Map gives glimpse of James Island of yore

This hand-drawn map of James Island and surrounding barrier islands provides a glimpse of what the Lowcountry was like in the 1860s.

Before the war, James Islanders followed the same routine every year.

They stayed at their plantations on the inland side of the island until May 10, when they moved to Secessionville and Fort Johnson for the ocean breezes and to escape "the fever" that struck during the summer. They socialized, held picnics. Many of these wealthy planters built canoes, powered by slave oarsmen, to stage regattas.

And then, on Nov. 10 every year, they moved back to their plantations.

"James Island in those days (1858 to '60) was truly a happy place," wrote W.G. Hinson, a planter and Confederate soldier. "They were a simple people in their tastes & customs but gentle in their manners and virtuous with all."

And then the war came, and everything changed.

Hinson wrote his James Island essay on the back of a hand-drawn map that shows just how much the Civil War affected the island. The map, believed to have been drawn by Robert Mellichamp, is part of a new exhibit of war-era maps going on display at the Charleston Museum next week.

The exhibit, "Plotting a Siege: Maps of Charleston in the Civil War," which begins Saturday and runs through the end of the year, offers a detailed perspective on just how much the war dominated local life for four years.

These maps show how crowded, and how busy, Charleston and the surrounding barrier islands were during the War Between the States. Many of these maps, including one from an atlas that accompanied the Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies 1861-1865, reveal the location of places mentioned in contemporary newspapers and correspondence, but now called by different names.

For instance, Clark Sound was called the Great Sound back then.

"It was really amazing to look at that and see where all these places were," said Jennifer Scheetz, archivist at the Charleston Museum.

Scheetz and her staff selected these maps from the museum's voluminous archives. One, from the 1820s, has had Confederate and Union batteries -- as well as Fort Sumter -- drawn onto them, apparently contemporary to the war.

Another shows details of the harbor jetties, including cross-sections detailing how each jetty was constructed. The jetties, built between 1879 and 1895, and were designed by Quincy Gillmore, the Union general who commanded Northern forces on Morris Island during the Civil War.

As Scheetz notes, when the jetties cut off the sand flow to Morris Island, causing it to erode into the sea, many locals blamed Gillmore for harboring ill feelings toward the island.

Although some of the maps pinpoint the location of various downtown defenses -- Battery Waring, for instance -- it is ultimately the Mellichamp map/Hinson portrait of James Island that is the most interesting piece in the exhibit.

Before the war, there were 25 houses at Fort Johnson, Hinson noted, all of which were destroyed by Confederate engineers to make way for island fortifications. It was a fate shared by many of the island's structures. Both of the island's churches burned in the 1860s, casualties of the war.

It notes that, after the war, everything changed on James Island -- and throughout Charleston. Hinson notes that slaves had attended church with their owners prior to the war, but chose not to socialize with them after, setting up their own churches and communities. "The future looks uncertain, trade farming & planting depressed, politics degraded," Hinson wrote.

"It's a great sketch of James Island," Scheetz said. "It touches on architecture, agriculture, plantations and what life was like for enslaved people."

It is a lot of information to get from a simple map.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BriHicks_PandC.