There are few places in the U.S. more beautiful and balmy in the spring than historic Charleston, South Carolina. The sun is bright, the air is temperate in the mid 70s and slightly infused with the salty smell of the ocean and filled with the aromatic smell of blooming native flowers. Walking down Meeting Street at night, as many prominent Americans did hundreds of years ago, you will hear the sounds of night, crickets and deep throated bullfrogs, as you pass by scores of mansions hundreds of years old, illuminated by lanterns of fire. Some can be toured, as can the area’s many plantations and their mansions, including one that was prominent during the American Revolution and was featured in the movie The Patriot as headquarters for British commander Lord Cornwallis. At the end of Meeting Street you will be at the harbor’s edge, called The Battery, and White Point Gardens, which is lined with cannon, some of which were used during the Civil War. Fifteen minutes from Charleston are many beaches, such as Folly Beach, open to the ocean, populated by crab shacks and boutique shops.
Charleston has preserved much of its history and provides an opportunity to learn more about American history while at the very location where history was made. Charleston has existed since 1670, early settlers finding the location attractive because it was at the edge of a harbor, protected from swelling oceans, but providing ocean access for trade. By the middle of the 1700s, Charleston had become a bustling trade center, and the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia. During the American Revolution, Charleston was targeted by the British, yet defended herself successfully for years prior to 1780. There was a major assault in 1776 when the British tried and failed to seize Fort Moultrie, constructed with Palmetto wood, which is why the flag of South Carolina today has a palmetto tree, and the state is referred to as the “palmetto state”. Following the American Revolution, South Carolina became so prosperous that it was the forerunner for state’s rights, spurning the importance of a centralized, federal government, and was the first state to secede from the U.S. in December 1860. Its economy’s dependence on cheap slave labor was the chief motive for leading the charge during the US Civil War.
It was from Charleston that the first shot was fired during the Civil War, at Fort Sumter, which can be toured today after a ten minute boat ride from Charleston. One can also see the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley, which sunk off the coast of Charleston in 1864 after attacking the USS Housatonic. It was not found and recovered from the ocean floor until 2000, after being searched for endlessly by treasure hunters. Inside, the commander’s pocket watch had frozen the moment in time, and also discovered was a lucky $20 gold coin he carried which had been dented by a bullet during the Battle of Shiloh, saving his life because it was in a pocket. The submarine and the gold coin can be seen at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.
Historic house tours are available in town, and not far outside of Charleston are several large plantations and their mansions, such as Middleton Place, Boone Hall Plantation, and Drayton Hall, which can be toured while learning American history. The Old Exchange Building near the waterfront, its museum, and the Old Provost Dungeon can be toured. It has served as a custom house, mercantile exchange, military prison, and barracks. Tour guides will lecture about Charleston’s history of pirates, such as Blackbeard, who menaced the city in the early 1700s. Learning about the importance of the sea to Charleston would not be complete without a trip to Charleston’s South Carolina Aquarium.
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