Charleston is located on the southern end of ‘The Neck’, a strip of land extending from the Bay north to the crook in the Ashley River. In Charleston, it was important to live ‘below Broad Street,’ and outsiders believed that to live on, or to claim relationship with one who lives ‘on the Battery,’ is a Charlestonian’s prime distinction. Where the Ashley River and Cooper River meet to form the waterfront was noted even in Europe for its beauty. Since the War of 1812, it has been called ‘The Battery.’ The high east seawall was built before 1820 of ballast rocks from trading vessels. This replaced an earlier wall built of palmetto logs which were swept away in 1804. Between 1848 and 1852, the south wall was added.
Charles Town, as it was originally called, was settled in 1670 by English pioneers who established themselves on Albemarle Point, westward across the Ashley River from the present location. Oyster Point was higher and better adapted for defense, and was selected for the site of the ‘great port towne’ laid out in 1672 by instructions of Lord Ashley-Cooper, one of the Lords Proprietors. The colony, increased in the meantime by settlers from Barbados, England, and Virginia, moved across the river in 1680 and Charles Town became a ‘City-State.’ For many years, its history was the history of South Carolina. It was the center from which colonization radiated and the capital of the province until 1786, when Columbia was founded for that purpose. Provision crops, naval stores, and the Indian trade gave the colony its start. Rice and later indigo brought the settlement its wealth, and Charleston became a flourishing urban center for opulent planters, who maintained ‘county seats’ on Low Country rivers.
The influx of French Huguenots and of French Catholics from Acadia in the late 1600’s gave the city a cosmopolitan atmosphere. They were followed by the arrival of Scots and South Germans. In the 1800’s, North Germans and Irish immigrants arrived. A writer of this last period described Charleston as ‘owned by the Germans, ruled by the Irish, and enjoyed by the Negroes.’ The different races and nationalities represented added breadth as well as variety to spiritual and intellectual life. A public library, the first in the colonies, was established in 1698. It was succeeded after its decline by the present Charleston Library Society in 1748. A free school opened in 1710 and a theater in 1735. The first newspaper, the South Carolina Weekly Journal, was founded in 1730 by Eleazer Phillips, Jr. It was followed by the South Carolina Gazette, with Thomas Whitmarsh as editor and printer. Whitmarsh died of ‘strangers’ (yellow) fever in 1735. The following year, Benjamin Franklin sent Lewis Timothy, one of his printers, to take charge. In 1738, Timothy was succeeded by his widow. Later, her son Peter Timothy assumed the editorship until 1775. The paper was suspended for two years, only to be revived by Peter’s son, Benjamin Franklin Timothy, as the Gazette of the State of South Carolina. It continued under that name and management until 1792. Its successor in 1803 was the Courier, the antecedent of Charleston’s present paper, the News and Courier.
Because if their affiliation with the Mother Country and its traditions, many leading Charlestonians found it difficult to sever their British allegiance at the onset of the American Revolution. However, the first Provincial Congress of South Carolina, meeting at Charleston in 1775, secured strict loyalty to the American cause from most citizens. Christopher Gadsden, John Rutledge, Henry and John Laurens, and other local leaders were active in the affairs of the new Nation. A British attack upon Charlestown on June 28th, 1776, was repulsed by William Moultrie’s brilliant defense of the palmetto fort on Sullivan’s Island. In 1780, the city fell into the hands of the British and was held for two and a half years. The relationship of Charlestonians and the enemy was not that of conqueror and conquered. Even in these circumstances, Charlestown remembered its manners. It was not until December of 1782, when General Nathaniel Greene and other partisan leaders had cleared the rest of the State, that Charlestown was evacuated by the enemy. The next year, the city’s name was changed from Charles Town to Charleston.
The post-revolution period was characterized by a vigorous democratic spirit. With the removal of the capital to Columbia, the planters, lawyers, and merchants of Charleston found their control threatened by the small farmers of the interior. Realizing a need for a stronger government to protect trade and invested money caused Charleston leaders to join heartily in the support for a new Federal constitution. Years after the rest of the State had gone over to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Party, the city remained stiffly Federalist. Charleston’s prosperity increased during the great plantation era, and the city became noted in Europe and America as ‘a flourishing capital of wealth and ease.’
The embargo on trade accompanying the War of 1812 was a temporary setback. When developing transportation deflected commerce to Savannah, however, Charleston launched the bold experiment of that pioneer among early steam railroads, the South Carolina Railroad. The South Carolina Railroad was built from Charleston to the Savannah River, opposite Augusta, from 1830 to 1833. Coincident with the construction of the railroad was the establishment of the world’s first department store in a mammoth building at the corner of King Street and Market Street.
Charleston, along with the rest of the State, enthusiastically entered into the War Between the States, hosting the convention that passed the Ordinance of Secession. The long siege of the city abounded with dramatic incidents. Beginning with the Union defense of Fort Sumter, the port was constantly active with blockade running. Submarine warfare was first introduced here in 1863. After Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had demolished Columbia in February of 1865, Charleston was evacuated. Sherman had insinuated his intention to destroy Charleston, but later plans turned him in another direction. Union forces had heavily bombarded the city, however. Public buildings and homes were badly damaged, particularly in the lower sections. Charleston was left poverty-stricken.
Charleston return to prosperity was interrupted by the earthquake of 1886. After the cataclysm, weakened buildings were strengthened with tie rods running between the floors from wall to wall, still visible in surviving brick structures. Other natural disasters have followed, including tornadoes in 1938 and numerous hurricanes. Despite Mother Nature, the important shipping trade returned. In 1880, work began on the construction of jetties with Federal funds. One jetty extends from Sullivan Island and the other from Morris Island. This closed all channels except one, causing an increased flow with a consequent increased depth.