A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1

Today we’re going to explore the history of a specific piece of property in urban Charleston called Marion Square. I’m sure most of you know the piece of land I’m talking about, but in case you’re new to the Lowcountry, we’ll begin with the basics.

A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1


Marion Square is a public green space in urban Charleston. It occupies more than six acres of land bounded to the south by Calhoun Street, to the west by King Street, and to the east by Meeting Street. The northern boundary of the square is the old Citadel building, formerly the home of the South Carolina Military Academy, but now a fancy hotel. Like all good public green spaces, or commons, Marion Square is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Today you’ll find a weekly farmers’ market thronged with customers, sunbathers from the College of Charleston, locals and tourists enjoying the views and the shade, and also a fair share of our local inveterate inebriates looking for a handout. During the course of the year the park hosts a number of seasonal events such as the Spoleto Festival, Fashion Week, Food and Wine Week, and the like, each of which requires the erection of a number of temporary tents. Despite all this activity, the City of Charleston’s Parks Department does a fine job of keeping the grass, trees, and shrubbery looking its best, and Marion Square is really a public amenity that the city and the community can be proud of, and it really is a “people’s park.” But this hasn’t always been the case.

The urban success story that is Marion Square today is the result of many generations of work. Over the past 260 years the site has been used for a variety of purposes—military, political, and recreational—and it has endured periods of neglect and abuse. There is also a curious vestige of the past hanging over the very existence, the concept of Marion Square: it’s a wonderful city park that the city of Charleston does not own. That’s right—Marion Square is, technically speaking, not city property, and hasn’t been since our City Council sold the property in 1833. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s set our time machine back three hundred years and start from the beginning of this colorful story.

If you look at a map of downtown Charleston, you’ll notice that Marion Square is located nearly in the center of the peninsula, and some folks even describe it as Charleston’s own tiny Central Park. In the early days of this town, however, the site of Marion Square was located outside of Charleston, about one-third of a mile north of the town. The northern boundary of the original town plan, created around the year 1672, was a line across the peninsula marked today by what we call Beaufain and Hasell Streets. The site now known as Marion Square was a forest when Europeans began settling on the peninsula in the 1670s, and there was only one road, called the Broad Path, now King Street, that cut through the forest to connect the town with the countryside. In the first half of the eighteenth century the Wragg family acquired a large swath of land on the east side of the Broad Path, and today this area is still known as Wraggborough. During the colonial era the Wraggs probably cleared some or most of the trees from the area, which they probably used as farm land and pasture. No details about how that land was being used survive from the early eighteenth century, but we can image that it was a quiet, bucolic scene outside the town but bordered by the busy highway leading to the countryside.

The little town of Charleston, located a third of a mile south of the Wragg family’s farm, was a heavily fortified settlement in the early 1700s. Throughout South Carolina’s colonial era, the constant threat of invasion by Spanish or French forces induced the provincial government to spend large sums of money on building walls and moats around Charleston, our capital. Most of these fortifications were not permanent and static, but rather they were mostly temporary field works designed to last through periods of war. As eras of peace and war waxed and waned, and as the population of urban Charleston increased, the fortifications gradually inched their way northward and westward to include more and more of the peninsula. In 1703, the town’s northern defensive wall and moat was located approximately where Cumberland Street is today. In the early 1740s, during the War of Jenkin’s Ear, South Carolina’s legislature paid for the construction of a new earthen wall and moat along the lines of what today is Market Street and Beaufain Street. Between 1745 and 1757, the only land entrance to the town was through a gate located where the Broad Path intersected with the new fortifications, which today is the intersection of King and Market Streets.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear officially ended in late 1748, and all of Charleston relaxed. The town’s population was increasing and urban development rapidly moved north of the old town lines, outside of the most recent line of fortifications. George Anson’s land, located east of the Broad Path, between modern Society Street and Calhoun Street, was subdivided into building lots that quickly became known as the suburb of Ansonborough. After less than ten years of peace, however, Britain and her American colonies were at war again with France and Spain. In late 1756 the South Carolina government began planning new fortifications to defend its capital, and in 1757 a royal engineer arrived in town to plan new defensive works for Charleston.

In the second half of 1757, Lt. Emanuel Hess, or Hesse, designed a new fortification to guard the land entrance into Charleston. Drawing from the conventions of European military architecture, he proposed to straddle the Broad Path into town with a Horn Work, a large fortification with a drawbridge and gate in the center, flanked by a pair of demi-bastions pointing away from the town that resembled the two horns of a bull. Lt. Hess proposed to locate this Horn Work some distance from the town, just north of the new neighborhood of Ansonborough, on the highest point of land on the peninsula. The site was owned by the heirs of Joseph Wragg, however, so agents of the provincial legislature negotiated to purchase the necessary land. Construction of the Horn Work commenced in the autumn of 1757, and the sale of the land was concluded in 1758. To facilitate this fortification project, Peter Manigault sold 6.25 acres located on the west side of the Broad Path and John Wragg sold to the government 8.75 acres located on the east side of the Broad Path (King Street). Actually, through a surveyor’s mistake, the government took just over ten acres of John Wragg’s property, not 8.75 acres, which led to a dispute between the two parties in the late 1790s. But I digress. . . .

Joseph Purcell's 1798 plat of the public land that became "Marion Square" and "the Citadel" (from the collections of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History)

Joseph Purcell’s 1798 plat of the public land that became “Marion Square” and “the Citadel” (from the collections of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History)

The principal material used in the construction of the Horn Work was tabby, a cement made from lime, sand, water, and oyster shells. Its walls were filled with earth excavated to create a broad moat around the north, east, and west sides of the fortification. The front line or curtain of the fort straddled the Broad Path (King Street) at a point approximately 280 feet north of modern Calhoun Street. From the gate in the center of the street, the two bastions extended more than 300 feet to the east and to the west, and the entire fortification encompassed an area of approximately ten acres. The eastern half of the Horn Work covered at least half of what is now Marion Square. It was a massive construction project that continued for nearly two years before it was cancelled. By 1759 it was clear that the threat of Charleston being invaded by French forces had disappeared, and so our government shifted military resources from Charleston to the western backcountry of South Carolina, where we were waging war against the Cherokee. When work ceased in 1759, the Horn Work was unfinished but functional, and everyone passing in and out of urban Charleston traversed its moat, drawbridge, and gate for the next thirty-odd years.

The war against the French, Indians, and Spanish formally ended in 1763, and Charleston entered an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. The post-war economy boomed and the town’s growing population pushed northward with new development projects like Harleston Green on the Ashley River and Hampstead Village on the Cooper River. Responding to these developments and the need for more infrastructure, in late 1769 the South Carolina legislature pushed the boundary of Charleston a bit northward and created and new street to mark the line, called Boundary Street. The new street, which we call Calhoun Street today, stretched across the peninsula from east to west and formed the southern boundary of the Horn Work and the property purchased from the Manigault and Wragg families for its construction.

At the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, the rebel government of South Carolina immediately began building new fortifications around Charleston and repairing the old works. Harbor defenses on the islands came first, then waterfront defenses in the town, and finally the fortifications on the north or back side of the town. When a British force under General Augustine Prevost landed on Charleston Neck in May 1779, South Carolina soldiers scrambled to improve the unfinished defensive works around the Horn Work. Realizing that it was only a matter of time before a larger enemy force besieged the town, the government threw more resources at the Horn Work and neighboring defenses in the latter part of 1779 and early 1780. By the time British soldiers again appeared on Charleston Neck in late March 1780, the Americans had constructed a robust zig-zag line of fortification stretching from the Ashley River on the west to the Cooper River on the east. The Horn Work, rising nearly thirty feet high from the bottom of its moat, stood as the geographic and tactical center point of the American defenses. By April of 1780, laborers finally completed the south or back wall of the Horn Work, which actually encompassed a portion of Boundary or Calhoun Street. The memoirs of eye witnesses like William Moultrie and Banastre Tarleton describe this change as forming “a kind of citadel,” which would form the last line of defense in case British soldiers broke through the American lines. After six weeks of punishing bombardment, and after a series of hot-tempered debates held within the Horn Work, the American commanders opted to seek terms of peace. On 12 May 1780 nearly six thousand American soldiers marched out of the Horn Work and surrendered to the British army, which filed into the town through the gate of the tabby fortress.

From its beginnings in 1680 through the American Revolution, Charleston was an unincorporated town that served as the capital of South Carolina. The various fortifications erected around Charleston were financed and owned by the state government as public property. After the end of the American Revolution, and following the legal incorporation of the City of Charleston in August 1783, the newly-formed City Council negotiated with the state government to take possession of some of the urban fortifications. The Horn Work was technically outside the city limit (Boundary Street), but the state ceded old tabby fortification to the City Council. Since the fortification impeded the flow of traffic in and out of the city, the city paid laborers to demolish most of the Horn Work in 1784, although some remnants of its gate and curtain wall remained standing for many more years. Immediately after the demolition of the tabby Horn Work, the city began to subdivide the site into a number of building lots on the east and west sides of King Street, just north of Boundary Street. The city also created a short passageway called Lowndes Street, which ran north-south through the center of what is now Marion Square. Starting in late 1784 the City Council was offering long-term leases on these lots, but within a generation the city actually sold a few of the lots to the highest bidder.

In late 1785 the city began negotiating with property owners to extend Meeting Street northward of Boundary Street, and by 1786 the newly extended street formed the eastern boundary of what we now call Marion Square. At the same time, a large new building popped up at the northeast corner of King and Boundary Street and started a social controversy. The building, christened “Harmony Hall” in the summer of 1786, offered a variety of entertainments including theater, ballet, and concerts that drew a motley crowd eager for a good time after years of war. A riot at this venue in November 1786 induced the state legislature to pass a law prohibiting theatrical entertainments in the spring of 1787, and so the wooden building briefly known as Harmony Hall faded into obscurity.

South Carolina’s economy was struggling to recover after the American Revolution, so our legislature undertook a variety of measures to stimulate growth and diversification. In an effort to grow of a state tobacco industry, the legislature decided to erect a centralized facility where locally-grown tobacco could be inspected and stored prior to exportation. Accordingly, in 1789 the state purchased one and half acres of land from the City of Charleston, being the northeastern-most part of the old Horn Work property, “for the purpose of erecting a ware house or warehouses for the reception and inspection of tobacco, which said land shall be and continue forever for the sole use of inspection and storing of tobacco.” The property in question spanned the distance between Meeting and King Streets, north of a new street called Tobacco Street and south of a new street called Hutson Street. At the same time, the legislature confirmed that this property, and all of the land under the old Horn Work, was located within the corporate limits of the City of Charleston.

Meanwhile, the population of Charleston continued to grow and development pushed north of Boundary Street. In order to provide adequate protection to people living on the northern edge of the city, in 1804 the city created a special detachment of the traditional City Guard, the precursor to our modern police department, to patrol the area around Boundary Street every night. Since the main guard house was located on Broad Street, in the southern part of the city, the new Picquet (or Picket) Guard, as this detachment was called, needed their own facility. Between 1805 and 1806 the city constructed a Picquet Guard House, a sort of police substation, on the west side of Meeting Street, within the modern boundaries of Marion Square. The Picquet Guard protected the citizens who lived near the south side of Boundary Street, but they had no jurisdiction in the unincorporated area to the north, called Charleston Neck. In the wake of the Denmark Vesey affair in the summer of 1822, however, things began to change.

Denmark Vesey was accused of plotting a race war in which enslaved men and free men of color would rise up to murder the white population. Most of the conspirators who were arrested in 1822 resided on the unincorporated, somewhat lawless area of the Neck, and so the state of South Carolina sought the means to deter any future insurrections. At the end of 1822, the state legislature ordered the creation of a municipal guard to patrol the neck, and the construction of a large guard house and arsenal on the state-owned site of the tobacco inspection facility. The building was completed in 1829 and was first occupied by United States Army troops on loan from Fort Moultrie. Starting in December 1832, South Carolina militiamen and state arsenal guards occupied the new facility and patrolled the unincorporated area of the Neck.

By the 1830s, Charleston had become a densely populated city. The local militia, which was more active here than in the northern states, needed space within the city limits to muster so hundreds of men at a time could practice their military drills. After months of negotiations, in August of 1833 the City Council of Charleston entered into a landmark real estate agreement with the Field Officers of the Fourth (or Charleston) Brigade of the South Carolina Militia. According to their agreement, the city of Charleston transferred to the militia the ownership of a six-acre rectangle of land bounded by King, Calhoun, Meeting, and Tobacco Streets, in front of the Municipal Guard House. The city conveyed this land to the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade in trust, however, on condition that they would clear away the existing structures from the site, when their leases expired, and use the property as a military parade ground and public mall in perpetuity. This was a major step toward the creation of the park that we call Marion Square today, but in 1833 the modern park was still a distant dream. In the immediate aftermath of the City’s bargain with the militia, the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade did very little with the property. In fact, the City of Charleston stepped on their toes a bit in 1835 by moving the city’s Picquet Guard House from the west side of Meeting Street to the east side of King Street, where they erected a new brick guard house just a few yards north of Boundary Street.

Although the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade did little to improve their new parade ground in the late 1830s, the military spirit continued to flourish in South Carolina. In late 1842 the state legislature authorized the creation of a new institution in Charleston called the South Carolina Military Academy, and allowed that institution to occupy the state-owned arsenal and guard house, which by then was commonly called “the Citadel.” The South Carolina Military Academy formally opened in 1843, but from its earliest days it was commonly called the Citadel Academy, or just the Citadel. The school’s military cadets needed a parade ground, of course, so the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade allowed the Citadel students free use of what became known as “Citadel Square,” in front of the school, for military training.

Between the opening of the Citadel Academy in 1843 and the end of the Civil War, the parade ground, formerly the site of the colonial-era Horn Work, changed little. A few buildings still stood on the west side of the square, along King Street, but the rest of the ground was clear, flat, hard-packed dirt. Despite this fact, the site was sometimes called the Citadel Green. The narrow passageway called Lowndes Street still bisected the lot, providing access from Boundary Street through the parade ground to the main entrance of the Citadel. At the beginning of the year 1850 the City of Charleston annexed the area traditionally known as the Neck, and Boundary Street, created in 1769, ceased to be the city’s northern limit. A few months after the beginning of the annexation, South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun died, and so old Boundary Street was officially renamed Calhoun Street in the middle of 1850. In the late 1850s, several travelling circuses occupied Citadel Square for their temporary exhibitions, which always attracted a large, rowdy crowd.

During the Civil War, South Carolina troops paraded and drilled on Citadel Square, but the winds of war did little to alter the condition of the property. In the spring of 1865, however, the history of the park known as Marion Square took a dramatic turn. The Confederate troops guarding Charleston during the Civil War evacuated the city in late February 1865, and soldiers of the U.S. Army quickly moved in. They found the Citadel and its parade ground abandoned, and so the site that had become the heart of South Carolina’s military culture was immediately occupied by Union troops.

The year 1865 was indeed a turning point in the history of Citadel Square, and for the city of Charleston in general, so this seems like a logical place to put a bookmark in our story. Join me next week for the rest of the story, when the parade ground known as Citadel Square officially becomes Marion Square, and when this traditionally military site gradually, but eventually, becomes Charleston’s central park.