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The Great Fire of 1861 took a devastating toll on Charleston

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150 years ago, Charleston had reached a low point — or turning point (copy)

Most all of the destruction seen here along Charleston’s Meeting Street was caused by an 1861 fire. While scaffolding went up around the Circular Congregational Church, center, it later was razed and a new sanctuary built.

On the night of Dec. 11, 1861, Gen. Robert E. Lee, having just completed a tour of Charleston’s defense installations, was eating dinner at the Mills House when fire bells in the city began ringing loudly. From the steeple of nearby St. Michael’s Church a watchman extended, in a northeasterly direction, a red lantern affixed to a pole.

There were those in the North who called it the Lord’s retribution for the proud old city’s role in unleashing the dogs of war in America. Some in Charleston thought it the work of Yankee saboteurs. Others said disaffected slaves were to blame. History records it as the Great Fire of 1861.

“This morning dawned drearily upon a night of terror and disaster,” The Charleston Mercury reported. “About nine o’clock last evening the alarm rang out, calling the citizens to quell the beginnings of a fire which, in the subsequent extent and rapidity of its ruinous sweep, will compare with the most terrible conflagrations which have ever visited the American continent. The wild work of the flames, and the immense destruction of property which has thus far taken place, is chiefly attributable to the sudden and unfortunate change in the weather, which occurred almost simultaneously with the breaking out of the fire. The mild and spring-like calmness of the atmosphere during the last fortnight was broken by heavy gusts of wind, which swept the dust and smoke and sparks hither and thither in blinding clouds. Great flaming bits of wood were borne in dense showers for a distance of nearly a mile in a southwest direction, and the whole city was brightly lit up by the dreadful and widening glare. ...

“Toward midnight the fire had assumed proportions of appalling magnitude. ... From the precincts of Market, East Bay and State-streets, the conflagration had now reached Meeting and Queen-streets, The terror of the families (in many cases without their usual protectors, owing to the military exigencies of the times) was contagious, and much farther up into the city the work of packing up valuables and getting ready to desert their homesteads became general. ...

“Twelve o’clock — Meeting-street, from Market to Queen, is one mass of flame. The Circular Church and Institute Hall are burning. The Mills House is thought in imminent danger, while the fire seems stretching its red arms around the Charleston Hotel. ...

“Three o’clock – The steeple of the Circular Church has just toppled and fallen with a heavy crash. ... In the lower part of the city the fire has done its work in thorough style. Its path is now burned out, and nothing now remains to mark where it has passed, save smoldering piles of cinders and gaunt and smoking walls and chimneys. The Charleston Hotel is safe, and Hayne-street, too. The wind has swept the danger off, farther to the south. Although the fire rages on three sides of the Mills House, that fine structure has not caught [fire]. ...

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“Four o’clock — A change in the wind has bent the course of the fire toward Broad-street. ... The Cathedral seems now in exceeding danger. The buildings on the west side of Friend-street, near the corner of Queen, are burning fiercely. St. Andrew’s Hall is on fire, and the noble spire of St. Fingar’s glitters with a splendor of portentous import. ...

“Quarter-past five o’clock [the newspaper’s deadline] — As the clock of St. Michael’s tolls the quarter, the Cathedral steeple has fallen, with a tremendous crash. The Cathedral is burning furiously, likewise, St. Andrew’s Hall. ... The flames have now crossed Broad Street, and, as the wind has not lulled, it is impossible to say where they will stop, short of the river. ...

“Great indeed, has been the calamity which has fallen upon our noble old city. But let us, with unfailing hope and courage, bestir ourselves at once to amend the losses we have sustained, and to relieve, each one according to his means, the great suffering which the fire must entail upon its poor victims.” — The Charleston Mercury, Dec. 12, 1861.

It would take many years, many heartbreaks and much sacrifice to restore the damage done by the Great Fire and the destruction destined to come. Union guns would use St. Michael’s steeple as an aiming point during the bombardment that covered the peninsula from just north of Calhoun street to The Battery.

No federal aid would support Charleston’s rebuilding when the war ended.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. He is the author of “Valor and Virtue: The Washington Light Infantry in Peace and in War,” from which much of the above has been taken.

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