(from the “On-A-Little-Vacation” file…)
The sun rose high over Colonial Lake through the crisp, semi-tropical-winter air, dappling the reflecting-pool waters. Orange light warmed the bricks and stones of Broad Street. Beyond the austere statue of William Moultrie in the Battery’s White Point Garden, James Island saluted from across the Ashley River.
The Gibbes Museum of Art has a gallery of 18th-century Charleston portraits and furniture. The wall placard refers to “the abhorrent economic system” that built this stylish little peninsular metropolis. On the cobblestones around the 250-year-old Customs House, your blood runs cold imagining manacled men and women bought and sold on this spot.
In the distance, Fort Sumter reigns, like a ghost king, over this whole little watery realm. Yes, the 2005 Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River asserts the 21st century, jutting a pair of concrete tire-jack colossi into the sky. And on the suburban bank of the river, the USS Yorktown evokes the 20th century.
But, in my mind, Charleston belongs to Mary Chesnut and the 19th century. Here’s a selection from her diary, April 12, 1861:
Anderson will not capitulate…I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.
There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting…I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?
The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene…