It was the 4th of July and they were celebrating it in a Florida prison.

Somehow, it seemed this whole independence thing had gone horribly wrong.

Thomas Heyward Jr., Arthur Middleton and Edward Rutledge — all from Charleston, and three of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence — passed the fifth anniversary of its adoption at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

They’d been imprisoned in the old Spanish fort for nearly a year, exiled along with dozens of other South Carolinians a few months after the Siege of Charleston in May 1780.

The British gave them some liberties, enough that they had prepared a plum pudding for their clandestine Independence Day celebration.

They even had a flag, with 13 stripes and 13 stars, ready to serve as a last-minute table centerpiece.

Heyward, perhaps the most reviled by the British soldiers, spent the morning sitting beneath a tree, rewriting the lyrics to “God Save the King.” For this occasion, they would sing “God Save the Thirteen States.”

When the Redcoats heard the new version of the old tune they were not amused.

But freedom was just around the corner.

Fathers of the country

At 26, Rutledge had been the youngest of the 56 signers.

Beyond the immortal fame that brought him, Rutledge at the time was perhaps best known as one of three commissioners — along with Ben Franklin and John Adams — appointed to negotiate a peace treaty with British Admiral Lord Richard Howe.

The Staten Island Peace Conference, held in New York on Sept. 11, 1776, lasted all of three hours. It was, in short, a disaster.

Middleton, born at the family plantation on the Ashley River, had been involved in the defense of Charleston for years. He was part of a secret committee that had plotted the state’s military strategy, then helped organize its forces.

He’d been sent to Philadelphia to represent South Carolina in the Continental Congress just before the Declaration was drafted.

Heyward served three years in the Congress, beginning in 1775, before returning to Charleston as a judge in the new government. He presided over the trial of several people accused of treasonous communications with nearby British soldiers.

When convicted, the loyalists were shot in front of Heyward — and the British blamed him.

Rutledge, Middleton and Heyward had been captured during the disastrous siege. For a while, they were confined to house arrest, which was a luxury — most prisoners were assigned to the holds of ships in the harbor.

But in August 1780, they were shipped to St. Augustine. It was not ideal but their fate was at least better than that of poor Thomas Lynch Jr.

The fourth and final South Carolinian to sign the Declaration, he’d become sick leading a company of men on a march from his home in Georgetown to Charleston. The doctors said the healing climate of Europe would do him good.

So in 1779, Lynch and his wife boarded a ship for France. It was lost at sea.

See some history

The day after the South Carolina signers celebrated their independence in incarceration, they learned they would be freed.

The British had agreed to trade them in a prisoner exchange at Philadelphia. But even that was not as simple as it should have been.

On the voyage, Heyward fell asleep on deck and rolled overboard. He saved himself by clinging to the ship’s rudder until they got a rope to him. He nearly shared Lynch's fate.

Their lives diverged wildly in Philadelphia. Middleton was asked to stay as part of South Carolina’s delegation. He later returned to Charleston and died in 1787.

His brother-in-law, Rutledge, returned home and served in the legislature until he was elected governor in 1798. He died in 1800, still in office.

Heyward’s wife died during his exile but he returned home, remarried and resumed his judicial duties. In 1791, the city rented his Church Street home for President George Washington’s week-long visit.

Today, the homes of all these men still stand in Charleston. The Heyward-Washington House and Middleton Place are open for tours. Middleton Place has special programs today.

Lynch’s home is Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown (it's a private home sometimes open for tours, but not today). And Rutledge's old home is now the Governor’s House Inn on Broad Street.

Although it’s a private bed and breakfast, manager Lissa Owens-Anderson — whose family’s Charleston roots predate the Declaration by a mile — says people can take a peek at ye olde history by calling ahead and stopping in between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

These places are worth a look any day, but especially on the Fourth.

After all, these are the men who fought for our freedom to sit in beach traffic today.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.