Charleston Historic Walking Tours

 

Walking tours are a great way to see and to learn the history of a city. This is especially true in a city like Charleston, which virtually oozes history. We spend both our mornings in the city on walking tours.

 

Historic Charleston Walking Tour.

The material alone would have made this tour would have made this tour interesting. Our guide, Scott, made it fascinating, integrating facts and insights from different realms into descriptions and expertly fielding a very broad range of questions.

The tour began where else, but with the 1780 founding of the city as a commercial venture, the city walls (of which a remnant remains in place) and the importance of slavery to the very existence of the Carolina colonies (South and North Carolina and Georgia collectively). It traced the city’s immediate emergence as the cultural center of the south (such as being the home of the first museum and theater in America) and the role of slavery (especially in producing indigo, rice and later cotton) in making it the richest. We learned of the importance of stones (ballast from the 500 ships per year that sailed into the port) and of "slave bricks" (porous, handmade bricks that, as we saw and felt, still contain the finger prints of the slaves who made them) in constructing the city and the history of some of the earliest and most important churches and the beautiful recreation of the historic Dock Street Theater (taking over the earthquake-damaged shell of the Planters Hotel and incorporating the interior details of the Rutledge Mansion).

Charleston-cobble street-homes-gCharleston-churchCharleston-Dock St -theater

We stopped in front of and learned the history of the Slave Mart (a Museum we later visited–see below) and how Charleston’s adoption of the "task system" (under which a slave, after completing their assigned tasks, could produce and sell their own produce and products) made its slaves the most productive in the colonies (and later country).

Charleston-slave mart

We, of course, also learned of the importance of sixteen periods of reclaiming land from the sea (which raised the level of parts of the old city by up to 10 feet) was instrumental to the city’s growth and of the devastation caused by the British shelling of south Charleston and then by the 1886 earthquake (estimated at 7.2) that destroyed more than 200 and required the rebuilding of more than 2,000 others after the Civil War when the city did not have the money to repair or reconstruct the city, which ended up effectively stagnating until the 1940s when the World War brought the U.S. Navy to the port. We were told of how this stagnation led to traditionally fashionable homes along the coast being reduced to tenements and bordellos, before being rehabilitated into the ultra-fashionable Rainbow Row and the oldest remaining home in the city.

Charleston-homes-color-g (2)Charleston-old house (2)

We saw how traditional slave-owner homes were divided between white residences, slave quarters and then stables, and how the some of the latter have been converted into carriage houses and visited the garden of one of the more impressive of these homes–the Nathaniel Russell Home (which we toured the following day-see below). Our tour ended inside St. Michael’s church (built in 1761), where we saw pews that cost the wealthy planters and merchants $500 per year (the equivalent of about $20,000 in current dollars), the one pew that was reserved for dignitaries and the amazing Tiffany windows.

Charleston-St Micheals-outsideCharleston-St Micheals-dignitary pewCharleston-St Micheals-window

Our guide, Scott, made it fascinating, integrating facts and insights from different realms into descriptions and expertly fielding a very broad range of questions.

 

Civil War Walking Tour. This tour traced the history of the Civil War from the perspective of Charleston. It began with an overview of the nominating process for the 1860 election and the fragmentation in the Democratic Party (between Northern and Southern nominees) that helped ensure the election of the Republican Lincoln as president. Our guide explained how South Carolina immediately responded through a simultaneous resignation of all local federal civil officials, by claiming of ownership of the not quite completed Federally-built Fort Sumter, then by shelling the barely manned fort into submission and by becoming the first state to secede.

He pointed out and explained the role of specific buildings in the subsequent war and the alarmist reaction against all blacks (including free blacks, who accounted for about 10 percent of the total) who were feared to be planning a revolt. While the South did win many of the initial eastern U.S. battles against overly cautious Union generals, the south had lost virtually all of the battles to the West (against General Grant) and by 1863, was almost bankrupt. It could not get foreign loans and it failed in its attempt to create a stable, common Confederate currency. Then, in the later years of the war, the city suffered its greatest blows. In 1863, the Union gained control of Charleston Harbor and began a 600 day bombardment that devastated large swaths of the city. Then, by early 1865, General Sherman had captured most of the far south and was challenging the state Capitol of Columbia. The state militia, having to race to its fruitless defense, left Charleston undefended. The Union army freely entered the next day, February 18.

Charleston-homes-g (2)Charleston-homes-gCharleston-Battery

Some things got even worse after the war. Union soldiers looted many of the city’s remaining riches, Northern carpetbaggers imposed strict restrictions on and further looted the south.

Although our guide, clearly knew his history, his sympathies clearly lay with the north, faulting the south for its racism, its radical politics and it’s totally unrealistic perception of its own strength and the ease with which it would win the war.

Despite this, he also faulted the North, especially for its duplicity regarding slavery. For example, while many in the North claimed to find the South’s approach to blacks abhorrent, many Northern banks gladly extended lines of credit to Southern banks for the funding of loans for people to buy slaves and Northern insurance companies wrote insurance countries on the lives of the slaves who served as collateral for the loans. Some Northern states, meanwhile, while condemning slavery, would not permit fleeing blacks to enter their states. Even the Federal government showed some duplicity, as by collecting tariffs on the goods produced by slave labor and taxes on the income of slaveholders.

Overall, a very interesting tour. The big problems: the guide, so intent on providing information, provided too much. And much of that he did provide, took far too long to explain. In the end, it took more than three hours to convey about two hours’ worth of information. Unfortunately, we would not recommend this tour.

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