Christmas Day 1863 Charleston was under attack. The War that had started in April, 1860 at Ft. Sumter, when occupied by Union forces, had shifted from the harbor, forts, and islands to the Peninsula of Charleston. The Peninsula is the Holy City. It is the concentration of 18th and 19th century humble houses and mansions; houses of worship and stately buildings. The homes were occupied by old men, women, and children, as well as by slaves and free persons of color. There was no peace on earth or good will towards Charleston Christmas Day 1863. One hundred and fifty years ago, the City was under relentless bombardment by Union ships firing in on the defenceless citizens of all who were not able-bodied enough to be off at war. Civilians in Charleston died on Christmas Day. Cannons were aimed at where Union shelling had started fires in an attempt to increase the flames to “destroy that harmful place”.
Sherman had received word from General Halleck to proceed to “sow salt on the site afterwards …to prevent future crops of nullification and secession.” They all remembered John C. Calhoun and the Nullification Movement of 1832 that had been the South’s efforts to correct the nation’s course under the Tariff of Abomination. But it was not Sherman who was here. He had been received into the life changing experience of Charleston hospitality ten years earlier when stationed here at Ft. Moultrie. He had danced with Charleston girls, in particular, Caroline Pettigru Carson, daughter of prominent Charleston lawyer and president of the South Carolina Historical Society, James Louis Pettigru. Perhaps his discourse with the father of this young widow with whom he danced influenced this lawyer’s views, for J.L Pettigru became an ardent Unionist, yet respected and beloved by Charlestonians despite differences of opinions and able to carry on his law practice in Charleston during The War and because of The War. His daughter Caroline ‘s husband had died leaving her with two toddler boys. What was she doing going to a dance the same year her husband died when in mourning wearing black? Playing the part for Margaret Mitchell to model Scarlett after, of course, just as George Trenholm, blockade runner, cotton merchant and Treasurer of the Secretary for The Confederate States of America was modeling the part for Rhett Butler as one the wealthiest men on the continent. His home on Rutledge was given to Caroline Carson by Sherman at the end of The War, only she could not accept. How could she ever return to live in Charleston after what Sherman had done to the South? Their relationship was notorious. Trenholm got his mansion back; it is now Ashley Hall girls school. ( Our eldest graduated from there four years ago in her long white silk gown, which she wore again June 1 for the party we had in her honor At Home. If you care to read reflections of it, proceed with caution to the following entries.)
Despite all Charleston has endured, she has survived as an 18th and 19th century city. We started the first Preservation Society in America in 1920. That is a long time to have had the awareness of the importance of preservation. In 1931 Charleston passed the first city zoning ordinance that set apart the Old and Historic District from incompatible development. One hundred and fifty years after the worst Christmas ever, Charleston is awhirl with Christmas parties and black tie debutante balls, packed churches for midnight mass, and coats and ties for Christmas Dinner. The silver glistens, the white linen sets off the family china. Carols are sung round the piano. Oyster roasts are held with the setting sun as the backdrop.
But this Christmas Eve, caroling was done in ICU by some of the party weary debutantes and Hipp sisters and me. We wanted to bring Christmas cheer and good will as we shifted our focus onto the real meaning of Christmas in giving gifts of the heart. While caroling, a nurse delivered us a note, “Will you please sing ‘Oh Holy Night’ for my husband in room 1?” Though two of the six of us could not hit the notes on key, while blissfully unaware, the overall effect was angelic as I heard from down the hall. The staff also appreciated our bringing Christmas to them as they had to work on Christmas Eve. The magic sparkle of Christmas falls where you least expect it, “where meek souls will receive” often far from the glitter.
Imagine… the Spirit of Christmas in the midst of the hardships of the relentless bombardment of Charleston Christmas Day and night 1863. In the midst of dodging cannon balls, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given”. In the lower peninsula, there were no Christmas Eve services, no caroling through the city or round the tree, no presents waiting to be unwrapped, “Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
I hope in 2014 you are able to give yourself and loved ones the life enriching gift of the experience of the Holy City of Charleston. You hear quotes from primary sources, which are the means by which you are transported back in time. Remembering from where we have come is important in the health of a society. As Americans, born to Liberty, we need to remember who we are. Founding Fathers are quoted as well. The humble shall hear thereof and be glad. Ask me to tell you the story of the freed slave of 1848, Lewis the carpenter, from Edisto, who was an entrepreneur. He started “repairing Charleston houses” with his new-found freedom. Pretty soon he was buying, restoring, and “flipping” houses of Charleston, because in 1848 there were already historic houses over a hundred years old. There is so much history here, one lifetime is too short to uncover it all. I keep scratching the surface and sharing with you my findings.
Come! All who are thirsty, come to the water. Walk along Folly Beach where George Gershwin collaborated with Dubose Heyward to compose Porgy and Bess, the first American opera. Go into the private properties with me and set your feet to a saner tempo. For the streets of Charleston have something to give those that walk them in a receptive mood that will make life forever richer. As the Charleston Renaissance artists and writers showed, it is a city mellowed by time.
Laura Wichmann Hipp 843-577-5896