The Charleston Tradition


Charleston in 1860 was everything that aristocratic Lord Ashley might have desired. There was no other civilization like it in the United States. Five years later, Charleston, where the first shot was fired, arching over the bay toward Fort Sumter, went down under the tides of war. It fell to Federal troops as Sherman’s forces swept along the Ashley River. The city itself was not bombarded; Sherman’s troops simply made it militarily untenable by cutting its lines of communication and supply. In the process they destroyed almost every plantation in the area. Only Drayton Hall is still standing; and it would have been destroyed had not its owner turned it into a hospital.

“In our march through South Carolina,” one of Sherman’s soldiers recorded in his diary, “every man seemed to think that he had a free hand to burn any kind of property he could put the torch to. South Carolina paid the dearest penalty of any state in the Confederacy, considering the short time the Union army was in the state; and it was well that she should, for if South Carolina had not been so persistent in going to war, there would have been no war for years to come.” For Charleston, surrender was the beginning of the end. For in addition to the planters, a special breed of adventurous men, rice culture required a system of disciplined labor. When an alligator made a hole in a dike or a hurricane swept away a section of a bank, there had to be an available force of plantation workers to respond quickly and with skill to the instructions of the planter. With the end of slavery went the disciplined labor force. And the general disintegration of Charleston’s economic life after 1865, combined with the successful introduction of highland rice in the Mississippi Valley and a series of disastrous hurricanes on the “Rice Coast,” resulted in the ruin of Carolina’s rice-planting industry by the end of the nineteenth century.

And so it was that Charleston, which had been third in per capita wealth in 1860, sank to the bottom. The beautiful shell remained and may be vastly enjoyed today, for poverty sealed the city against new building as effectively as the ashes did Pompeii. Northern democracy, industrial civilization, the force of numbers—they triumphed at last over the agrarian civilization of Lord Ashley and Calhoun.