As one of the oldest cities in our country, Charleston is proud of her beautifully restored homes and cobblestone streets. In mid-April, we spent several days exploring this charming, welcoming city. Taking heed of our lesson learned during our visit to Savannah, we started off with a walking tour of the historic district.
The Colonial City called “Little London”
In the wilds of the New World, Charleston was known as “Little London.” Settled by the British in 1670, over the next two centuries Charleston grew to become a wealthy city, thanks to the busy seaport, the slave trade, and the nearby plantations growing rice, cotton, and indigo. Charleston prided itself on having the finest architecture, fashions, textiles, and silver.
The Charleston Museum—founded in 1733 as America’s first museum—has excellent displays on early Charleston, with collections of silver (some retrieved from outhouses where it was hidden from Union soldiers—can you imagine that archeological dig?), gorgeous historic textiles, and exhibits on the indigenous peoples of the area and the life of slaves in the Lowcountry.
With wealth built on the backs of slaves (in the 1800’s, Charleston’s population was 70 percent African-American), you can imagine how loath the people were to give up slavery. South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union, and the first shot of the Civil War was fired by Confederate soldiers on Union troops stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
The city was devastated by the war, and recovery was painfully slow. With few resources, people were forced to repair instead of replacing buildings. The unexpected benefit is that vast numbers of historic structures survived.
Touring a Historic Home
Of several historic homes open for tours, we chose the Aiken-Rhett house because it promised a unique look at an antebellum townhome with an unusual approach to preservation. Nothing has been altered since the mid 19th century, and hurricanes have not done the house any favors. The goal is to simply preserve the house as it is, not improve it.
It was a strange and interesting experience. The house is said to be haunted. I wouldn’t be surprised.
The Holy City
One of the founding tenets of Charleston was religious freedom. When European settlers arrived, they brought with them a smorgasbord of Protestant denominations, Catholicism, and Judaism. Many of the congregations in Charleston date back to the late 1600s or early 1700s.
Today there are more than 400 places of worship, and the many spires rising above the city have earned it the nickname “The Holy City.”
South Carolina and the Confederacy
It’s hard to go anywhere in the South without encountering some kind of reminder of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until 2015, following the tragic shooting of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church by a white supremacist, that South Carolina finally removed the Confederate flag from the capitol building in Columbia. Decisions about what to do with statues dedicated to Confederate soldiers are still in flux.
Any kind of memorial to the Confederacy makes me uncomfortable. I grew up in the South, in the days when “colored” and “white” drinking fountains still existed, and black people were forced to move to the back of the bus. Even as a child, I was appalled by those laws.
My feeling about Confederate statues is Take them down. But I came across an interview with African-American Gullah artist and Charlestonian Jonathan Green, who said “Throughout history, there are always sides. You cannot have any forward motion unless there are two sides. Put the full story on those monuments rather than tearing them down, because it’s a piece of art, so why should it be torn down?”
There is much more to explore in Charleston—Fort Sumter, for one thing. But we found ourselves feeling the effects of history overload and will save that for another trip. Wandering around the city, however, was delightful.
Texas Barbecue in Charleston
In case you were wondering, there is plenty of fine food in Charleston, including the excellent Lewis Barbecue, recently opened by one of the foremost pitmasters from Austin, Texas. It doesn’t exactly fall into the category of “fine food” but it is delicious. I refrained from posting a photo of an entire pig they had just taken out of the smoker, in deference to vegans/vegetarians/and those who wish to remain naive about where their pork comes from.
About the campground
We stayed at James Island County Park, just a few miles from downtown Charleston. The sites are hard packed dirt, partially shaded, and vary wildly in privacy and size. Avoid the “buddy sites” unless you’re looking for new friends. Full-hookups, Verizon is mostly usable, (the park internet, not so much), and they were in the process of renovating the bathhouses while we were there.
The park is insanely expensive for a county park ($50!!). It has a waterpark, dog park, climbing wall, and other amenities that we didn’t take advantage of, but we did enjoy biking and walking the pretty trails. We got a hefty discount because they were renovating the bathhouses. Not sure we would stay there again if we had to pay full price, but there may not be any better options near Charleston.