barges that carried goods to remote coastal areas. The age of steam ships and railroads in the 1800’s essentially brought local shipbuilding to an end, but there is one place where you can still find some of these colonial vessels, but you’ll need scuba gear – along the Cooper River Underwater Heritage Trail, where a number of small ships and boats are marked with plaques on the bottom where they eventually came to rest. By the way, the most complete and best illustrated study of shipping in Charleston is Priestley Coker’s “Charleston’s Maritime Heritage – 1670-1865”.

Classic Colors

I wanted to devote this post to the captivating color found throughout Charleston in its architecture, gardens, wildlife, and landscapes. Aesthetic beauty has both an inspiring and a calming effect, and the opportunity to immerse ourselves in this picturesque palette perhaps explains the traditional unhurried nature of Charlestonians, compelling so many to visit and embrace the abundance on display each day, while inspiring one of our own known for visual portrayals of the city to say long ago, “The slower measure which we tread has brought many to visit us who have run the race too rapidly.” Visitors can find this on every street and every blocks of the historic city, as wonderful courtyards and gardens show you the hue that has made us such a destination.


The streetcar on rails was a common sight in Charleston years ago. The first streetcar company opened in 1861, but things didn’t get rolling until 18 miles of track was laid in larger streets by 1866, and passengers could climb aboard vehicles that were pulled by horse or the occasional mule. A number of groups got in the act, such as the Charleston & Seashore Railroad company that carried passengers from ferry landings in Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island, and the stops along the way gave the island the “station” names it still has today. The term trolley wasn’t used until cars were electrified in 1897, but were better known to Charlestonians as “iron donkeys”. They were propelled by current from overhead wires that the car could attach to with a boom, and there were many instances of startled horse carts from the snapping sparks on the wires. In 1910, the new Charleston Consolidated Railway and Lighting Company extended lines for picnics at Magnolia Cemetery, any by 1910 there were 40 miles of trolley tracks, which on wider streets such as Broad and Meeting, there were two sets going in either direction, and at the end of the line, a turning loop to swing around. Each car typically had a brakeman, who controlled speed and stops, and a conductor who took tickets, which in 1910 cost 7 cents. 

Pumping Past

The 1803 Joseph Manigault House was converted into an Esso station in 1922, and a fill up got you a free tour of the historic garden. The gas station closed by World War II, and the historic house served as a USO dance hall for service people in the area. I was saved by demolition by being bought by the Charleston Museum and converted into a museum house, where today touring visitors can enjoy its remarkable Federal-style architecture.

German Guests

The first World War II prisoners brought to Charleston were German submariners who were captured by the Coast Guard cutter Icarus in 1942, and a year later the West Ashley stockade was opened for Italian and German army prisoners, who were more than likely happy to have square meals instead of round bullets. The Axis prisoners had a near celebrity status, as Charlestoniains would drive past the camp on highway 61 to see them. And with farm hands off fighting in the war, the prisoners were loaned to local famers and marched into fields to harvest crops. One group of Germans was harvesting tomatoes for the first time in 1944 when a farmer gave them a midday break and brought out cases of Coca-Cola. The prisoners loved it, and the next week harvesting on another farm, were eagerly awaiting Coca-Colas at midday, but this particular farmer just kept them working to the point the Germans refused to go back to work unless they got the cokes. Although the war ended in 1945, farmers were reluctant to give up their cheap labor, and Axis prisoners were still in Charleston as late as 1946 before being shipped home.

Furry Facts

I thought I would be frank about the Eastern Gray Squirrel, and here’s Frank as an example. He’s actually a rodent in the Sciuridae family, related to the groundhog, and the name squirrel comes from a combination of Latin terms meaning “shadow tail”. The tail of this critter that visitors often see throughout the year walking in scenic, historic Charleston is both a cover, a decoy, and a warning signal of imminent danger. Squirrels make a variety of sounds, ranging from a purring that means contentment, to a short clucking bark that is meant to locate other squirrels, to a high-pitched squeal meant to warn that predators are lurking. Squirrels build nests where their young are born, and they are polygamous with any number of mates, and can live as many as 20 years, foraging for seeds and nuts that they cleverly hide in ground cavities that they are able to relocate months later. Most of all they are great climbers, and can hang upside down from lofty tree limbs for extended periods of time, holding on with one paw while digging through a nut. <img.src=”Charleston Wild Life” alt=”Eastern Gray Squirrel”

Formidable Form

Throughout the year, visitors from all over the world travel to scenic, historic #Clharleston, SC to enjoy the architectural beauty of this classic coastal city. One of the most charming aspects of this fabled Southern city is its wealth of iron gates and balconies that we see in abundance on my walking tours. What comes as a surprise to many who wander the picturesque streets of the city is that the often delicate-looking shapes of the hand-forged wrought iron gates are actually very strong. Wrought iron has an extremely low carbon content, allowing this material to be shaped easily by heating surfaces and pounding or twisting them with tools into elaborate patterns. The malleability of wrought iron is an indication of its tremendous tensile strength – much stronger than iron cast in a mold, which is nearly 4% carbon and would break if bent or twisted with great force. During the Civil War, cannon defending Charleston were often strengthened by heating a wrought iron ring, or band, expanding the iron to the point where it could be slipped over a cannon barrel breech and cooled to contract on the barrel surface. These strong iron bands allowed gunners to use larger explosive charges in the cannon and fire shells much farther. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Strength of Wrought Iron”

Maritime Mystery

It has now been 20 years since the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley was retrieved from beneath the sea, and two major mysteries linger still – how did the 8-man crew die, and why is this amazing piece of history not in a place where the public can see it on a daily basis? The Hunley was the first submarine in the history of warfare to sink an enemy ship, remarkable considering the little vessel was powered only by a hand-cranked propeller. Little more than an iron tube with an explosive protruding from a bow spar, the tiny sub sank the warship USS Housatonic off Charleston Harbor on February 17, 1864, but never returned. Buried under the ocean bottom for nearly 150 years, the vessel was retrieved completely intact, including the remains of the 8 crewmen, who were thought to have drowned. But a new study by Duke University scientist Rachel Lance concludes that all were instantly killed by the intense shock wave of the explosion. The Hunley was been under conservation management for 20 years and is now in incredibly good condition. But it sits in a warehouse in North Charleston where visitors and tourists can only see it on weekends. We have a maritime museum overlooking Charleston harbor – why is this amazing piece of history there where everyone can see it?  <img.src=”Charleston Civil War History” alt=”Submarine Hunley”

Obscuring Origins

There has been considerable effort in recent decades to rewrite History in order to make perceptions of the past fit certain ideologies of the present, and that is something I will gladly contest for the sake of the integrity and honesty of historic interpretation. One of the numerous canards I have found is the reference to the architectural feature, the cupola, as being of Moorish or Berber origins, supposedly introduced by Islamic builders to Europe in the 8th century. The term cupola comes from the Italian word meaning “dome”, and the domes of ancient Rome, such as the famous Pantheon, can be traced much further back in the past than the 8th century, and long before Islam even existed. I will give history credit where it is due regardless of politics or religion, but I will also call out something that is demonstrably wrong. I still hear tourists being told that the historic architecture of Charleston was based on the West Indies and Barbados, and that steeples and cupolas were ideas all borrowed by Europeans by someone else. That is simply not true. We are undeniably a very European city in the style of our buildings, and anyone can find much more similarity to our architecture in Europe than anywhere else.