Charlestonians imprisoned by the British July 4, 1780, danced! They were held at Haddrell’s Point, across the Cooper River. Charleston had been bombarded relentlessly by the British until she fell that same year. She would be occupied by the British for two and a half years. Charlestonians always stressed that extra half, for to them the British occupation was going on into a third year; it was a battle for hope.
When Charleston fell to the British, they wisely got the British to agree to certain unalienable rights of the colonists that were the rights of all British subjects. For British subjects we still were, though we had declared Independence four years earlier. These rights had been eroding as Great Britain tried to take advantage of the wealth accumulating of their richest possessions in the British Empire, America.
“No taxation without representation” was not merely the American response to the British levying taxes; it was an unalienable right of all British subjects throughout Great Britain. These rights were listed going back to The Year of our Lord 1215, as granted in the Magna Carta, sealed by bad King John. He was so bad, they forced his hand as his nobles showed up in force with knights in armor at Runnymede. The Magna Carta is the key to the greatness of English speaking people around the world, where the sun never set on the British Empire. An outgrowth of their Judaeo-Christian nation, Great Britain was the first country to recognize certain unalienable rights given by our Creator that are evident in all creation. These rights were ingrained in British subjects throughout the Empire going back to 1215!
July 4, 1780, Charlestonians rallied round the prisoners of war to cheer and to bless those imprisoned souls. It was not just the families of the prisoners who visited but a full representative of Charlestonians, “the officers and Lowcountry elite on parole under the terms of the capitulation of Charleston.”
Dancing and celebration have followed solemn prayer of thanksgiving throughout our history on July 4, and this day 1780, their first Independence Day under British control, was to carry on the same new tradition. They had live music, for there was no other kind. Charlestonians had long enjoyed the finest musicians hired to play for them going back to the first musical society in America, formed here in Charleston and still alive, the St. Cecilia Society. They also had, believe it or not, fire works, which they called illuminations. What is even more surprising is that they had “the firing of pistols into the air, and dancing with women for two to three hours in one of the rooms in the barracks.”
General William Moultrie was not least among them. He who had led the Battle of Ft. Sullivan on Sullivan’s Island June 28, 1776, where he had had the fort built out of palmetto palm tree logs, danced and joined in the celebration. Naturally, the British responded to the noisy revelry of celebrating our Independence while under their control as prisoners. General William Moultrie defended the prisoners, saying, “their activities represented a typical Southern celebration that was by no means inconsistent with our paroles.”
Slaves throughout the Lowcountry also celebrated this day with dancing and feasting as it was a holiday for all from the typical day’s work. No one could out dance the African American community or play music as they did.
Dancing the Charleston in the 1920s was actually the white imitation of what the black street musicians were doing. Jenkins Orphanage Band paraded through the streets of Charleston on July 4 and any other day of celebration or otherwise. One or two among them “street danced”, which Charleston ladies are photographed as imitating. The band traveled to England to raise money for the orphanage. The fame spread far and wide as they, “The Charleston” were called upon to “Give us The Charleston”.
The world is dancing to The Charleston still today as Charleston’s reputation grows as the world’s most polite and livable city. So “if you are weary of the syncopated unrest of a crazy world, come here and set your feet to a saner tempo. ‘What will we gain by that’, you may ask. ‘All we’d accomplish would be to get out of step with the world.’ We do not argue the point. But if you would only do it for a bit, you would leave us wiser than when you came. For the streets of Charleston have something to offer those that walk them in a receptive mood that will make life forever richer.” So wrote Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Charleston artist of the late 19th and 20th century in her book, Mellowed By Time.
Whatever your prison is, break out and dance, whether it is in the kitchen, at your desk, changing diapers, or battling cancer. As Preston Hipp said, “Make a resolution to dance as much as you can!” If you can put a shoe string budget together or a fortune, the streets of Charleston are free for the walking and the beaches are free for the dip in the sea. Come to get refreshed, even if it is hot and humid. It is good for the skin pores and good for the soul.
Laura Wichmann Hipp 843-708-2228
With thanks to The South Carolina Historical Magazine July 2015 article by Richard H. Tomczak.