Charleston, SC – Mill’s House Hotel, post 1861 fire damage

Photograph shows ruins in area adjacent to the Mills House in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Mill’s House, with adjacent ruins, stereo, George Barnard, also published by Anthony as stereo #3078, March 15-20, 1865.

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Harper’s Weekly account of the December 1861 great Charleston Fire
THE BURNING OF CHARLESTON.

IT matters little, in effect, whether the burning of the city of Charleston was the fruit of accident or of negro incendiarism. The rebels are sure to ascribe the disaster to the latter cause. Secret terrors are the price of despotism : in slave countries, every noise, every cry, every unusual movement of a slave, carries apprehension to the heart of his master. At the time of the John Brown affair, Governor Wise told us that Virginia matrons living miles and miles away were beside themselves with terror. We know that so terrible was the alarm created by that trumpery attempt, that down on the Gulf shore negroes whose behavior had attracted attention were imprisoned, whipped, and even shot by scores. In the language of Southern members of Congress who talked secession in those days, life was not worth having, if accompanied by the agonies which such events implanted in every Southern breast.

It is by the light of these memories that we must read the tale of the burning of Charleston. The burning of 600 houses, including every public building in the city, and property valued at $7,000,000, is an astounding event. Whatever the politicians and the papers may say, the Southern people from Norfolk to Galveston are sure to conclude that the negroes did the dread deed, and each man and woman is now quaking in terror lest his or her house should be the next to go. Nor is this opinion likely to be confined to the whites. The slaves, too, will hear of the fire, and will hear simultaneously—for we know that news does spread among the slaves, hard as their masters try to keep them in ignorance—that between eight and ten thousand slaves, till lately the overworked laborers on Carolina cotton plantations, are now free men, getting eight and ten dollars a month. It will not exceed the negro’s power of combination to connect the two events together. When he does, beware the result.

We are gradually spreading the net which is to encircle the rebellion. The occupation of Ship Island, Mississippi, by the advance-guard of General Butler’s expedition, under General Phelps, is of course the first step toward a movement upon Mobile and New Orleans. The terrors which have compelled General Lee to imprison men at Savannah and Charleston to prevent their flying to the mountains, will now be transferred to the Gulf cities, and if we hear of more fires no one must be surprised. The assassin’s dagger and the incendiary torch are the natural weapons of the slave. We should not use them, but we did not make the present situation.

In a few days, probably before the next number of this journal is printed, a fresh blow at the rebellion will be struck by General Burnside at the head of some fifteen thousand men, and very possibly General Halleck may have commenced operations on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. The burning of Charleston will prove a more potent ally to these generals than an additional fleet or army. It may have been, as we said, a mere accident, assisted by a high wind. But wherever our troops advance, fathers and mothers will bethink themselves with a shudder that within a month after the landing of our forces on the soil of South Carolina the chief city of that State was mysteriously burned, and thousands of people rendered houseless on a December night. The offspring of these thoughts will be surrender.

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