In the early 19th century, Charleston was the preeminent cultural and financial center of the southern United States. It was here that planters came to escape the tedium of their country estates and the malaria of their rice fields. The wealthy ones built great mansions in the city for their families, and semi-detached "dependencies" for the swarms of servants who accompanied them - the maids, the cooks, the butlers, the coachmen, the grooms, the gardeners. These added to the already large numbers of slaves and freedmen in the city - the bricklayers, the carpenters, the artisans, the stevedores, the teamsters, the laboring masses who built the city and made it run. By 1810 the population of Charleston had grown to 24,711, and a slim but growing majority was black.
Drama, music and dance enlivened the city. The principal theater, large even by European standards, was on Broad Street, though concerts, recitals and plays were presented regularly at Mr. Fayolle's Long Room, at the Vauxhall Garden Gala, and elsewhere in the city.
Many Charleston "societies" already had formed. The St. Cecelia Society was still primarily a musical association whose performers were amateurs and "gentlemen of the city." The Agricultural Society raised money by selling tickets to the New York State lottery, which offered a first prize of $25,000. The Jockey Club Ball was an event looked forward to with as much pleasure as the horse races themselves, when schools were let out and business in the city came to a virtual halt. Charleston had fine and well attended churches, a library whose shelves held more than 4,000 books, a museum and a college.
Almost all of its streets, to be sure, were unpaved, and in rainy periods they quickly turned into noxious quagmires. A writer known to us today only as "a Charlestonian" complained in the newspaper about the favoritism displayed to those fortunate enough to live in the lower part of Charleston. "Better sure," he wrote sarcastically, "that Broad Street should soil a lady's silk stockings than that Boundary Street [now Calhoun] should be impassable..."
An influx of French immigrants at the turn of the century greatly influenced the artistic, architectural and psychological development of the city. These "late-comers," as distinct from the much earlier-arriving Huguenots, were refugees from the horrors that had overtaken Saint Domingue (present day Haiti). That richest of France's overseas possessions had fallen victim to a slave revolt of unimaginable ferocity that led, ultimately, to the defeat of a crack Napoleonic army and the slaughter of much of Saint Domingue's white population. The French who managed to escape to Charleston brought with them a refined West Indian culture, reflected in the soft, pastel colors and "piazzas" that grace the city today. They also brought and transmitted to the whites of Charleston an enduring fear that what had happened in Saint Domingue might happen again, in Charleston.
The new immigrants were welcomed generously, and though most arrived penniless they were soon assimilated into the economic and social life of the city. They became teachers, dancing masters, artists and, in general, purveyors of the gracious style of living and fine manners for which Charleston already was acquiring a reputation. They strengthened strong feelings felt in the city for France, feelings traceable to that country's inestimable aid to the cause of independence in the American Revolution.
The port of Charleston was then one of the busiest in the world. As many as 100 sails might be seen in the harbor at any one time. Heavily laden wagons careened through streets leading to crowded Cooper River wharves. There were regular sailings to and from Liverpool, Belfast, Havana, New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Boston and scores of other ports in almost every corner of the globe.
Goods passing through Charleston included New England rum, candles, beef, tongue, twine, mackerel, sugar, cognac, Holland gin, spices, tea, shirts, wine from Tenerife, apple brandy by the barrel, cheese, butter, gunpowder, "drugs and chimicles of all kinds" and, one regrets to say, "prime slaves" and "new negroes" from Angola, the Gold Coast, the Windward Coast and the Congo. This was the time of the greatest import of human chattel from Africa. This was the dark side of the cultured life of Charleston in the early 19th century.
I'll close this brief escape into the past with an ad, a moving one I think, that was published in the Charleston Courier on April 12th, 1807:
Strayed, or supposed to have been enticed away, from Gadsden's Wharf, on Saturday night last about half-past nine o'clock, a new Negro girl, about four feet six inches in height, can speak no English; had on when missing a blue cloth wrapper, and a blue check handkerchief on her head. She goes by the name of Sungoe. Whoever will deliver her to the subscriber, or at the office, shall receive a reward of TEN DOLLARS.
R.L, Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. The foregoing is excerpted from "Valor and Virtue," his history of the Washington Light Infantry, which recently celebrated the 207th anniversary of its founding.