Monday, December 12, 2011

SC6 Civil War Rewind, Part Nine: Charleston Burns

Massive Fire Does What the Union Army Couldn't... Yet.

     Welcome to the 9th installment of our marking of significant events in the Civil War - 150 years after they occured... Today, we mark an event close to many South Carolinians hearts: the Great Fire of 1861.  Long a contraversial event, it left Charleston wounded for almost the duration of the War.  If you've ever gone on a tour of downtown Chucktown, you'll notice that many houses were built well before the war, or a good five years after.  The 1861 fire explains a lot of that...

     In late 1860, Charleston was the epicenter of rebellion.  Just 11 months later, it was almost reduced to rubble - not by the Union Army, but by natural disaster.  We think.  No one knows for sure. The Post and Courier noted that none of the papers gave any blame on arson, but we found an article from Harper's Weekly that stated just that.  Since both the Charleston Mercury and Courier newspapers were burned out, who was around to note it?  There is mention of freed slaves starting it, but since we don't know, we'll pass on judgement.

    Late on December 11, 1861  three separate fires started, almost simultaneously, on King Street, Tradd Street - and by all accounts- at the Russell Sash and Blind factory on Hassell Street in the Northeast area in Charleston.  Aided by winds from a nearby Nor'easter, and a dead low tide that hampered the firefighters ability to pump water, the fire quickly spread south and west...

    The devastation was pretty complete in it's path.. The mostly wooden buildings burned up like kindling .  The fire cut a swath across Market and Broad Streets, where both the Circular Church and Institute Hall, where Secession was officially passed, burned to the ground.  It continued on there straight to the Ashley River, where it ran out of things to burn.  That, and a slight rain, and the work of residents and slaves worked to save their homes.  It would seem odd now for enslaved blacks to work hard to assist their 'owners', but this was their homes as well...

     The fire caused $8 million in damage (about the price of ONE HOME on Battery Park now), and was visible to both Union and Confederate armies stationed or traveling nearby.  While the North dreamed of setting fire to the birthplace of Secession, it somehow did it to itself...  Of course, the Sherman and the Yankee army got their chance in early 1865, but a third of Charleston was already gone, not to be rebuilt until after the War.  

     Suddenly, war and secession and states rights took a back seat to more important and basic where to live , work and rebuild.  Of course, it did rebuild eventually, and is today one of the greatest and most beautiful cities in America.  If it weren't for the I-26 traffic, it might be perfect - but Earl is working on that!  And it all happened 150 years ago today.

     See you at the next installment!


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