I was fascinated to learn that Charleston – at that time, Charles Town – was once a walled city. I decided to learn more. This is what I found:
The Beginnings of Charles Town
In 1680, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury and the leading Lord Proprietor of Carolina chose a new site for South Carolina settlers. He had the colonists move from Albemarle Point, just off the Ashley River, to a peninsula. This peninsula was situated between the Ashley River to the west and the Cooper River to the east. To the south lay the Atlantic Ocean. Lord Ashley Cooper named this new settlement after King Charles II. He called it Charles Town. (In 1666, the Ashley and Cooper Rivers were named by explorer Robert Sandford to honor Lord Ashley Cooper.)
The area adjacent to the Charles Town waterfront, along the Cooper River, consisted of tidal mudflats. Frequent high tides threatened structures along that waterfront. So colonists began talks about building a brick sea-wall to protect their city from erosion. However, British officials realized their new colony needed more than a sea-wall. They badly needed fortifications to protect them from Spanish, French, and Native American threats. So in 1696, they commenced construction of a defensive wall along the Cooper River waterfront.
The Brick Sea-Wall
Enslaved African-Americans built the wall. They pressed clay from the Ashley River into wooden forms, left them to dry, and finally fired them in a kiln. They created approximately seven million bricks which they used to build a sea-wall fronting the Cooper River. The mortar they used to fix the bricks was made from oyster shells. The wall stood six feet above ground and about fourteen feet below ground. It was five to seven feet thick.
This wall withstood forces of nature for nearly a hundred years. It didn’t come down until 1784, when men torn down the fortifications and above-ground portions of the brick wall. Today, only a small portion of the brick wall can be seen above ground, at the intersection of East Bay Street and Tradd Street.
Extending The Wall
However, before the wall’s ultimate demise, town leaders in 1703 decided to extend the wall to encompass all of Charles Town. They built this majority section of the wall with wood and earthen-materials. In addition, they added ramparts and fortifications all along its borders.
Because of their foresight, the city of Charles Town was able to withstand threats, such as the attack that nearly occurred by the Spanish in 1706. The presence of the wall, complete with palisades, cannon, and militia, plus the city’s refusal to immediately surrender, caused the Spanish to leave without attacking.
Revolutionary War Era
In 1776, additional fortifications were added to the wall by order of the patriot government – the South Carolina Provincial Assembly. When the British attacked on June 28, 1776, it was the guns of Fort Sullivan on Sullivan’s Island, that kept them at bay. Three more ships tried to enter the Charles Town harbor, but ran aground on a shoal (hidden sandbank). They never made it to the fortifications of the Cooper River wall.
The British returned in 1780, this time avoiding the harbor and attacking Charles Town on its weaker land sides. They won that battle and occupied Charles Town for over two years, finally evacuating the city under continuous pressure from the Americans. In 1783, the city of Charles Town was renamed Charleston.
The Wall Today
After the Revolutionary War, the citizens of Charleston began filling in the land around the waterfront, slowly expanding the city eastward. In 1784, the city council of Charleston decided the wall and its defenses were no longer needed. By 1789, the last fortification, Craven’s Bastion, was demolished. (Craven’s Bastion was located on the southeast corner of what is now East Bay and Market Streets, where the U.S. Custom’s House stands.)
Today, Charleston’s defensive sea-wall is gone. The Cooper River no longer abuts East Bay Street. Landfill has extended the area leading up to the river another block and a half. It is Waterfront Park, along Concord street, that now fronts the Cooper River.
Some of my historical sources included The Walled City of Charles Town, HALS SC-24 from the Library of Congress, maps from the Library of Congress, the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, Wikipedia, and a recording of our tour-guide at The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.
Stay tuned for more blogs about Charleston and Savannah, and please share if you enjoyed this. Thank you.