City Directories and History: The Great Fire of 1861
For many years, a fire watchman had been posted in St. Michael’s steeple. His job was to hang a red lantern if he observed smoke or signs of fire. The night of December 11th was warm and pleasant for that time of year. Suddenly, Charleston residents spotted the ominous red lantern, a grim portent of things to come. The disaster started innocently enough. A seemingly unimportant fire broke out in Ruzel & Co.’s window and sash factory at East Bay and Hasell Streets. As the wind picked up, the fire quickly crossed the street to Cameron & Company’s machine shops. By the time news spread, wind-fanned flames were already heading in a southwesterly course across Ansonborough, down Meeting Street and making a path between Queen and Broad Streets.
Twenty-two engines and eleven companies responded to the fire that night, but with many of their experienced firefighters in uniform, ranks had been greatly reduced. (In 1861, the South Carolina Assembly had exempted Charleston’s firemen from military service, but in spite of this, many firefighters were among the first to volunteer.) To make matters worse, with so many men away, the tidal drains that supplied water were clogged due to lack of maintenance.
Fearing that a new steam fire engine would destroy the esprit de corps of the volunteers, Fire Chief Moses Henry Nathan and the board of firemasters had lobbied against the city’s using them in Charleston’s Volunteer Fire Department. (Mid-nineteenth century volunteer firefighters had traditionally used hand-pump fire engines and often sang to keep time as they pumped.) During the fire, the controversial steam pump was put into service and helped compensate for the reduced manpower.
The Pinckney house at East Bay and Market Streets was one of the first to go. Luckily, its contents and elderly Harriott Pinckney were saved by a relative, Captain John Rutledge, and the crew of the Lady Davis. Rutledge took her to his Tradd Street residence, but it, too, soon succumbed to the flames.
General Ripley’s men were able to quell the flames at the Catholic Orphan House, but nobody could save St. John’s and St. Finbar’s Cathedral nearby. Located on the corner of Broad and Legare Streets, it had been completed only eight years earlier. A showplace, it was crowned with a gold cross that stood 285 feet in the air. The Charleston Courier wrote its obituary: “All of a sudden it was announced that beautiful architectural structure, St. John’s and St. Finbar’s Cathedral was in flames. The pride of that portion of our city was doomed to destruction, and its beautiful spire soon fell with a terrific crash, sounding high above the noise of the devouring flames.” Residents living near the cathedral had believed it was fireproof and moved their belongings into the church. But all was lost, for the cathedral’s insurance policy had expired the week before the fire and had not yet been renewed.
Robert E. Lee and his staff had climbed to the roof of the Mills House to witness the devastating inferno. When they returned to the hotel’s parlor, they found a group of ladies and their babies preparing to leave. Lee took one baby and another officer took the other, and they hastily exited through the cellar into the smoky chaos outside. Lee and his men were taken to the house of Charles Alston at 21 East Battery. Miraculously, the Mills House was saved by the staff who used wet blankets to smother the sparks and embers that blew onto the roof and window ledges.[i]
The fire continued to burn until it ran out of fuel near the Ashley River. Throughout the pandemonium, vehicles of every description carried away the effects of those fleeing the southwestern part of the city.
By the next day, dire tales circulated about the homeless and the loss of Charleston’s iconic buildings: Institute Hall on Meeting Street, the Charleston Theatre on King Street and St. Andrew’s Hall on Broad. Five churches and six hundred private homes were also destroyed. Although no lives were lost, real estate losses were staggering. The fire had consumed 540 acres with estimated damages of $7 million. The overwhelming destruction forced all but one insurance company into bankruptcy. [ii]
Most of the working people lost everything, causing thousands to roam the streets. Children from the Orphan House were billeted above Aimar’s Drug Store at King and Wentworth Streets; the German Friendly Society donated its building to students who had lost their school. Mayor Charles Macbeth asked those who had not lost property to donate food, clothing and shelter to those who were displaced. The response was heartening. A relief center was set up at the Confederate courthouse, and area planters donated food. Some military companies donated their pay to alleviate the suffering. An extra train loaded with supplies arrived from Augusta. In the confusion, the overtaxed military advised the removal of homeless noncombatants from Charleston, although only a few left.[iii]
By Christmastime, needs in the city were so great that Lee was dismayed to find only 310 of General DeSassaure’s troops were actually on duty. Many had gone home to spend Christmas with their families; others had wanted to do what they could to help after the catastrophic fire.[iv]
Where aid from across the nation had poured into Charleston after the disastrous fire of 1837, the mood in the North was different now. The New York Herald commented that the fire must have been divine retribution and expressed the hope that it was an omen that foretold ruin of the rebellion. The article described the devastation caustically:
Institute Hall—where the Democratic Convention was held, which split the party and split the nation; the theatre—to which the secessionists retired to hold a separate convention; the Charleston Hotel and the Mills House—where the warring factions respectively held their headquarters; St. Andrew’s Hall—where the secession ordinance was passed; the cannon and ammunition foundries, the treason shops of the Mercury and Courier, and the headquarters of Governor Pickens—have all been laid in ashes.
The December 28 Harper’s Weekly opined that “Whatever the politicians and the papers may say, the Southern people from Norfolk to Galveston are sure to conclude that the negroes did the dread deed, and each man and woman is now quaking in terror lest his or her house should be the next to go.”
Locals knew better. According to Lizzie Frost, “A good many persons think [the fire] was helped by the negroes and some think Yankee emissaries, but the fire took a very natural direction, following the course of the wind entirely—most of the negroes behaved admirably, our own servants and those of the neighborhood were untiring in their efforts to save everything, and to do all they could for us.” [v] (The fire’s origins are thought to have been caused by a cookfire in a vacant lot that was used by slaves who accompanied the Sea Island refugees.)
In the aftermath of the fire, Fire Chief Nathan established a fire-alarm telegraph system that helped firefighters locate fires more accurately. This eliminated the need for a watchman in St. Michael’s steeple. (This was the fifth fire-telegraph system in the nation. It became a casualty of war that was not reestablished until Reconstruction.)
Some years later, a reflective Chief Nathan wrote: “It would seem that the hand of Providence intended this misfortune, for had not the fire happened many lives would have been lost in the bombardment of the city by the cursed Yankees, for thousands of their shells fell harmlessly in the burnt district which otherwise would have fell into the homes but for the fire.”[vi]
Today it is recognized that with so many white volunteer firefighters bearing arms, it was the free blacks who put out the fires caused by the Union bombardment during the siege and saved Charleston’s remaining buildings from utter destruction. (Written and contributed to R&R, courtesy of historian and writer, Peg R. Eastman – 2016)
Other resources: Charleston Tax Payers of Charleston, SC in 1860-61, Dwelling Houses of Charleston by Alice R.H. Smith – 1917, Charleston 1861 Census Schedule, 1844 Map of Charleston, and a 1872 Bird’s Eye View of Charleston, S.C. The Hist. Charleston Foundation may also have additional data at: Past Perfect
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