Charming Charleston’s strange juxtaposition of Civil War-era attractions

Posted Sunday, May. 04, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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When an opportunity arose for a quick trip to Charleston, it took all of three seconds for me to jump at the chance. I’ve read glowing dispatches from friends and colleagues for years about the beauty of the area and its vigorous entertainment scene. When I started to research this coastal city, however, it was the Civil War-era attractions that proved most compelling. The war “started” here when Confederate forces forced Union troops from Fort Sumter in April 1861 and the city has a storied 19th-century history, with a long list of monuments, mansions, plantations and museums to go with it.

So I scheduled my trip and designed an itinerary that would take me to four or five attractions per day. The tour of elegant homes and cobblestone streets, period antiques and marble shrines was an excursion through the histories of prominent families and institutions. The guides were gracious; the structures, beautifully maintained. But everything seemed so pristine, so contained.

Where were the stories and the artifacts that acknowledge the inhumanity of slavery or the social failures of Reconstruction?

I visited cemeteries, plantations and city mansions, museums and national parks and soon discovered that those narratives exist — at some of the same places where antebellum silver gleams. You may have to read beyond the first few lines of description in the guidebooks to find experiences that acknowledge slavery and its legacy, but without them, the city’s story is incomplete.

My real Charleston journey began where history, tradition, movie-worthy scenery and cataclysm converge: Magnolia Cemetery. Founded in 1849, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. I walked the grounds for an hour without seeing another visitor. Amid trees draped with Spanish moss, pedestrian bridges over quiet ponds and family plots with 19th-century tombstones that recall the sad mysteries of multiple infant deaths, “tranquility” was the word that came to mind until I walked to a memorial surrounded by several graves of men who died during the war. Many of the small tombstones had been decorated with small Confederate flags. In fact, more than 2,000 Civil War veterans are buried at Magnolia, and those rebel flags invite contemplation of their history and their symbolism.

Next, I visited Drayton Hall, an 18th-century plantation home noted for its Georgian-Palladian architecture. Guidebooks usually make the distinction that Drayton, a National Historic Landmark, has been preserved, not restored. Because of that, the rooms were devoid of furniture and accouterments; some of the walls were most recently repainted in the 19th century. The emptiness was startling at first, but it certainly focused my attention on Drayton’s authenticity.

(The impressive website includes a timeline of the Drayton family and the African-Americans who served them, many of them as slaves; others, domestic employees after slavery was abolished.)

I found the most moving acknowledgment of slavery on the plantation in a quiet wooded area — an African-American cemetery that, the website says, is “the final resting place of at least 40 individuals, enslaved and free.” A wrought-iron arch with the words “Leave ’Em Rest” stands at the entrance, but there are few markers otherwise.

Nearby Magnolia Plantation tells a different story. The original plantation home at Magnolia burned in the 1790s. A second home was burned in 1865; official literature points a finger at Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “renegade Union troops.” After the Civil War, the Rev. John Grimke Drayton dismantled a nearby summer home and had it reconstructed on the footprint of the burned-out plantation house and agreed to open the extensive gardens to paying visitors. The home was expanded over the decades, and today the public can tour 10 rooms, furnished with family artifacts, quilts and antiques.

If Drayton Hall is stately and austere, Magnolia is approachable and rambling — a larger version of your great-grandparents’ farm home that your relatives tried to update in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Historical-minded visitors sometimes grumble about Magnolia’s petting zoo (not exactly part of the original setup), and some tour guides who don’t emphasize (or even mention) the slaves who kept the place and its family together. (My guide briefly referenced the slave population.)

But five years ago, Magnolia began a series of tours that focus on a group of restored cabins, most built to house slaves and domestic workers, that acknowledge the different eras of the occupants, starting with 1850 and running through 1969.

Another afternoon I visited two institutions that surely must exist at opposite ends of some sort of cosmic spectrum: the Old Slave Mart Museum and the Confederate Museum, just a 10-minute walk apart. In 1856, Charleston passed a ban on the public sale of enslaved African-Americans; the transactions then moved indoors to several sales rooms, or marts. Today, what is now known as the Old Slave Mart Museum is, according to a municipal website, considered the state’s only known building used as an auction gallery still in existence.

Bare of memorabilia, the small two-story structure is full of text-heavy wall panels devoted to various chapters in the horrific saga of domestic slavery. The juxtaposition of the exhibits in the space and its past unsettled me.

By contrast, the Confederate Museum is chock-full of memorabilia: a lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair (attached to a signed, framed letter), baby clothes, furniture, oil portraits, buttons, rosters of Confederate soldiers, Confederate money, Confederate flags and snippets of flags, baskets, buttons, rifles, bayonets, swords and a greenish-gray frock coat worn by Samuel Tupper Hyde, who was 17 years, 8 months old when he died in a battle on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863.

It’s a strange, cluttered place — a perverse curiosity shop — run by the Daughters of the Confederacy and crammed to the gills. And here’s the strangest juxtaposition of all: The collection is housed in an 1841 Greek Revival building that sits atop the Charleston City Market, where the vendors include African-American men and women who sell one of the most iconic souvenirs of the Charleston area: sweet grass baskets, a craft introduced to the area in the 17th century by enslaved people from West Africa.

At many other of Charleston’s attractions the back story was just as fascinating — or troubling — as the official literature. The Aiken-Rhett House, for example, an impressive structure, was once owned by William Aiken Jr., a rice planter and governor as well as one of the largest slaveholders in the state.

It is this tangled history that lingers once a trip to Charleston is concluded and the memories of fine food and historic preservation have faded.

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