Two hundred years ago this September, the citizens of Charleston feared for the very survival of their community. Marauding British forces had just plundered and burned Washington, the nation’s capital, and had laid siege to the port of Baltimore. The Royal Navy was working its way down the eastern seaboard of the United States, and it seemed logical to conclude that the rich and strategically important port city of Charleston might be their next military target. So how did our young Federal government respond? It tersely encouraged the citizens of Charleston to make their best possible defense, and informed them not to expect assistance from the United States.
Ignoring, for the moment, the political fallout of that audacious statement, we turn our historical attention to the home front. The courageous citizens of Charleston immediately began building new defensive fortifications, but not along the city’s extensive commercial waterfront. Recalling the lessons learned during the British siege of the city in the spring of 1780, they instead commenced building a zig-zag wall and moat across the “neck” of the peninsula, cutting through a swath of land stretching approximately half a mile long, from the Cooper to the Ashley River. Thousands of citizens—black and white, slave and free, male and female—labored shoulder to shoulder for nearly six months to construct a robust barrier to defend their homes. For many years after the perilous autumn of 1814, these hastily-built fortifications were known as “The Lines” of Charleston.
The line of fortifications erected in late 1814 appears between Sheppard and Line Streets in this detail from an 1823 plat by Robert K. Payne at the Charleston Archive at CCPL.
Looking back through the lens of time, it is easy for us to ignore the efforts and emotions that occupied Charleston in 1814. We know that the British did not attack Charleston during what we now call “The War of 1812,” and we know that the war was effectively over by coming of the new year in 1815. As the years passed, “The Lines” were transformed into “Line Street,” and the costly fortifications were razed and built over. Generations of Charlestonians have forgotten the dramatic origin of our humble Line Street, and many inhabitants now imagine that the street once marked the city’s northern boundary in some distant age. Not so.
The name of Line Street is a vestige of a turbulent but forgotten chapter of Charleston’s history, and is worthy of our attention. It was here, at “the lines,” that Denmark Vesey and dozens of other hastily-tried slaves and free persons of color were executed in the summer of 1822. Three years later, the citizens of Charleston and our militia joyfully received the visiting Marquis de Lafayette “at the lines,” which were located nearly half a mile “without the city.” It was the brickwork of “the lines” that were dismantled in the late 1820s to provide building materials for a new arsenal just north of Charleston’s Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street). Yes, that’s right—nearly a million bricks, cleaned and removed from “the lines,” were used to build the original structure for the South Carolina Military College, better known as The Citadel.
By the year 1850, when the city of Charleston annexed “the Neck” (all of the land between Calhoun and Mt. Pleasant Streets), the memory of the War of 1812 and the fears of 1814 were growing dim. Small vestiges of the defensive works appear on maps of the city published in 1852 and 1872, but nothing of them remains above ground today. Nevertheless, the fears and labors that gave birth to “The Lines” in September 1814 constitute a significant episode in our city’s long and colorful history, and I encourage all carolophiles (if I may coin a term for us Charleston-lovers) to learn more about this topic. If you’re curious (and I hope you are), then please join me next week for a program titled:
“The Bicentennial of Charleston’s
Line Street, 1814–2014″
Time: Wednesday September 10th 2014 at 6 p.m.
Place: 2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library , 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.
For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.