The Charleston Fire of 1861

Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series!  This is a series of articles in which I give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing the book.  There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, and the following is the first of the five articles that dig into the history of Northern Fire.  There are some fun new features to the series, including different sections called “The History,” “Personal Spotlight,” “Food for Thought,” and “Analysis of Photograph.”  Ready?  Here we go!

History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861

THE HISTORY: One thing that has always been difficult to remember when I am writing about the Civil War is the fact that other life carried on at the same time that the Civil War was in progress.  I know that the war was all-consuming and that its progress was probably one of the only topics in the conversation of the entire country for four years.  I once read a happy-go-lucky romance set in Tennessee during the Civil War that felt a bit off-base.  There was no real normalcy during the Civil War. 

But there was a certain business-as-usual aspect to certain facets of life that doesn’t initially occur to you.  Seasons changed, there were weddings, mothers still died in childbirth, ordinary people still came down with tuberculosis and typhoid, mental institutions still had to function, city governments still operated unless it was impossible, and, apparently, there were still accidental fires which wiped out huge portions of cities.

I was surprised when I learned about the fire.  There was already a blockade, the constant threat of bombardments and battle, and just add a destructive fire into the mix!  It must have felt like the Apocalypse!  Or maybe not.  I once read a first-hand account of a woman reflecting on the feelings of her enslaved butler as things got really bad in Charleston.  She said he sat by the door as serenely as though nothing had happened.  Maybe from his perspective it felt like deliverance!

In any event, things got pretty rough in Charleston before they got better.  The city was in a unique situation where it was protected by forts, and it didn’t fall until the last days of the war.  All of this will be covered in a later post dealing with the fall of Charleston.  But for now, just to set the stage for the fire, Charleston was carrying on in as business-as-usual fashion as possible.  There were no Union troops occupying the city.  Certain islands had fallen near the city, Union troops were on South Carolina soil, and naval vessels were angling toward its outlying forts, but there was no extremely substantial threat of Union troops getting truly near the city yet since it was so heavily protected. 

This was early in the war, so there was hardship but not the extreme poverty the later war years would see.  There was still something of a social season in the winter because there were many forts nearby, and people wanted to entertain all of the officers.  So we’re right in the middle of all of that on December 11 when a cold front moves in during the night.

I should note that the origins of the fire are unknown.  However, there are some theories.  One is that there were enslaved people who were refugees who started a fire for warmth or to cook, and the fire got out of bounds.  I am a little skeptical of this theory because we know that the fire started at the corner of East Bay and Hassell Streets, which seems to have been a business district.  I think it’s more likely that one of the other theories is true: that the fire began in one of the businesses in the area—either Russel & Co.’s Sash and Blind Factory or Cameron & Co.’s Immense Machine Shops. 

Apparently, it was one of those quick fires that starts to spread rapidly almost before you even know it has ignited.  The weather conditions were perfect to give the fire speed.  Confederate troops as far as 14 miles away could see the flames—whoa!  Union troops 6 miles out to sea could see the flames, too.

Picture the historical moment…

The wind is especially high. The fire is just eating these massive mansions, and the city officials get concerned about the fact that the fire is heading toward the Marine and Roper Hospitals, the Medical College, and the Roman Catholic Orphanage House.  They realize the fire isn’t going to stop spreading without some drastic measures, so they blow up 14 houses on Queen Anne Street to create a fire block in order to save those vulnerable buildings.   I haven’t heard that the owners of those 14 houses kicked up much of a dust about their houses being blown up. I think we would say the same thing today: save the kids, save the hospitals, we’ll deal with the rest later.  (And it probably helped that the houses were in the fire’s path anyway!)

There are firefighters on the scene, many of whom were enslaved men.  There is a 19th century equivalent of a fire engine.  But it is dead low tide, and the workers are unable to pull enough water from the bay to handle this out-of-control situation.[1]

People are saving what they can from the houses and businesses.  Locals bust into St. Andrews Hall to save the full-length portrait of Queen Victoria (which just goes to show Americans have long been Royal Addicts; I would probably have saved Victoria, too![2]).

It isn’t until noon the next day that the fire clears the peninsula and dies out.  The casualty tolls were as follows: hundreds of acres burned, 575 homes burned, 5 churches burned, and numerous businesses destroyed.  There are no recorded lives lost, but it has been speculated that there must have been some deaths, possibly including enslaved people.[3]

Some interesting building casualties: The Circular Congregational Church. (I say interesting because there wasn’t a huge Congregational presence in the South, but my historical New Englander John Thomas is a Congregationalist.)  The church was rebuilt and claims with pride to be one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South.  It was founded in 1688.  You can see its ruins here in a period photograph.  The graveyard in the foreground is rather eerie.

Circular Congregational Church Ruins

Photo Credit: CircularChurch.org

Another notable building which burned was Institute Hall, where matters had really started to break down between the Democratic Party in 1860 and where South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession had been ratified.

Some of the buildings which had been lost were colonial structures, a real loss for lovers of architectural history.  The Charleston Mercury ran a series of obituaries to the mansions lost.  As someone who loves old buildings, I feel that!

Soup houses were set up to feed the homeless.  There were relief committees and lots of donors, and the Georgia Legislature generously voted to send $100,000 in relief aid to Charleston.  But even still, it was hard to dig out and rebuild with a war in progression, so a lot of the city just lay in ruins for the rest of the war and the years beyond. 

The fire was reported on across the country, including in Northern newspapers. (If you’ve read Northern Fire, you know this is how John Thomas finds out Shannon has made it to Charleston.)  If you have a membership, you can still find a New York Times article from December 29, 1861 here: https://www.nytimes.com/1861/12/29/archives/the-condition-of-charleston-ruins-of-the-great-fireold-landmarks.html.  You can also find a Harper’s Weekly article published in December of 1861 free here: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1861/december/charleston-fire.htm.[4]

Charleston, when it finally did fall, was not necessarily a good place to be.  Many in the North saw The Holy City as the main perpetrator of the beginning of the Civil War and wanted, ultimately, to make the city pay for the incredible expenditure of human blood.  And yet, “The vast majority of damage and destruction to Charleston during the Civil War was caused by The Great Fire of 1861, the worst in its history.”[5]  One source says, “…nature did what the Yankees only dreamed of doing.”[6]

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Robert E. Lee was in Charleston on the night of the fire. He had not yet attained his ultimate fame or the position as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Instead, he had been sent to organize coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia.  He was staying at the Mills House Hotel, where he and some of his staff went up either onto the balcony or the roof to watch the progress of the fire.  It started to get too close to the hotel (see the picture below which shows just how close), and they were evacuated to Edmonston-Alston House (which is the house my fictional Ravenel House is based on) on East Battery Street.  These facts were what gave me the clue that Shannon and her family would certainly be coughing from the smoke nearby but that they would be thought to be in a fairly safe area of town.

The Mills House Hotel was reported to have been saved only by staff placing wet blankets on the walls and roof.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: It sounds like there were slave refugees in Charleston in December of 1861 if their presence was well-enough known that their actions became a principle/folk theory as to the source of the fire.  My question is: where had the refugees come from?  Some of the surrounding islands that had been invaded by the Union or abandoned by their owners?  From other abandoned towns of South Carolina?  And if the refugees had left abandoned or occupied properties, why do you think they would flee those places into the middle of a city that was still functioning as part of the Confederate government?  Wouldn’t they be afraid they would be captured and returned to their owners or sold at one of Charleston’s famous slave markets? 

What do you think motivated the slave refugees?  Do you think they were left alone by the authorities in Charleston?  If so, why?  I have some thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours!

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Take a look at this photo showing the still-intact Mills House Hotel. 

Mills House Hotel in Background

Photo Credit: LowCountryWalkingTours.com

Several things strike me about this picture.  One is how close the Confederate officers were to the flames.  Do you see buildings that nearly touch it are totally destroyed?  You can see that the east side of the building is charred.  Another thing that strikes me is the man who is standing.  He appears to be an African American man.  He is carrying a number of items.  Can you identify any of them?  I’m not sure what some of them are.  What do you think his situation is?  Is he cleaning up the debris?  Just passing through?  I also notice the man who is sitting.  I believe he is in a Confederate uniform, but I’m not certain.  It might be a cadet’s uniform.  I think he has a gun in his right hand.  Does he strike you as rather forlorn?  Do you think he has some sort of connection to the building he is sitting on?

Stop by next time for a look at the Roper Hospital’s use as a military hospital in Charleston during the Civil War!

SOURCES:

Ferrara, Marie, Moses Henry Nathan and the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 4, (Oct., 2003).

Hicks, Brian, “Charleston at War: Charleston Beaten Down by Great Fire,” https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-at-war-charleston-beaten-down-by-great-fire/article_4c54dce2-de2e-591f-b6c4-357e1ec599ab.html, January 29, 2011.

Schreadly, R.L., “The Great Fire of 1861 Took a Devastating Toll on Charleston,” https://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/commentary/the-great-fire-of-1861-took-a-devastating-toll-on-charleston/article_194f6588-3066-11e9-abee-a7ef909d7338.html, February 19, 2019.

“The Burning of Charleston,” Harper’s Weekly, December 28, 1861.

“The Great Charleston Fire of 1861,” https://lowcountrywalkingtours.com/charleston-stories/the-great-charleston-fire-of-1861/.

Photo Credit for Feature Photo: LowCountryWalkingTours.com


[1] Southern newspapers report that the efforts of the firefighters were really valiant, while at least one Northern newspaper reports that the enslaved men disabled two of the fire engines.  You can see in this split the ongoing debate about slavery during the war.  The Southern newspapers had an interest in showing that the slaves were happy enough with their lot to try to save the city, while the Northern newspapers had an interest in showing that slaves were deeply unhappy.  As a side-note, the Northern newspapers tend to tie what happened to slavery or to a retribution from Providence for secession.

[2] Do you think the portrait was special to the citizens of Charleston for a particular reason, or do you think this had something do to with the hopes that Great Britain would join the South as an ally?

[3] I wonder if there wasn’t a huge death toll because of the adequacy of the warning system within the city.  We hear that “the alarm rang out, calling the citizens to quell the fire.” (Schreadly.)  This is pure speculation, but I imagine that means that the bells from the steeples of Charleston’s many churches were pealed.

[4] This article references that the fire was started as part of a planned slave insurrection.  An interesting theory.  You hear rumors of that in several sources, but I could never determine whether they were fact or only speculation.

[5] “The Great Charleston Fire of 1861.”

[6] “Charleston at War: Charleston Beaten Down by Great Fire.”