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The Great Charleston Fire of 1861

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On the evening of December 11, 1861, as a cold front bearing high winds swept into Charleston from the northeast, a fire started near the intersection of East Bay and Hasell Streets, about where Harris-Teeter is now located. The origin is not for certain, but many accounts attribute it to some slave refugees who had started either a cooking fire or an outside open fire for warmth.

Whatever the origin, the fire soon got completely out of hand and spread with amazing speed and intensity, pressed by high winds, across the peninsula in a southwesterly direction. General Robert E. Lee was staying at the Mills House Hotel as he and some of his staff watched with alarm (either from the front balcony or the roof) as the fire approached their location rapidly. The General was hustled away to safety (after he had helped a lady with her children and luggage, according to one account) and taken to the Edmonston-Alston House on East Battery. Fourteen houses on Queen Street were blown up to create a fire block and save the Marine and Roper hospitals, the Medical College, and the Roman Catholic Orphan House. By noon on December 12th the fire had cleared the peninsula and was beginning to burn itself out. The City Market area and a large section of Meeting , as well as the north side of Queen, much of Broad, and the north side of Tradd Streets, were devastated.

The fire burned over 540 acres, 575 homes, numerous businesses, and five churches. The cost in property was estimated to be between $5 million and $8 million. Officially no deaths were recorded, but there must have been some. I read an account (how reliable I don’t know) of a slave lady being ordered back into a burning house to retrieve some heirloom of her master’s family and not reemerging from the flames.

When you see photos taken of Charleston in 1865, you see a devastated, ruined city. The impulse is to assume the destruction in these photos was caused by the Union bombardment of the city for 545 days from 1863 to 1865. That’s not the case. The vast majority of damage and destruction to Charleston during the Civil War was caused by The Great Fire of 1861, the worst in its history.

NOTE: Most of the above information is taken from the book, Charleston! Charleston! by Walter J. Fraser, Jr. (1991).

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