I arrived in Charleston mid-morning on Saturday and took the local city CARTA bus from the Airport for $1.75 into town and walked to the NotSo Hostel to drop off my stuff. I was excited to be in Charleston! From the second that I landed at the airport I knew that Charleston was going to a city that I would want to come back to over and over again. I’ve always been drawn to Charleston because of its Southern charm, unique architecture, and long and often dramatic history. When I learned that Free Tours by Foot offered three different tours in Charleston, I quickly signed up for all three. I was most excited about the first one, the Charleston Civil War tour, as I find the Civil War to be quite fascinating and totally have a love affair with Gone with the Wind.
I had a couple of hours to kill before the tour started at 1pm, so I wandered around taking in the sights and eventually finding The Spice & Tea Exchange near the tour meeting place at the corner of Church Street and Linguard Street. I highly recommend a stop in the store as the aromas alone are to die for! Our tour group met up right before 1pm and we were promptly following our fearless leader, Scott, at 1pm to our first stop of the day. The Circular Church is located at 150 Meeting Street and can’t be missed due to its, well, circular structure. The present day church that sits at the location is actually the fourth church on the site and is made of recycled slave-made brick from the 1802 church. The first church was founded in the early days of Charles Towne in 1681. The first church was a simple wooden structure and was more of a meeting-house (hence the name of the street it is on) than a church. The first church was lost in the early 1700s by a hurricane, which begins the pattern of lost churches in Charleston over the years. The third church was built in 1802 and was designed by Robert Mills, Charleston’s leading architecture who designed the Washington Monument in Washington DC. The Circular Church became the first domed building in North America and could hold over 2,000 worshippers on the ground floor. During the first two centuries of American history, Charleston was the wealthiest city in the American colonies. All the wealthiest and influential people worshipped at the Circular Church during the “glory days” from 1820-1860s. And then the Great Fire of 1861 hit Charleston and destroyed the church.
The Great Fire of Charleston occurred on December 11, 1861, about 9 months into the Civil War. Robert E. Lee was stationed in Charleston during the fire and is credited with saving much of Broad Street south due to his quick actions. Over 540 acres, or about 1/3 of old Charleston, was destroyed by the fire. Lee was staying at the old Mills House Hotel, which was one of the only buildings in Charleston to have an internal water system at the time. He ordered all the hotel staff and slaves to wet blankets, curtains, or anything they could get their hands on that would absorb water and cover the walls and the roof of the hotel. The fire approached the hotel, but shifted direction due to the “blanket” of protection.
The present day Circular Church was built around 1890 recycling and reusing the old slave-made brick from the previous brick church that stood before it. Much of the original floor plan was kept as well. Today the church is recognized as a US Historic Landmark. The graveyard behind the church is open to the public and worth a walk through to look at all the old graves dating all the way back to 1695 with Charles Towne’s original settlers. Many of the tombstones are inscribed with beautiful artwork characteristic of the time period.
A block away from the Circular Church is Hibernian Hall. Hibernian Hall was built in 1840 as an Irish benevolent society. The architecture of the building is a little different for Charleston as it is built in the Greek Revival style that was popular during the 1800s. The club started as a wealthy members-only club that threw lavish parties, but is now integrated and open to anyone. Hibernian Hall hosted one of the most pivotal political meetings in US History. The 1860 Democratic Convention was held at the South Carolina Institute Hall, that was destroyed later in the Great Fire of 1861. Hibernian Hall served as the headquarters for Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. The first floor hosted meetings while the candidates slept on the second floor during the convention. The Democratic Convention of 1860 was one of the most crucial events that led up to the Civil War. At the time of the convention, Charleston was one of the most pro-slavery cities in the country and pro-slavery supporters packed the convention. Douglas was the frontrunner, but was more moderate on the issue of slavery. Prior to the 1860 Convention there was a rule in place that any candidate needed a two-thirds vote to become the nominee for President. Douglas was never able to obtain the required two-thirds votes he needed and the committee decided to hold another convention in 6 weeks in Baltimore. Douglas was able to win the nomination in Baltimore with the required number of votes.
Due to the strong differing of opinions on slavery, 50 southern delegates left the Charleston convention in protest against Douglas leading to a divide in the Democratic party that eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois. Interesting enough, Douglas narrowly beat Lincoln for the Senate seat in 1858. Further down the street is St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, which is the oldest physical church in Charleston. It was built between 1751 and 1761 and has escaped most of the fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes that destroyed many of the other churches and historic buildings in Charleston over the years. Charleston’s oldest and wealthiest families still attend services as St. Michael’s today. During the American Revolutionary War, the tall steeple was painted paint so it would not reflect the sun and decrease its visibility to British gunner ships. The steeple was repainted white again in 1886.
The South Carolina Society Hall was built in 1804 and is considered to be one of Charleston’s best Adamesque style buildings. The building was and is still used by Charleston’s wealthiest families to present their daughters to society every spring. Across from the Society Hall is one of Charleston’s finest house museums, the Nathaniel Russell House. While we did not tour through the house with Free Tours by Foot, I did go back the following afternoon to tour the house myself. The house was constructed in 1809 by a Rhode Island merchant, Nathaniel Russell, who spent over $80,000 (a large sum back in those days!) to build this London townhouse style home for he and his wife. The house is famous for its gorgeous floating spiral staircase. The staircase alone is worth the small fee to tour the house. The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and the tour through the home takes less than an hour.
We continued our walk down Meeting Street discussing a few more prominent families and homes in Charleston during the Civil War years as we headed towards The Battery and Charleston Waterfront Park. Scott pointed our Fort Sumter and the other forts in the harbor that played important roles as the first shots of the Civil War rang out on April 12, 1861. Overall the tour was great! Scott was a phenomenal tour guide and his passion and knowledge of Charleston’s history is easily noticeable to anyone. He always answered questions truthfully and if he didn’t know the answer then he would tell us instead of guessing or making up an answer. Free Tours by Foot is a free walking tour company that is located in multiple US cities with local tour guides. I’m a huge fan of their tours since going on my first tour in New York City last fall. I highly recommend checking out their site before overpaying for a mediocre tour.