Located just south of the mid-point of South Carolina’s coastline, at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the historic city of Charleston is the oldest city in the state. Founded in 1670 and first called Charles Towne, it was named for King Charles II. Charleston’s rich history includes periods of great wealth and prosperity followed by generations of great poverty; two major wars being fought within its boundaries, followed by the occupation of invading armies; numerous skirmishes with pirates and Indians; catastrophic fires that obliterated entire blocks of the city, several hurricanes; and the largest earthquake ever to rock the eastern coast of the United States. These many events of the last three centuries have all combined to make Charleston an unrivaled tourist destination for history buffs.
In 1663, King Charles II granted a charter for Carolina territory to eight of his loyal friends, but it would be seven years before the first settlement was established. Charles Town was established as the capitol city of Carolina on the west bank of the Ashley River. Two years later Charles Town had about 30 buildings and 200-300 settlers. In 1680, the town moved to its present location on the main peninsula and in 1783 adopted its present name.
The settlement was often subject to attack from sea and from land by Spain, France, and pirates, as well as resistance from Native Americans. While the earliest settlers primarily came from England, they were followed by other immigrants including French, Scottish, Irish, Germans, and others. These many various ethnic groups brought with them numerous Protestant denominations, as well as Roman Catholicism and Judaism, which would later earn Charleston the nickname of the “Holy City,” for its long tolerance for religions of all types and its many historic churches.
The deerskin trade was the primary business in Charleston during its early years as alliances with the Cherokee and Creek ensured a steady supply of deer hides. Between 1699 and 1715, an average of 54,000 deerskins were exported annually to Europe, which was used in the production of men’s fashionable and practical buckskin pantaloons, gloves, and book bindings. The deerskin market would continue to grow through the mid 18th century.
Colonial landowners were also experimenting with various crops including tea, silk, rice, and indigo, which would become a leading export by 1750. By this time, Charleston had become a bustling trade center and the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia.
By 1770 it was the fourth-largest port in the colonies, after only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and boasted a population of 11,000. As the city prospered, several cultural and social organizations were established including the first theater in America in 1736, numerous benevolent societies, and the Charleston Library Society in 1748. This group would also help to establish the College of Charleston in 1770, the oldest in the state.
When the American Revolution began, Charleston would find itself and its port a target – twice being attacked by the British.
On June 28, 1776, British General Henry Clinton with 2,000 men and a naval squadron tried to seize Charleston, hoping for a simultaneous Loyalist uprising in South Carolina. However, their mission failed when explosives failed to penetrate Fort Moultrie’s unfinished, yet thick palmetto log walls, and no local Loyalists attacked the town from within as the British had hoped.
However, General Clinton would return before the end of the war in April 1780 and attack again, this time, with far greater success. Marching on Charleston with 14,000 soldiers, Clinton cut off the city from relief and began the siege on April 1st.
For the next six weeks, a number of skirmishes took place until Continental Army Major General Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender on May 12th. The loss of the city and its surrender of 5,000 troops to the British was the biggest loss suffered by the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. The British retained control of the city until December 1782, after which, the city officially changed its name to Charleston.
Charleston lost its status as the capitol in 1786 to Columbia, due to its central location in the state. However, the city became even more prosperous with large plantations. In 1790, Charleston was called home to more than 16,000 people and was the fifth largest city in North America. In 1783, the invention of the cotton gin revolutionized cotton production and quickly became South Carolina’s major export. The cotton industry, as well as the majority of the workforce in the city, relied heavily on slave labor and by 1820, when Charleston’s population had grown to 23,000 people, African-Americans were the majority.
In 1822, a free African-American man named Denmark Vesey planned a slave revolt that called for free blacks to assist hundreds of slaves to kill their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston before sailing away to Haiti. However, the plot was leaked and hundreds of blacks were arrested in the conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey. Increased restrictions were afterward placed on slaves and free blacks, including a law that all black seaman be kept at the jail while they were in port.
On December 20, 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina Legislators voted to secede from the Union and Charleston became a hotbed of skirmishes and battles during the Civil War. The first shots of the war were fired from Morris Island in Charleston’s Harbor by Citadel cadets on January 9, 1861, at the Union ship Star of the West, which was entering the harbor.
On April 12, 1861, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter in the harbor. After a 34-hour bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort, thus starting the war and triggering a massive call for Federal troops to put down the rebellion.
Throughout the Civil War, Charleston and its surrounding fortifications were repeatedly targeted by the Union Army and Navy, causing considerable damage and keeping up a blockade that shut down most commercial traffic. However, the city did not fall to Federal forces until the last months of the war. By that time, the Union attacks had worn down the city’s defenders and in February 1865, General William T. Sherman began his march through South Carolina.
On February 15th General Pierre Beauregard ordered the evacuation of remaining Confederate forces and three days later, Charleston’s mayor surrendered the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig.
Federal troops then moved into the city, taking control of many sites, including the United States Arsenal and the Citadel Military Academy, which the Confederate army had seized at the outbreak of the war. Afterward, Federal forces remained in Charleston during the city’s reconstruction.
With the war finally over, Charleston, like many Southern cities were devastated. One journalist in September 1865 described it as: “a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotten wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness.”