American Sabbatical 74: 3/20/97


3/19.. More grits.

Wednesday morning we’d lost our oomph. Peggy was toured out and I was still twitching to the night beat, so we declared a day off. We’d just hang out in Charleston and be gracious. There’d been a downpour in the night, and it was still muggy and overcast in palmetto country. The temps were down in the 60s.. rugged.

Old Charleston Street

Battery View
The Owl crew had snooped out the parking situation yesterday, and we snuggled the bird up against a wall down by battery park, packed up our drawing supplies, and strolled into history. We’d been at this game before: trying to find the perfectly emblematic scene to draw. Let’s see.. palmettos and wisteria, balconies and pastel stucco, wrought iron and shutters, horsecarts and cobblestones. There never is one angle, of course, but the eager intensity of framing everything in sight brings the world into vivid clarity.

A brick-paved alley arbored with lavender blossoms stopped us at last, and we hummed happily over our imagemaking. An elderly black woman in a faded blue and yellow plaid suit and a velvet bowler hat stepped slowly and carefully over the teetered paving, her hands daintily splayed out from the wrists, as if to insure a safe landing. Other passing residents spoke us politely, and we heard neighbors chatting over their floral barricades. The houses we were drawing were early 1700s, and this was still a living village, if you could afford it.

Peggy's Alley

Bryce's Alley
Squads of tourists, afoot and in carriages, nikoned by to non-stop commentaries from unlikely looking guides.. this one a college professor, that one a street musician, another a finishing school grad. All the horses (and mules) seemed to strut at their labor. We’d worked up an appetite nibbling on camellias and azaleas, so we followed our noses to restaurant row.

In fact there are more tempting eateries in Charleston than you can shake a breadstick at: from classy cuisineries to catfish fry factories. The lady who sold me Horry had recommended one across the street as reasonable and delicious, and we pushed into the old warehouse building ready to belly up to some fine Southern cooking.

Charleston Flowers

Gates & Pillars


We’d been feeling our way around this elephant some already. We’d broken our teeth on some terrible hush puppies in a forgettable roadhouse, and figured that was what shut the dogs up, then been surprised by the tender sweetness of fresh ones in a “family restaurant” in Georgetown. "Southern Fried Matzo-Balls!!" Peggy crowed. Tuesday night I’d even been seduced by a bowl of grits in a cinderblock Huddle House. We were ready for the downtown treatment. And we weren’t disappointed. My shrimp and tomatoes on grits was luscious, and Peggy’s breaded scallops on tender young salad set her to moaning. The soy and ginger dressing on assorted leafcrops made my ears twitch, and the key lime tart was just that. I've been doing a research project on key lime ingestibles, on the theory they converge with perfection as you approach the keys, and I have yet to be proven wrong. This is important work.

The lunch crowd was quite elegant. Local matrons in outfits and pearls, and the gents all in striped oxfords with natty ties (no jackets). The tourists were almost ashamed in bermudas and polo shirts, while we brazened it out in Owl garb. I’m sure my Lobster Capital of the World T-shirt and safari vest wowed them. Maybe the preciousness of this burg would get to you after a while, especially if you had to commute to it from Super-8 City, but we hummed out into the balmy with a fond feeling for Southern hospitality. Even shared some banter with a bookseller about the secondhand trade. She said she’d been to Maine, and couldn’t understand how so many bookstores could survive. I said it was the long winters, and the fact that Maine mothers cut pieces of lobster into the shapes of letters to sharpen their children's appetite for learning.


Back on the Battery, the gnats decided to share in the hospitables, and our afternoon artings were twitchy affairs until we’d given the requisite blood. After a bit more cruising, we tottered back to our pitstop on Golden Banana Ave, and settled back in for another evening of light music, casual eavesdropping, and phosphorescent typing.

Bryce's Battery

(Memo #69)

March 20 Charleston Memo

Who? English and French Huguenot settlers, modern diverse population

What? major city-seaport of South Carolina with beautiful historica district

Where? on peninsula where Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet bay

When? most important southern seaport in colonial times, major tourist draw today

How? limitation of modern architecture

Topics: urban history, historic preservation

Questions: How do you preserve / restore urban areas?

Peggy's Gate

It’s hard to write a formal historical memo about Charleston because I found it a totally magical city where time stands still. How to describe Oz? Atlantis? Kyoto? Charleston is beautiful, full of pastel houses, live oaks hung with moss, and flowers. The azaleas were in full bloom, filling parks and gardens and mews. Wisteria winds around arbors and trellises. The houses are decked out with columns and wrought iron and lanterns and gingerbread trim, ornamental urns and lions and stone pineapples over gates. There are huge mansions, four stories tall with great verandas and formal drawing rooms glimpsed through long windows. There are tiny brick cottages tucked into corners and carriage houses and rowhouses in vivid pastels.

Gated Gardens
The historic district has almost no modern buildings at all. The streets are narrow and commerce is almost invisible. The battery area is entirely residential with an occasional small antique shop or cafe. The shopping area is to the north. We walked for hours, into courts and passages and squares and endless visual delights. A cobblestoned alley would open into a sunlit square with three hundred year old brick houses crowding in. A huge stucco mansion would have a formal garden tucked in beside it. The sun glanced off brass door knockers and tin roofs. Horse drawn carriages clopped by. Charleston has the small touches of beauty that I associate with English villages. Every corner has been lovingly planted, polished, pruned. The trees are huge and old, streets curve out around the biggest.

Charleston has ugly industrial outskirts, but the oldest section has remained surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Wilmington, N.C., Savannah, Ga., St Augustine, Fla. all are a mix of old and new; the oldest houses are next to parking garages or glass walled offices. Some people might find Charleston overly prettified or artificially preserved from the wear of time. I’m sure there are extensive ordinances about house color and restoration that limit a homeowner’s actions. Oldtown real estate costs the earth. And it is all very beautiful.

Peggy's Battery

3/20.. Sumter.

A haunting silence fell over us around 2AM Wednesday night, and I jolted upright, fearful that all economic activity had ceased in back alley Charleston. Then I heard a 747 letting down through the mist, and was relieved. After all this excitement camping is going to be very unsettling.

We put on our uniforms in the gray daylight, and marched our troops down to the waterfront for a boatride to Fort Sumter. We hadn’t realized it would be a full scale attack until the busloads of middle schoolers debouched alongside us in the parking lot. What joy. We knew we were in for it when the first dolphins appeared alongside the Lady of Charleston, and the kids started screaming and pointing. A Nam Vet standing beside me in a decorated baseball jacket and cap (Sgt. .. Airborne), showed his teeth, and the kids backed off from his patch. I wondered which war we were revisiting.

The tour guide whose commentary was competing with the ululating teens gave a delicate spin to the story of Sumter, and you’d have been puzzled to get a knife between the blocks of his account to pry the Yankee side from the Confederate. In fact that war may almost be over. I can remember encountering anti-Yankee prejudice 30 years ago, but have yet to sniff a trace of it down here now. Anti-hairball suspicions, maybe, but any of the old rebel yelling hasn’t been in my hearing. Even Confed flags are scarce, so far. (Although we did see one with shamrocks instead of stars on Patty’s day). Another cost of assimilation to the American way: the end of regional pride?

Charleston Bridges

Once out in the confluence of the Ashley and the Cooper you realize how different Charleston is from other cities. No highrises. The battery and old city must have looked much the same way in 1860 as it does today. The industrial landscape beyond that would have confused the troops, and those four double-cantilevers struck them dumb. In these alluvial lowlands, the great bridges are monumental, fulfilling a need for grandeur as well as synaptic integration.

Sumter itself, like so many historic monuments, has been dwarfed by history. The big container ships coming into port, trailer bodies piled 6-high, loom up behind the old ruin as you approach it, and make it seem tiny. What had been imposing walls, three gun-tiers high in the old "Harper’s Weekly" engravings (looking like Ft. Popham), were reduced to rubble by bombardment. Now only a single tier of batteries remains, and I roamed about outside trying to get an angle to illustrate a sense of what’s left.

Container Ship dwarfs Sumter

Giving up, I found a perch inside on an embankment where I could draw an emplaced gun and a view over the parapet. Where I was pounced on by a park ranger who badmouthed me for breaking the rules of engagement. These had been issued over the hubbub of teens, so I’d missed the fine points. I had heard him insist that the school groups stay together with their teachers, which didn’t even bring a laugh, the kids simply scattered. So the ticked enforcers could only insult adult visitors. I was bad acting again, I admit it.

(Memo #66)

March 18 Fort Sumter - Charleston S.C.

Who? Union and Confederate Troops

What? fort where the Civil War (War Between the States) began

Where? artificial island in mouth of Charleston Bay, S.C.

When? April 12, 1861

How? Confederate batteries around Charleston Bay fired on Fort Sumter

Topics: Civil War - causes and start

Questions: Why did the Civil War open with the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C.? Why there? What happened to the fort? Is Fort Sumter a preservation? A recreation?

Fort Sumter

Every American history textbook reproduces the "Harper’s Weekly" illustration of the firing on Fort Sumter. The first shell, fired before dawn on April 12, 1861, explodes brightly over the island fort. It is the last event in the chapter on the buildup to the Civil War.

Fort Sumter is in the mouth of Charleston Bay. From the city’s battery walk it is a distant shape on the southern horizon. Its construction was spurred by the British invasion and burning of Washington D.C. in the War of 1812. The US government realized how vulnerable our coast was and began building a series of forts. To augment the three forts on the land sides of Charleston Bay, an artificial island was constructed with a nine foot base of MAINE GRANITE (70,000 tons) from Penobscot Bay dumped on a shoal. The construction started in 1829 and was 90% completed when the Civil War broke out (but only 15 of the 65 guns were mounted) Fort Sumter itself is a pentagon shape perhaps a hundred yards across with brick walls five feet thick and fifty feet high. Three story brick buildings stood against several sides.

Today Fort Sumter is a half hour boat ride from the Charleston City marina. We boarded from a marina by a renovated rice mill. The boat took us past the spectacular houses along the Charleston shore and a dolphin swam around the ship as we moved down the bay. The boat docked on the city side of the fort and we entered though the ground level sally port. The original brick buildings are gone but foundations show their walls and rooms. The gunholes in the outer walls have been cemented shut. A huge steel building on the south side of the parade ground houses the museum, gift shot, amenities. Several original cannons are on the parade ground.

Bryce's Sumter
Fort Sumter has not been totally restored, nor has it been left in its post Civil War ruin. It was repaired and refitted with larger cannons during the Spanish American War. There was obviously some cleanup and some reconstruction, but the original brickwork is shown. The guides termed it a “stabilized ruin” (other historic sites are “restorations” or “preservations” or total “recreations”).

Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 was a turning point for the South. In December South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede. South Carolina’s leadership was natural; not only was it the richest of the Southern states, but it already had lead a secessionist / states rights struggle under President Andrew Jackson thirty years earlier which was averted when Jackson threatened to send the army in (!). In the four months between Lincoln’s election and inauguration, the secessionist states started to seize federal posts throughout the South. By April 1861, only Fort Pickens and Fort Sumter remained under Union control.

Major Robert Anderson was commander of the Union forces around Charleston Harbor, based at a Fort Moultrie on the east side of the bay. In an act the South saw as provocative, Anderson secretly moved his 85 troops to Fort Sumter and set men to mounting guns. The Union flag flew over the mouth of the Bay.The South seized the mainland forts, trained their guns on Sumter, and began erecting other batteries around the Bay. Fort Sumter’s supplies would eventually give out. The 45 women and children in the fort were evacuated for the North in February. President Buchanan sent boats with supplies which were turned back by Confederate boats.

Fort Sumter was the focus of attention when Lincoln was sworn in. Lincoln decided to send boats with relief supplies for Fort Sumter, and notified the South Carolina Governor. The Confederate cabinet voted to resist resupply of the fort. General Beauregard, in command of the Southern troops at Charleston, demanded evacuation. Anderson offered to do so several days later, knowing Union ships were on the way. During the night of April 11 Anderson was told bombardment would began before dawn. He refused to surrender. Firing started at 4:30 a.m. Anderson did not return fire for several hours.

Anderson had several problems. His guns required five man crews. He needed double crews to fire round the clock. At most eight to ten cannons could be put into action against the many batteries on shore. This number proved impossible as Confederate shells started fires in the fort and Anderson’s men had to fight them. The smoke became impossible and there was danger of fire setting off the three hundred barrels of powder stored in the magazine Three thousand shells were shot at Fort Sumter. The bombardment went on for thirty-four hours before Anderson surrendered. No one was killed in the action. Interestingly, the South allowed the troops to evacuate for the North. The retaking of Fort Sumter by the Union required twenty-two months from 1863-65.

Peggy's Sumter

There are many explanatory signs around the fort and an excellent museum. The steps and tools needed to fire the guns are well explained. The battered flag that flew over the fort during the bombardment is hanging on display. A monument lists all the soldiers under Anderson’s command, with names ranging from McGuire to a Jeff. Davis. Their jobs were listed; they ranged from musician and assistant surgeon to artificer. I was interested to find Ann Amelia Weitfieldt listed as matron. Was she there during the bombardment?

The outer walls still show the shell marks of April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter is one of the most vivid sites we’ve visited. History lingers.

3/20.. cont.

The island assault was blessedly brief, and as at Alcatraz, we were happily herded back on board. It was still nippy in the roads, and we were glad we’d dressed like Mainers. It’s funny to see that we don’t really trust the sunshine. Even on balmy days we have an extra layer aboard, and look like Eskimos in the shirtsleeved crowd.

Once the dolphins had led us back to the wharf, we opted for one last linger in this beautiful old city, and we found a parking space alongside the old market. It's the battered hulk of a Greek Revival temple, with steep steps up to the chipped pillars and portico. Street teens were nodding out on the steps. Inside, vendors have installed petitioned stalls creating an airy serpentine mall. Peggy got hooked at the hat store, where she tried to fit me into a Panama, but the Rhett Butler Look just doesn’t suit. She did find a replacement for the summer sun hat she’d lost somewhere in the Adirondacks last September. Just shows you how inconsistent our economies are. We’ll drop a fistful of dollars on a meal one night, but stint ourselves on a sunhat for 7 months. I went the whole first trip using a pair of $2 sunglasses I’d broken the nose-piece on the first day out. Just couldn’t bring myself to splurge on another pair. Now I’m using another old set from home that are so scratched I can hardly see through them (but they’re so comfortable). It took Peggy half an hour deciding to buy a $15 hat, and we almost got a $30 ticket in the process.

We jammed some more quarters in the meter and went looking for crablegs. Pushing our luck. We found a cheap menu at the Oyster Factory, and got what we paid for, along with reggae and CNN for multimedia. Oops, scuse us, gotta go. Goodbye Charleston, hello Highway. At least as far as the next plantation.

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