Charleston, SC Fire, Dec 1861
Richmond Examiner's Correspondence.
Fearful Ravages of the Charleston Fire.
Our people have scarcely yet awakened from the trance of horror and dismay into which they were plunged by the great disaster of Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The more carefully I survey the path of the fire the more shocking is the sense of utter desolation and distress which creeps over me. The newspapers here have published long and elaborate accounts of the frightful even of the week, but they do not and cannot picture a tithe of the public and private losses, the keen, individual suffering and general gloom which have fallen upon the noble old city of Charleston. To give anything like a full history of these would require a book of respectable size.
There is no doubt whatever that the fire was purely the result accident. It probably originated from the sparks of a camp fire which was lit to the windward of the large sash factory where the flames first burst forth. A furious gale had just arisen, and in less than an hour the lower portion of the city was on fire in a dozen places. The wind whirled about in great chunks of burning wood for a distance of many blocks from the blazing tenements, and the vast multitude of these red flakes, lighting up the air, gave to the scene the aspect of a fiery snow storm. The conflagration attained it full width among the dry and ancient tinder box shanties of State and Market streets. From that neighborhood it swept rapidly and resistless forward, spreading neither to the left nor to the right, but borne by the wind in a straight line, diagonally through the city, until it had cleared its road of ruin from the Cooper to the Ashley river. It is somewhat singular to mark the clearness with which the broad line pursued by the fire is defined. Indeed, so furious and unchanging was the gale that blew during the whole of that fearful night, that I think it actually served as a protection to the houses situated on either side of the line of fire; inasmuch as it kept the flames surging and roaring steadily onward, and gave them no opportunity to turn, or to spread.
The most irreparable of the results of this awful calamity is the wholesale destruction of the antiquities of our city. Great numbers of those grand old mansions of revolutionary memory, which have given to Charleston the prestige which attaches to every city of the ancient regime, now lie blackened and smouldering[sic] heaps of ruins. The stately halls in which the rebels of '76 were wont to live and move are lost to the rebels of '61. The ancestral homesteads of the Heywards, the Laurences, the Pinckneys, the Middletons, the Haynes, and of many other families where names are entwined with the history of the State are levelled[sic] with the ground. It is now impossible to go from that portion of the city in which are situated the Battery, the Post Office and the Hall, to any part of Wentworth st. without passing through whole blocks of the desolated tract encumbered by the hugh[sic] piles of stone, brick and charred rafters. Those unacquainted with these localities will be able to form some idea of the extent of the fire from the fact that it swept about a quarter of a mile in width and fully a mile in length, through the very heart and oldest quarter of the city.
Much of the movable property which had been taken from the houses was consumed, owing to the fact that it was foolishly placed in the street some distance ahead of where the fire was raging but at a point over which the fire swept a little later. It is appaling[sic] to think of the immense quantities of rich and old fashioned furniture, the accumulation of rare and costly libraries, the well stored cellars of old wines, beyond all price, and the mass of valuable household relics and effects of every kind lost.
The firemen worked with all energy of desperation; but their efforts, in the face of the fierce gale, were of little avail. The only really effectual check given to the conflagration was due to the resolute course of Gen. Ripley. In the early period of the fire he saw its fearful character, and gave orders to blow up the entire line of buildings next in front of which were burning.
I cannot attempt to particularize even the principal losses. The St. Andrew's Hall was the scene of the solemn separation of South Carolina from the United States. The Institute Hall, (alias "Secession Hall,) in which the act was ratified. The Cathedral of St. Finbar built of brown stone, was a splendid structure.
Some of our insurance companies may survive the shock, but it is admitted that most of the city companies will barely be able to pay the amount of the insurance with the whole capital, which, of course is ruinous to the stockholders.
The destitution here is awful. I am glad to be able to add that the most liberal and extensive measures are being taken to remedy the awful and wide-spread suffer ring. Hundreds of families are utterless homeless.
The Farmers' Cabinet, Amherst, NH 9 Jan 1862