The City of Charleston of blessed with a variety of attractive and curious features that draw visitors from places far and wide every year. People come here to admire the architecture, to bask in the natural beauty of the landscape, and to hear about the history of the people and events that shaped this community over the centuries. One of the city’s most important stories lies buried beneath the old streets and buildings, however, and has been largely overlooked until recent times. For the first century of its existence, the urban landscape of colonial-era Charleston was dominated by an evolving ring of fortifications designed to protect the original capital of South Carolina against potential invasion by Spanish, French, and later British forces. Our provincial legislature repeatedly devoted large sums of tax revenue for the construction and repair of walls, moats, bastions, drawbridges, and related defensive works, resulting in what was undoubtedly the largest public works program in early South Carolina. Despite the impressive scale of the fortifications accumulated during the city’s first century, Charleston’s modern streetscape reveals scarcely any physical trace of those early military features.
The creation of the Carolina colony in 1663 and the founding of Charles Town in 1670 were part of England’s efforts to counter Spanish and French efforts to stake a claim in the southern mainland of North America. The earliest English settlers at Albemarle Point (now part of Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site) built fortifications of earth and wood almost immediately after their arrival because the Spanish government claimed the ground as the northernmost part of Florida. The defensive limitations of that site motivated them to relocate the capital of South Carolina in 1680 to the more strategic present location of Charleston on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. Here, waterfront fortifications made of earth and wood in the 1680s began to be replaced by more permanent brickwork in the 1690s. Beginning in December 1703, at the outset of a new English war with both France and Spain, the South Carolina legislature funded the construction of a network of earthen walls, moats, and drawbridges around the highest part of the capital town. A map published in London in 1711 clearly depicts Charles Town as a “walled city” of just sixty-two acres, huddled against the Cooper River waterfront. As the town’s population increased during the first half of the eighteenth century, however, its urban fortifications were periodically dismantled and rebuilt farther to the north, south, and west, to encompass an ever-increasing area.
The strength and vitality of the urban fortifications surrounding colonial Charles Town waxed and waned in rhythm with the rising and cooling tensions between Britain and her traditional enemies. The fear of Spanish invasion preoccupied generations of South Carolinians from the colony’s infancy until the conclusion of King George’s War in 1748. The French menace began in earnest with the settlement of Biloxi in 1699 and evaporated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After a dozen years of neglect, the capital’s fortifications were rehabilitated and substantially expanded between 1775 and 1780 to ward off British assaults. The American forces surrendered Charles Town in May 1780, but the British occupying forces repaired and strengthened the town’s fortifications in case of an American counterattack. After nearly three years of occupation, British forces demolished some of the fortifications and evacuated the Charles Town in mid-December 1782. When the South Carolina legislature reconvened here in early 1783, civic and military leaders were initially hesitant to abandon the capital’s extensive fortifications. The definitive treaty of peace between Britain and the fledgling United States of American ushered in a period of unprecedented peace and security, however, and the local government resolved to abandon the defensive posture that marked the town’s first century.
The colonial community of “Charles Town” was incorporated as “Charleston” in 1783, and the new city and state governments worked together in the post-war years to demilitarize urban Charleston. This major undertaking, accomplished between 1784 and 1789, represents an important turning point in the development of the city’s urban landscape. For the entirety of its first century, the footprint of Charles Town slowly expanded to accommodate its growing population, but it was always constrained by the military works made necessary by lingering fears of Spanish or French invasion. Beginning in 1784, the city took its first bold steps towards an unfettered use of the peninsular landscape. The post-war extension of Charleston’s streets, the development of its boroughs, gardens, and public green spaces, and the commercial expansion of its port facilities were all predicated on the removal of the restrictive walls, moats, and cannon batteries. The “charm” of modern Charleston certainly embraces many colonial features, but few visible traces now remain of what was once the largest and most imposing of the city’s early characteristics.
Since the demolition of Charleston’s fortifications in the 1780s, visitors have found a civilian city focused on commerce and culture. After the defensive works were demolished and scraped off the face of the earth, even locals began to forget about Charleston’s former existence as a “walled city.” To some, those early fortifications might have seemed like quaint examples of the community’s naïve, colonial infancy. Few people in the nineteenth century harbored any nostalgic feelings for the city’s early fortifications as the city expanded and became increasingly “modern” and elegant. That sentiment began to change at the turn of the twenty-first century, however, when some people in the community began to realize that the quickening pace of development in urban Charleston was literally churning up physical remnants the city’s militarized past that remain underground. Opportunities to study these remnants were at hand and would likely continue in coming years, so a call to arms was sounded. In 2005, a group of local advocates including preservationists, archaeologists, historians, and educators worked with the City of Charleston to create the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force.
Since its creation, this volunteer Task Force has worked to advocate for the study, preservation, and interpretation of the physical remnants of the colonial-era fortifications that remain below our collective feet in the landscape of urban Charleston. Much work remains to be done, and public interest in this project continues to rise. The history of our Palmetto City contains many layers of history and has so many stories to tell. Even after three and half centuries, exciting new information is still rising to the surface—quite literally!