One hundred and fifty years ago today, the city of Charleston hosted a visit of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. Davis arrived by train from Savannah at one o’clock and was greeted with a 15-gun salute at the Savannah Depot on the west side of the Ashley River. A celebratory parade from Spring Street down to City Hall followed.
From the portico of City Hall, Davis spoke at length of Charleston’s contributions to the founding of the United States and subsequent leadership in the secession movement, as well as the attempt to build an alternative nation of breakaway slave states. After his talk he greeted selected citizens in the mayor’s office.
That afternoon Davis and the appropriate military officers boarded a gunboat to view Fort Sumter and to visit Sullivan’s Island and Mount Pleasant to inspect the military fortifications. The party landed back at the foot of Calhoun Street and looked over the battery there, before traveling up to Elizabeth Street for an evening dinner at the home of former S.C. Governor William Aiken. Later that evening the party was serenaded by a military band, accompanied by a sizeable group of Charleston’s citizenry.
On Nov. 3 he was part of a large military and civilian contingent that inspected all of the Confederate facilities on James Island. The president showed particular interest in seeing the site of the now famous defense of Secessionville which had occurred on June 16, 1862.
The presidential party was given a parting salute at 8 a.m. the next morning at the northeastern depot as it headed to Wilmington, N.C. Arrival in the only port in the Confederate States would not occur until seven o’clock that evening.
One can only guess what the Confederate president thought about his visit to Charleston. Though the Charleston Daily Courier reported enthusiastically on the visit, the community’s warm welcome and the positive assessment Davis gave toward Charleston’s defenses, intrigue and negative subplots were intertwined in the gaiety. He was surrounded by some of his bitterest personal and political enemies while here.
The Charleston Historical Society will host a lecture to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of this visit on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum at 68 Spring Street. It is free and open to the public. Parking is free on site as well as across the street in the old gas station.
STEPHEN J. WHITE SR.
Director, Charleston Historical Society