The Big Memory Loss of 1865

This week in Charleston there will be much a-do about the 150th anniversary of the re-raising of the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter—a dramatic event on 14 April 1865 that officially marked the end of the Civil War for our community. While the press is busy covering that broad story, I’d like to take this opportunity to draw attention to a smaller, overlooked story that took place in the shadows of that historic event of mid-April 1865 and forever altered the collective memory of Charleston. I’m talking about the looting of the city by both military and civilian visitors.

As a word of preface, I should mention how my point differs from two other stories that have made recent headlines. Much ink has been spilled on the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina, under Union occupation in February 1865, but I’ll let others tell that story. In his recent book, Stolen Charleston: The Spoils of War, Grahame Long also examines the looting of art, jewelry, furniture, and other material objects from local plantations during the Civil War. My focus, however, is on paper documents—letters, ledgers, and unique manuscript records of all description.

A U.S.C.T. soldier stands guard at the Charleston Orphan House in 1865.

A U.S.C.T. soldier guards the Charleston Orphan House in 1865 (image from Library of Congress).

United States military forces occupied Charleston on 18 February 1865, just hours after Confederate forces fled the peninsular city. After a year and a half of shelling from Union cannon on James and Morris Islands, Charleston was nearly a ghost town. The Confederate army had ordered non-combatants to evacuate in 1863, and the city’s sparse remaining population consisted largely of soldiers, laborers, and “servants” who were left to guard their exiled masters’ homes. The great fire of 11 December 1861 had left a diagonal swath of charred rubble across the city, and the impact of Union artillery shells had peppered both residential and commercial neighborhoods.

Into this wasteland entered several thousand embittered Union soldiers who camped around the city and occupied public buildings that were transformed into makeshift barracks. Among these men were members of the recently-formed United States Colored Troops, former slaves who had joined the U.S. Army as it liberated plantations of the South Carolina lowcountry. Most of these “colored” soldiers were lodged in the Charleston Orphan House, the usual residents of which had removed to Orangeburg during the bombardment of the city. In the last fourteen months of the war, Charleston’s municipal government had used the Orphan House as its meeting place and records repository, out of range of the Union artillery. Despite having been saved from the havoc caused by the big guns, the bulk of the city’s antebellum municipal records disappeared from the Orphan House in the spring of 1865 and were never seen again. One can only imagine that these priceless papers went up in cooking fires and down in latrines.

Raising the U.S. flag at Fort Sumter, 14 April 1865 (image from the Library of Congress).

Raising the U.S. flag at Fort Sumter, 14 April 1865 (image from the Library of Congress).

Following the capture of Charleston in February 1865, the United States government was determined to created a public-relations extravaganza to mark the conclusion of the war at the site where it had begun. The date of 14 April 1865 was announced for a grand celebration of the re-raising of the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter, where Federal troops had lowered the same flag four years earlier after being bombarded by rebellious South Carolina troops. Military leaders, Federal officials, and civilian dignitaries were invited to mark the occasion, and thousands of northern tourists journeyed southward to both witness the historic event and to see for themselves the storied ruins of the once-great Charleston.

For example, one group of 200 civilian tourists, a bold delegation from Brooklyn, New York, chartered the steamship Oceanus and set out on 10 April 1865. During their week-long adventure, they toured the tattered sites of Charleston, witnessed the official flag-raising ceremony at Fort Sumter, and helped themselves to paper records as souvenirs of the old regime. How do we know about this episode? Because the passengers of the Oceanus were bold enough to publish later that year a narrative of their exploits, titled The Trip of the Steamer Oceanus to Fort Sumter and Charleston, S.C., Comprising the Incidents of the Excursion, the Appearance, at that time, of the City, and the entire Programme of Exercises at the Re-raising of the Flag over the Ruins of Fort Sumter, April 14th, 1865.

The Steamer Oceanus in Charleston, 1865

The Steamer Oceanus in Charleston, 1865

In their narrative, composed by “a committee appointed by the passengers,” the Brooklyn tourists describe “exploring” private residences, banks, auction houses, commercial buildings, and public buildings throughout Charleston, and taking away “ancient and curious documents” that formed “valuable acquisitions” and mementos of their journey.

Title page of the narrative, from the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

Title page of the narrative, from the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

This seemingly harmless pilfering, carried out by masses of tourists in the spring of 1865, was actually a great loss for our community. Thousands of manuscript documents, containing unique information about the people and places of Charleston, were either destroyed or migrated northward to clandestine destinations. As a result of these actions, and similar episodes at plantations throughout the lowcountry, we are left with numerous blind spots (what academics call lacunae) in our history that can never be filled. Nearly all of the public records of the municipal government of Charleston, 1783–1864, disappeared without a trace. The corporate records of dozens of private organizations and institutions, such as our St. Cecilia Society (the first musical organization in America), the Société Française de Bienfaisance, and the Planters and Mechanics Bank, to name a few, also mysteriously vanished. The looting tourists especially relished documents relating to slavery, the evil system that perished in 1865. While the practice of buying and selling human beings was indeed horrible, the lost documents recording such transactions would now be invaluable to thousands of African Americans attempting to reconstruct their family history.

Without such written records, we are left with a fractured narrative of the history of Charleston. There are many questions that will forever remain unanswered, and many valuable stories that have been lost. In Charleston today, tourism is an important industry predicated on telling our city’s colorful stories, but most people here are unaware how this valuable economic venture was handicapped by the looting that took place in the spring of 1865.

My goal here is two-fold: first, to raise awareness among Charleston’s tour guides and citizens of the great memory loss of 1865, and second, to spread the word about the post-war northward migration of valuable records from Charleston, in the hopes that some surviving records now hidden in attics and cellars north of the Mason-Dixon line might someday return to Charleston. If you share this hope, please spread the word, and let’s all look in our cupboards and closets for those lost paper treasures.

If you’d like to hear more about this story, please join me for a lecture titled

“Looting Charleston in the Spring of 1865”

Wednesday, 15 April 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 20401

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968