Beaufort South Carolina’s History
A Spanish ship first explored what today is the lovely coastal city of Beaufort in 1514. In 1562, the French Huguenots became the area’s first settlers at the current site of the Parris Island Marine training camp. The settlement failed. In 1583, the Spanish created a settlement there until the British drove them off the island and successfully settled and chartered the town in 1711. Beaufort then became the second oldest permanent settlement in South Carolina. As Beaufort is located on the second-deepest natural port on the East Coast, the British built a fort and quickly established the town as a shipbuilding center. This combined with successful plantings of indigo, cotton, and rice created great wealth and led to the creation of a number of incredible downtown mansions.
The Union Army captured Beaufort at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. The city served as a Federal base through the rest of the war. While Charleston and most of the rest of the south suffered after the war, Beaufort prospered on the basis of phosphate mining. However, a 1907 hurricane followed by a 1913 fire decimated the city. It took 50 years to recover thanks to a major redevelopment effort and the establishment of a major Marine depot on Parris Island, a Marine air station, and a Naval hospital in Beaufort.
Any visit to Beaufort should include viewing its large number of lovely historic buildings. Strolling around to view these beautiful homes is worthwhile. Even more interesting is learning a little bit of their history. While you can admire them from the outside, some are public businesses that you can enter, and some offer inside tours for a fee.
Parish Church of St. Helena. Established in 1712 as a colonial parish of the Church of England, St. Helena is one of the oldest active churches in the country. Union troops converted it into a hospital. Its cemetery including graves that date back to 1724.
- Thomas Hepworth House. Built in 1717, it is the oldest building in the city.
Elizabeth Hext House (also called Riverview). Unlike most other antebellum houses, this house is quite small to allow it to appear more personal.It was was built in 1720.
Beaufort Arsenal. It was built in 1798 to house the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery after the Revolutionary War. It was repaired and expanded by local secessionists as a base for monitoring slaves before the Civil War. Today it serves as the city’s Visitor Center and History Museum.
Edward Barnwell-Geddes Dowling House. The house was built in the early 1800s. The Union army used it as a signal station during the Civil War.
- John Mark Verdier House. A major Sea Island planter and trader built the house in 1804. Federal troops took it over and made it their headquarters through the rest of the war. Verdier’s daughter-in-law reacquired the house at a tax sale and later restored it and opened to the public.
Maxcy Rhett House. It was built in 1810 as a school for boys and was later purchased by the brother of antibellum U.S. Senator. It became the site for the first meetings that ultimately resulted in the state’s secession from the Union (hence it is also known as the Secession House). The Federal Army used it as a hospital and officer quarters during the war.
Tabernacle Baptist Church. Built in 1811, it was used as an African American religious center during the occupation and became a Church in 1863. Robert Smalls is buried in the church cemetery.
Cuthbart Scheper House. Built in 1820, Union troops used it as a bakery. Today it is a B&B.
Robert Smalls House. The house has an amazing story built around one of the most interesting and accomplished former slaves and Civil War heroes. Smalls was born a slave to Henry McKey and worked in his 1843 mansion. McKey hired him out to work in Charleston. Smalls worked himself up to becoming a pilot on a transport ship that had been contracted to the Confederate army. On the night of May 12, 1862, he and other slaves were left on the ship while the White crewmen went ashore. He and the other Black crew sailed the ship to a wharf where they picked up their waiting family members and sailed past Confederate Forts Sumter and Moultrie by pretending to be the captain and giving the proper signals. They turned the ships over to the United States Navy, provided intelligence on Confederate operations, and gained freedom for all. Smalls then served as pilot and later captain of other Union ships through the war. He used the prize money from the ship’s capture to buy the house of his former master. Years later, after he was thrown off of a segregated Philadelphia streetcar, and organized a boycott that led to desegregation of the city’s transit system. He returned to Beaufort during Reconstruction, he went into business with a partner, and became an advocate for public education. He was subsequently elected to the state house, then senate and finally to the U.S. House of Representative where he served five terms despite pro-segregation Southern Democrats having regained control of most of the state.
Lewis Reeve Sams House. Built in 1852, the Union used it as a hospital during the Civil War. The original family reclaimed it after the war and later sold it. The house was used in the movie “Prince of Tides” which was based on the novel of Beaufort resident Pat Conroy.
- Tidalholm. A Sea Island planter built this beautiful Italianate home in 1853. It served as a Federal hospital during the Civil War. A second floor was added after an 1893 hurricane badly damaged it. It is better known as the house in “The Big Chill” and “The Great Santini”.
- Joseph Johnson House (known as “The Castle”). Its gardens occupy an entire city block. The Union Army took it over almost immediately after it was completed in 1861 for use as a hospital. The original owners reacquired the house after the war.
- First Baptist Church. Freed slaves pooled their money to buy the land and materials to build the church in 1865 to replace a number of small “praise houses” that served as adhoc plantation churches. Federal troops temporarily converted the 900-congregant (including Robert Smalls) church into a school for newly freed men.
- The Oaks. Built in 1855, U.S. Army used it as a hospital during the war before it was repurchased and returned to the original owners.
Beaufort Is More Than Just Historical Buildings
In addition to all of its historic buildings, Beaufort has a number of beautiful outside sites that one can explore.
- Beaufort National Cemetery, established in 1863, has the interred remains of 7,500 Civil War soldiers plus 6,500 other soldiers who were killed in other wars.
- National Park Service Reconstruction Era Historical Park provides rangers, interpretive panels, and guided tours that detail the successes and setbacks of the roughly 40-year reconstruction process for not only Beaufort sites, but also for the Penn Center School, the Emancipation in Port Royal and Port Saxton. (see our Penn Center School post for more information.)
- Waterfront Park is a pretty park on the Beaufort River that is next to the city’s leisure boat marina.
- And don’t forget to admire the hundreds of huge Live Oak trees draped in Spanish Moss. Beautiful.
Beaufort Area Restaurants
Despite plenty of opportunities to eat in Beaufort, we went to the neighboring town of Port Royal for lunch at Madison’s. Although it has garnered numerous recent awards, we were less than impressed by its she-crab soup, fried oysters, hushpuppies, and smoky grits and cannot recommend it.