Walled City of Charles Town

The Walled City of Charles Town

By Katherine Saunders Pemberton

Manager, Research & Education, Historic Charleston Foundation, and Co-chair of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force

Although there were only a handful of other fortress cities in the New World, Charleston was the only walled city built by the English in North America.

Work on a professionally designed fortification plan began here in the last few years of the 17th century. For the first several decades of the 18th century, walls of brick and of earth encompassed sixty-two acres of high ground on an otherwise marsh-riddled peninsula.  This walled city protected the inhabitants of the new English colony against potential naval assaults by French and Spanish forces and any land assault by hostile Native Americans.

Because of development pressures to expand the town, the north, west and south walls were dismantled by the 1730s.  However, much of the substantial harbor side fortifications remained intact until the 1780s.  By the 1790s, even these walls had disappeared from the landscape and Charleston’s early fortifications began to fade from the community memory.

The initial settlement (1670-1680) of the Carolina Colony was located approximately five miles west of present-day Charleston at Albemarle Point.  The second and more permanent location for what would become the city of Charleston was a peninsula located at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers.  It was situated on high ground between two creeks to the north and south and it fronted the Cooper River on the east.

The Boyd Map of 1686 depicts the town's earliest fortifications along the Cooper River waterfront.  These included two large hornworks located at the northern and southern ends of the developed area.  Between these works and paralleling the river, Boyd noted the presence of a quay and an entrenchment. This front line of defense had to suffice until a plan to provide for a continuous trace could be developed.  

A formal fortification plan was developed by 1697 and was overlaid on the developing street plan.  Forming something of a parallelogram, the entire run of fortifications extended approximately one and half miles.  The walls surrounding the settlement ran from the "great fort" called Granville Bastion (currently 40 East Bay Street), along the north edge of Vanderhorst Creek (now Water Street), and reached the middle of Meeting Street almost to the wall that separates the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, now 51 Meeting Street, and the First (Scots) Presbyterian churchyard next door, where Colleton Bastion stood. The wall then ran along Meeting Street to what today is the intersection of Broad Street, where Johnson's Ravelin contained drawbridges to permit passage into and out of the town.

The wall then continued up Meeting Street as far north as present-day Cumberland Street, where Carteret bastion stood. From that point the wall extended east to where Craven, the fourth large bastion, stood. Today, the grounds of the U.S. Custom House and a portion of East Bay Street cover the site of Craven Bastion.  This northern wall ran parallel to Daniel’s Creek (now the City Market).

The principle fortifications were located along the Cooper River on the eastern side of the walled city.  This was the most exposed side, from which a naval assault could come, and it was also the commercial hub of the town, containing its most valuable real estate.  A substantial brick seawall served as the eastern curtain wall. This line had within it the two imposing brick bastions at the north and south ends and three triangular brick redans. A half-moon battery, also of brick, was located at the center, covering the river approach and providing a formal entrance to the town. The curtain/seawall was six feet wide at the base, rising about 15 feet at low water to a height of five or more feet above street level. Fragments of these brick harbor side fortifications remain and provide the only substantial physical evidence of the walled city. 

A portion of the Granville Bastion, located at the highly visible and vulnerable southeast corner of the walled city, was uncovered in 1925, during remodeling and expansion of the Missroon House at 40 East Bay Street. The architects found brick walls laid in English bond, located at approximately one foot below street level, that extended into the ground some fourteen feet. The exterior face of the bastion sloped out toward the water one inch to the vertical foot.  Five feet wide at the present top, the thickness at the base of the bastion walls ranges between six and seven feet across.  The foundation of the Granville Bastion was excavated and was described as a grillage or raft foundation.

Excavations below the Old Exchange Building in 1965 yielded up the physical remains of the Half Moon Battery.  The construction of this defensive work matches that of the Granville Bastion with its English bond brickwork and grillage foundation. Curving gracefully out to the water, a portion of the Half Moon battery is still visible in the basement of the Old Exchange Building; the only place the public can view the fortifications. 

In 2008 and 2009, professional archaeological excavations were conducted at the present day intersection of East Bay Street and South Adger's Wharf (foot of Tradd Street). This excavation uncovered one of the three brick redans that fronted the harbor. The redan with its compliment of five to seven cannons was located along the curtain line between Granville Bastion and the Half Moon Battery. The Tradd Street Redan was also laid in English bond and was approximately three feet thick.  By the mid-18th century, the redan and the other brick defenses became increasingly landlocked as active landfilling along the water's edge pushed east. 

The northern, western, and southern walls of the early walled city have proven more elusive to historians and archaeologists.  No descriptions have been found in the colonial record attesting to their construction or materials, however, evidence points to a material other than brick. The use of brick for the three landward walls would have been costly and unnecessary.  Earthen construction seems to have been the most likely choice.

Once a ditch or entrenchment had been dug, the excavated material could then be used to construct walls that likely rose in height from seven to ten feet.  Therefore, in one action, workers could construct walls and a moat.  An added advantage to this system of earthen walls was that, when no longer needed, the earth could be pushed back into the moat or ditch. This method for removal of the walls, unfortunately, left little evidence in the soil for future archaeologists. 

Archaeologists have found some evidence of timber framing and piling on the landward sides. Four cedar posts, likely associated with the drawbridge, were discovered in 1999 below the Charleston County Courthouse at the intersection of Meeting and Broad streets.

The only above-ground portion of the city’s earliest defenses still visible is the Old Powder Magazine, 1713, constructed just inside the northern wall. This diminutive building was a vital part of the city’s defenses as it housed the community store of gun powder.

Even though the walls themselves are no longer visible on the landscape, understanding the early fortifications is critical to appreciating how and why the city grew and evolved over time.

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