The burning of Charleston (1861) – as told in Harper’s Weekly


WE devote this and the preceding page to illustrations of the CITY OF CHARLESTON, South Carolina, which, we hear by telegraph, was mainly destroyed by fire on 11th and 12th. The dispatch from Fortress Monroe states :

The fire commenced in Charleston last night (December 11), at nine o’clock, in Ruzel & Co.’s sash factory, at the foot of Hazel Street, and communicated to the opposite side of Hazel, to Cameron & Co.’s machine shops.

Under the impulse thus given and a stiff breeze, with a small supply of water, the conflagration assumed a formidable character, nearly equaling the most extensive conflagration on the American continent.

The Theatre, Floyd’s coach factory, opposite the Express office, the old Executive Building, and all the houses between that point and Queen Street, are burned. The whole of one side of Broad Street is destroyed, from Colonel Gadsden’s residence to Mazyck Street. A considerable portion of the city, from East Bay to King Street, is destroyed. Among the prominent buildings burned are the Institute and St. Andrew’s halls, Theatre, Catholic Cathedral, and the Circular Church.

At last accounts from Charleston the fire had crossed Broad Street, and was sweeping furiously on. Nearly all that part of the city from Broad Street on the south, East Bay Street on the east, and King on the west, is said to be destroyed.

An extra train had left Augusta with supplies for the sufferers—thousands of whom roamed the streets—and assistance to fight the fire.

There are rumors of a negro insurrection and negro incendiarism. One account states that a plot was disclosed by the body-servant of a military officer, who said that the negroes of the city were to be joined by large bands of negroes from the country, who were to come in armed at night. He said that the sash factory had been fired by a free negro, whom he designated, and who has been arrested. A small quantity of arms had been found

under the floor of a negro cabin. They were all new and in good order. In other negro cabins knives and hatchets were found secreted.

The greatest consternation prevailed. Families were closing and barring their windows.

The fire companies being composed of men who are engaged on military duty elsewhere, the fire-engines were worked by negroes, who broke and rendered useless the two best ones. The offices of the Courier and Mercury are said to be destroyed.

Another account states that negro insurrections broke out in the interior of South Carolina two days before the fire, and are still raging unchecked; but this last report is not well authenticated.

Source: Dec 28, 1861. Harper’s Weekly. page 823

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

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