Originally written in April 2014 – Part of the Deep South Series
If I remember correctly, I had just left you in the big and empty Atlanta, where I think zombies would have never crossed paths, even if they tried… Anyway, let’s go back to the post.
It was in Atlanta that we learned that the south still keeps that the fame of having a laid back approach to everything. We had rented a car and did not realise that GPS was not standard. Yes, you can start laughing at me right now. No, I won’t get upset! We simply were used to a different standard. Thankfully, my phone company offers the same data usage in the US as I have in the UK, so Google maps was able to come to the rescue.
We started our drive towards Charleston after waiting for one and a half hours (which Hertz used to clean the car) and sans Tom Tom. After five minutes of initial stress in which we were unable to drive (“the car is not running”, “put the foot on the gas, maybe?”), we finally left Atlanta to head to Charleston.
To be honest, I knew very little of the place, if not nothing. Our English speaking friends have always been a lot more exposed to US history. Growing up in Spain meant that our education system would try and cram quite a lot of information in a scholar year; often this meant that the US Civil War fell towards the end of the school year, where the attention was almost null.
So, I did my research. Quite a lot of it. I knew that I was going to find a picturesque place, but I could’ve never imagined that I would learn so much. Charleston was THE PLACE where the Civil War started. As it is right on the coast, it became a very important place from a strategic point of view and the fact that a lot of the merchandise for the rest of the south came this way… Well it only went to show that, potentially, its control would result in the control of the South. Like I explained in my previous post (Atlanta), the control and the legal status of slavery was a must for the landlords of the South. Without them, there would be no land workers, or cotton industry. The same union that kicked out the Brits, however, started to break its unity. By the time Lincoln was elected, his aversion to slavery was well known. In fact, all slaves in the north where freed from that moment. The states that did not concur with that process started signing different treaties of secession, with the aim to join a confederation. That confederation is what is known today as the Deep South in the US.
We stayed in a B&B which was over a hundred years old in the centre. Our room had clearly served the purpose of front room in the old days. You could see a previous generation of yourself having sweet tea in the porch, knitting in the garden or watching the world go by through the window. The owner of the home was lovely and very welcoming.
Charleston was in fact the first place where we started getting an understanding of how important hospitality in the South is. It was, however, with Jeff, that we learn the most about life in the south. Jeff is the owner of a company that offers civil wars tours around Charleston – when I read about him online, I simply could not resist. We walked all around the centre, while he showed us black and white photos of how the places had looked like back before, after or during the war.
We learnt that on the little island on the bay there was a fort (Fort Sommer), which had housed the Union troops, while they were staging a siege over Charleston. The island itself had always been a military base, so it made sense that the North had continued to use it. Certainly, its strategic location guaranteed that whoever took it would the control of the trade into Charleston.
Many conversations were had but no agreement was reached and, one day, one of the confederates shot a cannon ball… And yes, that was the first shot that started the Civil War. Let’s face it, what else could they have done, considering a siege was taken place?
Today, Charleston has a beautiful walkway by the sea, surrounded by beautiful homes that used to be plantations. Since the siege and the war only lasted 4 years (a relative short time), you can still see a lot of the old city just as it was. Let’s face it. What saved Charleston of the destruction was the fact that its status changed from “key city in the south” to “city of no major importance”. Once Charleston was in the union, slavery was over. With no one working the land “for free” the landlords went from riches to nothing overnight. Life was not much easy for ex slaves who were suddenly facing neighbours who were not ready to change their opinion overnight.
A couple of very curious things happened during the war in Charleston. The city was the place to witness a slave escaping and entering Union troops. Yes, one escaped, jumped on a boat, took its command AND served in the union. His name was Robert Smalls and people are still talking about his amazing achievements today. Something else that was pretty cool is that the first ever war submarine was used in Charleston too!(http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSS_H._L._Hunley)
Because the city is so well preserved, we were able to walk the streets and see touches of history, such as raised stones on the pavement (to be able to mount a horse), metal rings on the walls (to clear yourself of horse’s poo), etc. We were also able to see plenty of those southern homes with side entrances (the porch should always be overlooking the garden, y’all) and with super high ceilings, making even better use of the light. It’s also clear that the city’s layout has barely changed; the use of some of the most important buildings has simply changed. For example, the crafts market today was the slaves market a couple of hundred years ago. To see the place still there gave me chills.
Each of the old buildings in Charleston has a plaque with the year they were built on. So many of them are pre 1800s, a feat considering there was a terrible earthquake on that year. It was a strong one too and it was felt as far as Boston. One of the buildings that is particularly well preserved is St Michael’s church. It’s stunning and it still has the seats were President Washington and his family sat when he visited Charleston following the end of the war.
Nowadays, Charles is a domestic destination. We ended up staying one night (enough) and we had amazing food. It was our first picturesque place in the South and the first one where food was also great (well, maybe except for the boiled peanuts – which is viewed as a delicacy in the southern states). It was also our first taste of their famous hospitality, which became our companion for the rest of the trip.
I could not finish the post without making a reference to their pride. We were surprised by just how passionate they were to clarify when they were 4th or 5th generation Charlestonian or to comment on the fact that some members of their family had had people serving in the confederate lines. We found it very curious that they would admit to it so passionately when they had lost the war.
And soon it was time to leave for Savannah… What would it be like?