American Sabbatical 74: 3/20/97
3/19.. More grits.
Wednesday morning wed lost our oomph. Peggy was toured out and I was still twitching to the night
beat, so we declared a day off. Wed just hang out in Charleston
and be gracious. Thered 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
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. Wed
been at this game before: trying to find the perfectly emblematic
scene to draw. Lets 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.
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.
Wed 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
Wed been feeling our way around this elephant some already. Wed
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 Id even been seduced by a bowl of grits in a cinderblock
Huddle House. We were ready for the downtown treatment. And we
werent disappointed. My shrimp and tomatoes on grits was luscious,
and Peggys 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.
Gates & Pillars
Wed been feeling our way around this elephant some already. Wed 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 Id even been seduced by a bowl of grits in a cinderblock Huddle House. We were ready for the downtown treatment. And we werent disappointed. My shrimp and tomatoes on grits was luscious, and Peggys 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. Im 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 shed been to Maine, and couldnt 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 wed 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.
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?
Its 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.
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. Im sure there are extensive ordinances about house color and restoration that limit a homeowners actions. Oldtown real estate costs the earth. And it is all very beautiful.
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 hadnt 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 youd 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 hasnt been in my hearing. Even Confed flags are scarce, so far. (Although we did see one with shamrocks instead of stars on Pattys day). Another cost of assimilation to the American way: the end of regional pride?
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 "Harpers 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 whats 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 Id missed the fine points. I had heard him insist that the school groups stay together with their teachers, which didnt 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.
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?
Every American history textbook reproduces the "Harpers 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
Fort Sumter is in the mouth of Charleston Bay. From the citys 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.
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 Lincolns election in November 1860 was a turning point
for the South. In December South Carolina became the first Southern
state to secede. South Carolinas 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
Lincolns 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 Sumters 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 Andersons 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.
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
Andersons 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 weve visited. History lingers.
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 wed dressed like Mainers. Its funny to see that we dont 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 doesnt suit. She did find a replacement for the summer sun hat shed lost somewhere in the Adirondacks last September. Just shows you how inconsistent our economies are. Well 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 Id broken the nose-piece on the first day out. Just couldnt bring myself to splurge on another pair. Now Im using another old set from home that are so scratched I can hardly see through them (but theyre 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.