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The Citadel's early story


The Citadel's original campus, with a piece of the surviving Revolutionary War era hornwork in the foreground, as seen in a late 19th century photograph. 

The Citadel was founded 175 years ago and its earliest history was intimately intertwined with South Carolina's, for better and worse.

In 1822 — two decades before this school emerged — Charleston was roiled by Denmark Vesey's planned slave revolt which urged slaves and free men of color to murder the city's white population.

Had it succeeded, it could easily have been the nation's bloodiest such uprising by far.

In response, the state sought ways to deter any future revolts and planted the seeds of The Citadel, whose name appeared on the Charleston scene long before the school did.

State lawmakers created a municipal guard to patrol the city's neck, which then was considered to be the area around modern day Calhoun Street. By 1829, the state had built a large guard house and an arsenal — locally called the Citadel — on the northern piece of what's now Marion Square.

Before then, the arms protecting the city had been treated more casually, offloaded on the same docks as produce and scattered about several locations around the city, said Steven Smith, a Citadel instructor who also serves as its unofficial historian. "They weren't very secure."

Federal troops originally guarded the arms but stopped after the Nullification Crisis between South Carolina and the U.S. government. The state then created The Arsenal in Columbia and The Citadel Academy to assume that role.

The local militia was active, too, so the city deeded it six acres bound by King, Calhoun, Meeting, and Tobacco streets as a military practice field in 1833, just in front of the new Municipal Guard House, said Nic Butler, a Charleston historian who has researched the history of Marion Square.

In 1842, the state created a new institution in Charleston called the South Carolina Military Academy, which moved into the state-owned arsenal and guard house.

"They (state leaders) thought we could get more bang for the buck if we converted those arsenals to military schools," Smith said.

It wasn't a completely novel idea: Virginia had taken a similar approach when creating the Virginia Military Institute in 1839, the nation's first state-supported military college. Alden Partridge had founded a military college in Vermont in 1819, which still operates today as Norwich University.

The Citadel began in 1843 with only 20 cadets who were allowed to train on the neighboring parade ground, which also was known as Citadel Square or Citadel Green.

Smith noted the rigor of academics and discipline took a toll: Only six of those in the first class would graduate.

"There were no majors at that time," Smith said. "It was more liberal arts than heavy on the engineering. They wanted the graduates to go into any kind of enterprise."

According to "The Story of The Citadel," a history by Col. O.J. Bond, "a cadet at The Citadel led a busy life. His conduct was governed by military regulations, some in minute detail, and he had little time for idleness or dissipation. His day's work began at six o'clock, which, on winter days, was about dawn, and ended at half past nine at night during the winter months, half past ten when the days were longer."

The Citadel also had an early sister institution in Columbia, known as The Arsenal, but by 1845, the Arsenal, which didn't have as suitable a campus, became subservient, Smith said. The Arsenal's campus eventually burned during the Civil War, with only its officers quarters surviving (a building that now serves as South Carolina's governor's mansion).

The Citadel gradually grew and its cadets would play a historic role in firing the first shots of the Civil War.

In January 1861, three months before South Carolina forces bombarded Fort Sumter and officially began the war, the Union already had abandoned Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island and concentrated its forces on Fort Sumter, the island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

The Union had sent the ship Star of the West to resupply the fort with 250 men and provisions, but Citadel cadets, who technically were under orders from the governor, fired upon the ship seven times on Jan. 9, hitting it twice. Cadet George E. Haynesworth pulled the lanyard to fire the first shot. The ship turned away, increasing the stress inside Fort Sumter.

At the end of the month, at the same time as South Carolina adopted its state flag, the Citadel became the South Carolina Military Academy, and its mission official shifted to produce officers for the state.

Meanwhile, Citadel graduates were distinguishing themselves in the field. Col. Charles Courtenay Tew, The Citadel's first valedictorian and first president of its alumni association, fought for the Confederacy.

He was killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, where another Citadel cadet and two dozen other alumni also fought — one-ninth of the school's living graduates at the time. Two of them were killed and four wounded.

Tew's sword — recovered from the battlefield — remained hidden away until just recently, when it was returned and placed on display at The Citadel.

During the war, the cadets would be called out to protect the city on occasion. Their major battle, where all cadets joined the fighting, occurred near the end of the war, when they fought at the Battle of Tullifiny, near Yemassee. They successfully fought off a Union threat to the rail line between Savannah and Charleston.

Meanwhile, as cadets roamed around the state, Confederate troops guarding Charleston evacuated the city in late February 1865.

"Soldiers of the U.S. Army quickly moved in," Butler said. "They found the Citadel and its parade ground abandoned, and so the site that had become the heart of South Carolina’s military culture was immediately occupied by Union troops."

The cadets remained in the field until May 1865, a month after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

"They were furloughed by the governor," Smith said of the cadets. "They never surrendered."

That might have seemed like little comfort at the time: The Citadel, for more than a dozen years after the war, would cease to exist.

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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