One hundred years ago today, the fire bell awoke all of Charleston at 3:20 a.m.
The bell hung in a tower at fire headquarters, and was perhaps the city’s most recognizable sound — and most important alarm, given Charleston’s unfortunate history of devastating fires.
On this crisp, clear predawn morning, however, there wasn’t a hint of smoke in the sky. There was only peace.
The news came across The Associated Press wire, and overnight editors at The News and Courier alerted Mayor Tristram Hyde.
The armistice had been signed. The Great War was over.
Hyde grabbed his bride, drove the single mile between his Murray Boulevard home and fire headquarters at 116 Meeting St., just across from the St. John Hotel. The mayor realized everyone in Charleston would want to hear the news as soon as possible — and he knew how to tell them.
His wife, Sue, rang the fire bell 24 times.
Lights quickly went on in houses all across the peninsula and, within minutes, thousands of Charleston residents flocked to Marion Square for a celebration.
Mayor Hyde raced up Meeting Street to greet the gathering crowd, and suggested they assemble an impromptu parade. He proclaimed this day, exactly a century ago, would be a holiday in Charleston.
Today, we know it as Veterans Day.
An American town
The war had dragged on more than four years by that point, although the United States only joined the fight in April 1917.
Initially a conflict between European nations, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctantly drawn into the war after a series of German submarine attacks on American shipping lines and intelligence that suggested Germany was urging Mexico to attack the U.S.
More than 65,000 South Carolinians joined the military over the next 18 months. And if nothing else, the war was good for business in Charleston. The Naval Base, barely a decade old, was suddenly a hub of commerce. Aside from 335 officers, 7,000 enlisted men and 25,000 recruits, the base created more than 5,000 new civilian jobs.
But the economic benefits paled beside the turmoil of a world at war, and more than 50,000 U.S. casualties among the millions killed in the fighting.
So when rumors of an armistice began, the city was abuzz with hope. The newspaper later said that fire bell, which announced the armistice to Charleston, sparked “such a scene as has never before been witnessed in this community.”
“Something stirred the hearts of the Charleston people, and the hearts of the strangers within their gates, and the soldiers, and the sailors, and the army of workers whom the war has brought to this community, into a feeling of comradeship,” The News and Courier reported.
Any lingering doubt about the city’s patriotism, the paper said, was utterly dispelled.
Charleston had struggled through a tumultuous relationship with the federal government ever since the Civil War. It had taken another war, and the first Veterans Day, for the city to show itself “a genuine American town.”
A grand tradition
A little after 4 a.m., Mayor Hyde led a ragged parade down King Street, all rules of the road abandoned.
Cars honked their horns, people marched and threw confetti, and at 6 a.m. they all returned to Marion Square, where The Citadel band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” By then, everyone in Charleston was up and out on the streets.
It was, The News and Courier reported, a time of jubilation.
A year later, President Wilson commemorated the anniversary of the world war that had ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Congress would later declare Nov. 11 Armistice Day, a federal holiday to honor veterans of the first World War.
On the original Armistice Day, Charleston celebrated because “the world had been made safe for democracy, that autocracy had been forever banished from the face of the Earth.”
But, of course, it hadn’t. And after World War II, the holiday was expanded to honor all military veterans and, in 1954, its name was changed to Veterans Day.
Mayor Hyde may not have led the first Veterans Day parade, but it was certainly among the earliest. And that is yet another point of pride for the Holy City.
So take a minute today to remember — or better yet, thank — the men and women who fight to keep the country, and the world, safe.
In Charleston, it’s now a century-old tradition.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.