THE SLAVE MARKET – At the time of the American Revolution this place, Charleston, South Carolina, was the richest city in the 13 colonies. Rice, indigo and slaves were the cause, slaves making the first two possible. This is a slave market, set up in 1856 because the city fathers didn’t like to see human beings bought and sold on street corners.
Bad for tourism, but good for the economy here and elsewhere. (In the musical “1776” a South Carolina delegate notes that hypocritical New Englanders profit from the Southern slave trade, ending: “Boston, Charleston, which stinketh the most?”) The old neighborhoods reveal that prosperity – blocks of elegant mansions in this town’s French Quarter. I didn’t know any other American city had a French Quarter except New Orleans. This one is much bigger and a whole lot cleaner. There’s much to see and do here, so let’s look around.
Oh, you’re wondering why we are in Charleston instead of, say, Amarillo, which is so much closer. The reason is simple: for the second straight year, readers of Conde Nast Travel named Charleston the No. 1 tourist destination in the US. The survey also ranked this place as the top travel spot on the globe. I have never heard of Conde Nast Travel, but the Charlies sure have – two different cab drivers told me about the rankings. Then I saw it plastered on the side of city buses. Then I read it in the newspaper – twice.
True Grits — One of the categories in the magazine’s rankings is restaurants. A doorman told me, above the clanging of church bells which permeates the air, “We’ve got two things here in Charleston: churches and restaurants.” There seems to be a nice little pub, mom and pop café, or elegant restaurant on every block. You like crab and shrimp and oysters? I do, and have been eating them constantly. Southern cooking? Pork and catfish, biscuits and cream gravy. And grits. I get grits with fish, with steak, with more grits. I could probably order ice cream and be asked, “Yo want grits with that?”
This is my hotel. It looks like a citadel complete with gun slits, turrets and towers, mainly because it was The Citadel – a lovely hotel made from the former military college, now moved, where Pat Conroy attended and later wrote about in, “The Lords of Discipline.” The novel chapped his fellow former cadets who shunned him, but 40 years later Conroy was awarded an honorary degree and asked to deliver the commencement address the following year.
A word of warning: I am here in the cold, crisp dead of winter – this is about as far north as Dallas – still, the French Quarter and most cafes are jammed with tourists. What’s it like when the spring gardens are in full bloom, or in the fall when the leaves turn to gold? Remember Yogi Berra’s observation: No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
Fort Sumter – People keep mispronouncing its name as sumP-ter. The fort sits on an island in the harbor and received the opening shots of the Civil War. The commander of the Confederate forces was Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who had been taught artillery tactics at West Point by Major Robert Anderson. The commander of Fort Sumter receiving all those artillery shots was Major Robert Anderson. No one was killed. Incidentally, the federal’s second-in-command was Abner Doubleday, who is credited by some with inventing baseball. He did live in Cooperstown, NY. Is that close enough?
Is there is any connection between the city of Charleston and the dance? Composer James P. Johnson wrote the song for a Broadway musical, and explained he got the characteristic beat from Charleston dockworkers. Moving on, this is the old customs house where the British held an American army colonel, Isaac Hayne, until they hanged him even though he was a POW. Sad story. There are a lot of redcoat stories around here, too. A good way to see the city for the first time is to take a carriage ride with a guide. There are Civil War tours, ghost tours and pirate tours. Pirates came here, and their real story is not at all what the movies portray. They were not all outlaws, few had peg legs or hooks for hands, and their reign only lasted a few years.
The H.L. Hunley – This is a submarine, sitting in a big tank of fresh water, mainly because it sat in salt water out in the bay for more than 136 years. It was found, then raised in 2000, and now is in rehab. H.L. Hunley came up with the idea, but most of his first crew drowned in a test. So he got a second crew, including himself, and it drowned. Somehow the Rebels got a third crew, which sank the federal warship the U.S.S. Housatonic, then, uh, the Hunley sank, again. Total Rebel loss: 21 men. But it was the first sub to sink an enemy ship, and no other submarine did that for another 50 years.
My wife and other females in our party – this is a family trip — discovered Charleston has stores. A four-block-long (very long) market called the Market. The shops accept Yankee money. The land for the market was given a few centuries ago by the Pinckney family, who did everything: signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, served in state government and Congress. A distinguished looking man approaches us on the sidewalk and asks if we like Charleston. I say yes and mention that the Pinckneys are buried in that cemetery a few feet away. Signed this and that. Philanthropists, etc. I explain it all. As he leaves, he sticks out his hand and smiles. “I’m Albert Pinckney.”
Now I am headed off to my between-meal meal. Hey, you cannot let a meal of oysters, shrimp, crab and grits with hot cornbread go uneaten. Wait. There in the café. Isn’t that Yogi Berra?
Ashby is gaining weight at firstname.lastname@example.org