My Trip to Charleston Exploring History

My wife and I attended a wedding in Charleston last weekend. Charleston is my favorite small city in America. It’s unlike any other. It’s as if a small prosperous 18th century city in Europe was towed over here and plopped down oceanfront in South Carolina.
Actually, that’s about what happened. It was founded in 1670 and by 1770—this was before the revolution—the British had built it into the fourth biggest port city in the United States. Big exports were rice and cotton. Charleston enjoyed high prosperity during the pre-Civil War years, thanks in particular to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Then, on April 12, 1861, the city was the site of the first battle of the Civil War, as Confederate troops under the command of General G. T. Beauregard fired on the Union-occupied Fort Sumter. During the Postbellum Era, after the defeat of the Confederacy, Charleston saw a rapid decline in its economy, as the city was marred by social turmoil during Reconstruction. Adding to the city’s decline was the massive earthquake of 1886. Measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, the earthquake destroyed or damaged many of the buildings. Today, the mark of a pre-1886 building is a metal bracket or bolt on the exterior that was added to unstable structures to keep them from collapsing. An old saw about Charleston is that the rich were too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash, and so southern mansions, churches, British colonial institutions and cobblestone streets still stand in various conditions.
Tours are given through the city’s narrow streets these days by carriages pulled by horses. I’ve been here four times. For the first two times, the carriage rides were in place. The third time I was here, which was 10 years ago, there were no carriage rides. They had been banned. The horses pooped and peed. Couldn’t have that anymore, the great and gracious Charleston homeowners said. It smells up our neighborhood.
Now they are back, and there is a message in it for any municipality about how people work together. They’ve come up with a solution that satisfies everybody.
Here’s how the carriage rides work. The horse is in the front. There is a bag for his poop that is under his tail. That is the easy part. The hard part was what to do when the horse pees. Here’s how our guide, a young woman, delicately handled the problem.
If the horse pees, she hears it. She has a basket on the seat up front next to her which has in it rubber badminton balls with the letter P on them. She picks out a ball and tosses it over the side. Horse peed here, it announces.
Now here’s the thing. There is a city-owned truck which has a hose on the back attached to a big tank of soapy water. A man drives around on the routes of the tours and, when he comes upon a ball, he stops, gets out, and hoses it down with everything going down the sewer. We were behind one of these trucks for part of our one-hour tour. Fascinating.
There was then one other problem. How to control where the horse and carriages tow the tourists? You had to have specific routes if the soapy water truck was to work. You couldn’t pay to have soapy water trucks go everywhere.
Here’s how they solved that. All the carriages are down by the water in the center of town next to the city market (They changed the name from “slave market” in 1949). You climb aboard a carriage and the guide shakes the reins and the horses move everything forward to a little government booth with a uniformed officer inside by the side of the road. Out in front of this booth, on a bench, is a metal box that is an exact replica of a State Lottery ping pong ball box where all the balls jump around and then one ping pong ball pops up into a place. In this case, all the balls are numbered 1, 2 or 3 for the three routes. The officer activates the box, which jiggles the balls around, and then one pops up. In our case it was number 3. Then, the uniformed officer comes outside with a license plate with the number 3 on it and attaches it to the back of the carriage. You are now officially licensed and you are going on Tour 3.
“Only thing they haven’t quite figured out,” our guide said as the plate was being affixed, “is how to keep from having to do the same tour over and over and over.”
Perhaps Sag Harbor could learn something from this information. Perhaps not.
Charleston is a city of churches, docks, mansions, colleges and military installations. Much of it concerns the Revolution and the Civil War. Outside one building is a plaque with the headline DISSOLVED. In the building, the sign says, the government of South Carolina voted to dissolve the Union in 1860. They were the first state to do so.
On our tour, we passed a lot of signs on front lawns that simply said JOE. I asked the guide about them.
“Joe is our Mayor. He’s running for re-election again.”
She told me Joseph P. Riley had been Mayor for 31 years. “It’s the only job he’s ever had,” she said.
One day, we went out to tour the aircraft carrier Yorktown, which is tied up along a shore a few miles away at Patriots Point. I knew from my history that the Yorktown had been sunk at the Battle of Midway in 1942 at the beginning of World War II. I was curious what this was. What I didn’t know was that a second Yorktown was built and in operation in the Pacific Ocean about 17 months after the first one was sunk. It served through the majority of that war and saw much action.
As we approached the long gangplank that went out to this carrier, I saw at the foot of it what appeared to be a company of soldiers in camouflage uniforms standing at attention in 10 rows of ten. There was a sergeant issuing them orders.
As we got closer, I realized that all these soldiers were about 11 years old. I learned they would be sleeping aboard the carrier and were getting their final instructions. It was some sort of program offered by the military. I have rarely seen 11-year-olds so focused, so serious and so excited standing at attention there. Charleston, it turns out, starts kids out young for military careers. (The Citadel military academy is in Charleston.)
We entered the carrier in the aircraft bay below decks. About 80 aircraft could be stored there and then brought up by elevator to the open-air deck above for launch when needed. But, for this exhibit, practically all the planes below deck were propeller fighter planes from the Second World War—most notably Hellcats and Wildcats, both built by Grumman Aviation here on Long Island. They were the masters of the Japanese Zeros and helped shorten the war.
There was also an exhibit in this below deck aircraft hangar for training pilots—an aircraft simulator—that 15 people could climb into and bounce around as it zigged and zagged on its steel legs. While I stared at it trying to decide if I wanted to do that—eventually I decided it would make me seasick—my wife went into an adjacent exhibit that honored all of this nation’s Medal of Honor winners. Shortly afterward, I went in to find her. Inside the entrance was a display of the names of all 3,458 winners since the first one got that award in 1862. Then, just beyond that, the exhibit wound its way through a darkened passage past lots of displays of different brave deeds done by these winners. I found my wife at the very first one just past the entrance.
“The first person in America ever awarded the medal of honor,” a recorded voice was announcing, “was Jacob Parrott, who was given this medal by President Lincoln in 1864 by order of Congress.”
My wife’s maiden name was Parrott. It’s a Scottish name. One time, in passing, she told me that her direct ancestor was the recipient of the first Medal of Honor. And I thought it was just a family legend!
Jacob Parrott, from Ohio, was a northern soldier during the Civil War who worked as a spy. He and his men took a train south at the beginning of the war, and, in Georgia, hijacked a locomotive to use it to attack soldiers in the South. Parrott was a will of the wisp. His locomotive would arrive at a station during the night and blow up military weapons and ammunition. They’d hijack a troop train, uncouple its engine and force the engineer to drive it onto a siding and off the tracks, leaving the troop train going nowhere.”
“He and his men were finally captured. Some were executed, others escaped. Private Parrott returned to Washington to be honored for his bravery.”
“Let me take your picture with this man,” I said to my wife, and I did.
“Do you remember us seeing this movie made about Jacob Parrott?” Chris said. “It was called The General.”
I recalled it. It was a silent movie that starred Buster Keaton as the hero. It’s a famous movie.
Up top on the deck of this carrier, we saw the F-14 Grumman jets that were standard issue carrier jets during the 1980’s and 1990’s. They appeared in the movie Top Gun. We also saw on that deck the catapults that took these heavy jets from zero to 100 miles an hour in 100 feet for takeoff. Amazing.
Another day, Chris and I drove out to Boone Hall Plantation to watch a re-enactment of the Battle of Charleston, where the South made a stand to stop the Northern Army from taking the town.
There was a lot of cannon fire, men in uniform, charges with muskets and bayonets, and other mayhem that seemed to produce a lot of smoke. We were told people came to this reenactment from all over the country, some of them arriving with their own Civil War cannons on wheels on trailers.
“Who won?” I asked one southern soldier after the battle ended with a northern retreat.
“We did,” he said.
I later learned it had been sort of a draw. The northerners attacked with superior forces, then, after almost taking the southern position, which would have allowed them to walk into Charleston, the General in charge ordered the northerns to retreat—even though still more northern reinforcements were on the way.
“This guy, this northern general, got court martialed by Lincoln when he got back north,” the man who gave me that additional information said.
Anyone interested in history should visit Charleston. Anyone interested in not going to Europe for lack of time but still interested in the European experience should go to Charleston.
Oh, and here’s one other story.
In Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, the largest and oldest synagogue in Charleston, a guide told us about a time when the Ku Klux Klan made an application to march through the city. The Mayor and his fellow trustees met. This was in 1987.
“What do we do?” the Mayor asked. “Do we give these awful people a march permit?”
A councilman said that it was a matter of free speech, that it was the law that anybody could express their opinions.
“What about Greenberg?” one of the other councilmen asked. Greenberg was the chief of police. One of the best chiefs of police Charleston ever had. And, he was a black man.
“I think he ought to come here and join in our meeting,” said the Mayor.
And so, Greenberg was called and, shortly thereafter, arrived at the meeting where the situation was explained to him. How would he feel about their giving the KKK a permit?
Greenberg didn’t even hesitate.
“You give them permission to hold their march,” Greenberg said. “And I’ll march in front of them, with a few of my men. They’re gonna need protection from angry crowds.”
And so they did, and when the time came, Greenberg, in full police chief regalia, marched at the front. No harm came to the KKK.

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