Charleston is renowned for its history—it was a key port and eventually the wealthiest city of the original thirteen colonies and played central roles for not just South Carolina but the entire South before, during, and after the Civil War. Indeed, it’s fair to argue no other single city in the whole of the South has as lengthy and crucial a history in relation to the rest of the South’s evolution. Certainly, few other regions can sum up with actual facts the popular images of the plantation South better than Charleston and the surrounding Low Country: from sprawling, impressive, plantations to the busy port and stately homes of Charleston itself, this is simply where many key events for the South took place. It should come as no surprise then that the Charleston region has a lot of books written about its history, some rather recent and many quite exceptional. There are, in addition, a few that are key to understanding South Carolina in general and without such broader understanding, it’s difficult to fully get a grasp on Charleston’s own history. Here’s a round-up of some of the best.
We’ll start with Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields: Letters of the Heyward Family, 1862-1871 (Peter Coclanis et al., editors; University of South Carolina Press, 2010). This book is a collection of letters between various members of the wealthy and influential family of planters, the Heywards. Like many affluent families in the South, the Heywards both travelled and wrote to one another quite frequently—quite probably writing so much because travel often kept them apart. And, to our great benefit, members of the family were very astute in keeping these letters through the years. Peter Coclanis and his co-editors on this project have done a masterful job of putting these letters into order, explaining who the various people mentioned are and offering some insight as to the general times concerned. As this was the period of the Civil War, this book offers a very valuable first-person narrative of how a leading family was affected by the war and how they responded to it. The Heywards lived on a plantation near Charleston but their extensive travel allows the reader to get a feel for not only the region but even more for the people it produced and how the Civil War forever changed families like the Heywards.
While men ran most business and plantation affairs in public throughout the history of the South up to the 1950’s, there were plenty of women who were articulate, well-educated, literary-minded, and playing key roles at all levels of society—and many were eager to express their views on the world around them. Eliza Middleton Fisher and her mother, Mary Hering Middleton, were certainly such women. Their collected letters, published in Best Companions: Letters of Eliza Middleton Fisher and Her Mother, Mary Hering Middleton, from Charleston, Philadelphia, and Newport, 1839-1846 (Eliza Cope Harrison, editor; University of South Carolina Press, 2001) provides a sweeping and nuanced view of the lives of women of the planter class at this point in history. I pair this book with Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields because it covers the period just prior. Read together, they provide a great first-hand account viewpoint on how the lives of planters evolved over the course of the nineteenth century and also what daily life was like for men and women alike. It is interesting to note that while Eliza and Mary devote a lot of their letters to talking about subjects we might expect from women of their time and class—marriages, children, domestic duties, and tending to extended families—they are also very keen to speak of broader national events and the arena of business, just as we find the men (and women) inTwilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields doing. The writing in Best Companions is lovely, though, full of the flourishes many would expect from two genteel Southern ladies, and the editor, Eliza Cope Harrison, has done a terrific job of bringing together the letters and supportive materials for a very comprehensive portrait of the Middletons.
Still concerned with letters and first-hand history, Gentlemen Merchants: A Charleston Family’s Odyssey, 1828-1870 (Philip Racine, editor; University of Tennessee Press, 2008) is a huge volume—even longer and more reaching than Best Companions which has many a page to turn itself. This 880-page masterpiece is the collected letters of two of Charleston’s leading merchant families of the nineteenth century, the Gourdins and the Youngs. Dr. Racine, an esteemed professor of American history, has not only done an expectedly fine job in putting together these collected letters in a format readable and highly engaging, but he has also provided an introductory essay to this book that is one of the best short examinations of nineteenth-century Charleston I’ve ever read.
The Gourdin family of South Carolina, mainly via the efforts of two of its sons, became a leading merchant force in Charleston before, during, and after the Civil War. Their sister Anna married Thomas Young, an Episcopal minister who rose through the ranks of his church to become one of the most-powerful men in religion in South Carolina in the nineteenth century. As Charleston has always been built on three pillars—faith, business, and politics—we at once get a picture of the first two of these forces between these two families, and then politics also strays into the picture, especially in the years leading up to the Civil War. Thomas and Anna Young‘s three sons all served as Confederate officers in the war. Thus, in many ways, this family was at the apex of South Carolina society at a crucial time of historical development. What is more, most of them were devoted letter-writers just as the Heywards were and also were apart from each other often enough to require frequent letters.
While the three books above present, via letters, crucial first-person accounts of historical life in South Carolina, for the colonial period an excellent book by a historian provides an overview of the circumstances of the early colony and state. Colonial South Carolina: A History (Rober Weir; University of South Carolina Press, 1997) details how the colony emerged into a leading power and how its foundation differed markedly from the other colonies, including North Carolina and Georgia. South Carolina shared with the Caribbean planter islands the unique and original approach to a plantation economy which would be the template for how the entire South’s economy would come to be seen in the decades prior to the Civil War. By examining how South Carolina evolved, we can also learn a great deal about the South in general, and Professor Weir’s book is very readable for the purpose as well as detailed.
Max Edelson’s Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina (Harvard University Press, 2011) picks up where Weir leaves us, in a sense, providing a sweeping yet nuanced view of plantation life itself, detailing the vast obstacles planters overcame in taming a swampy marsh-land to the purposes of agriculture. The actual brokering of plantations, the effort that went into attracting wealthy families to invest in what by any standard was a tremendous gamble rife with risks, is itself fascinating and well-documented here. However, the logistics and conceptual approach to this type of agriculture is also detailed, establishing exactly how plantations were designed to function and, for the benefit of Charleston, how their production allowed the port city to thrive. Edelson, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, offers here a fine work that aims to be comprehensive, but, unlike many contemporary works of historical scholarship, thankfully does not attempt for grand revisionist overtures or to “rewrite” history as much as to gather key information together.
Oddly, perhaps, to really understand Charleston’s history one must also understand the history of another place: Beaufort County, South Carolina. Beaufort, now seen as a quaint little historic city and the location of an important Marine Corps base, was in colonial and antebellum times the epicenter of plantation development and the place from which many of South Carolina’s wealthy and influential families emerged. At some point, many moved closer to Charleston or made the decision to pursue a career in business in Charleston as “city-dwellers” instead of the life of rural land-holding gentry. The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: 1514-1861 (Lawrence Rowland; University of South Carolina Press, 1996) is, like Gentlemen Merchants, a giant of a book and deftly-crafted, well-researched, and reads nearly like a novel in places. Indeed, of all the books mentioned here, while on the surface perhaps seeming the most isolated and narrow in its focus, The History of Beaufort County is possibly the most accessible and engrossing. The families detailed in this book jump to life on its pages, and you’re simply left wanting to know more and more about them.
One of the most-fascinating stories of the entire Civil War is that of the Confederate submarine the H.L. Hunley, one of the world’s first military subs and a bold move on the part of the Confederate Navy to counter the Union. In the popular imagination, the Confederates had the sheer numbers of troops and probably better—certainly more dynamic—commanders but the Yankees had the industrial muscle and technological focus to win the war in the end. The story of the Hunley, despite the boat’s sad and early fate, counters this thinking and illustrates that technological innovation in weapons was just as much alive in the South. Tom Chaffin’s The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (Hill and Wang, 2008) tells the incredible story of the Hunley’s design, manufacture, and loss in the Charleston harbor. The Hunley, after sinking the Union ship the Housatonic, failed to report back to shore and was known to have sunk, a probable loss of all men aboard. However, for decades there was no trace of the submarine despite prolonged and increasingly-complex efforts to locate it. Finally, in 1995 modern technology located it, and in August of 2000 it was raised from the seabed. Chaffin, writing about eight years after this landmark discovery and salvage operation, doesn’t just tell the story of the Hunley, but of its circumstance, the naval war, and the general role of Charleston in the Civil War. It’s not a long book (especially when compared to some listed here), but it’s packed with vital and intriguing information all the same.
Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City (Walter Frazer; University of South Carolina Press, 1991) is somewhat dated but still stands as one of the best and most-encompassing histories of Charleston in print today. Despite its quality, I still find the three books of letters—first-hand accounts—to be essential to really understanding both Charleston and the plantation lifestyle. In Frazer’s book we get a fairly standard if well-written socio-political history, and it’s important to have that, but it could have been made into two or even three volumes to cover all that needs to be addressed. (In fairness, the book is over 500 pages as it is, so asking for a Part II might be asking a bit much.) Many would logically recommend reading Frazer’s book first before all these others, but it could also be read last, summing up the vast network laid out by these other diverse histories and proving once more that all roads do in fact lead to Charleston.