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Connections to Charleston, South Carolina

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In this lithograph from the Library of Congress, Union soldiers of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry are storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat in an unsuccessful attempt to take the installation on 18 July 1863.

“One round hit her quarterdeck, slightly wounding [Admiral Sir Peter] Parker in the knee and thigh. The shot also tore off part of his britches, leaving his backside exposed.” - Battle of Sullivan’s Fort, 28 June 1776.

In the new plan for the future of tourism in Bermuda, it appears that considerable emphasis will be placed on the culture of the Island, material and otherwise, for that is what the discerning visitor wishes to see.

Apparently a major key to the success of such a plan rests in advertising to prospective visitors the connections that existed, or have existed, so as to make a personal association between Bermuda and them.

As regards material culture, we have many treasure to show and associations to discuss, for the Island has been intimately involved with the history of the United States, for example, from the early days when Sir George Somers and the Sea Venture folk brought food from here to the starving colonists at Jamestown in the early summer of 1610 and in a later century to the building of the US bases here and the 54-year presence of American military personnel, a number of whom married into the community.

Of course, being British, we share a considerable history with the United States, Canada and the West Indies, our major neighbours to the south, west and north and heritage footprints of all those places can be found in a number of guises on the Island.

On the other hand, Bermuda’s heritage footprints can be found on their soil, and it might behove us to explore these places in a sort of reverse Cultural Tourism.

As an example, let’s look at our association with one of our nearest neighbours, the State of South Carolina, in the United States of America, the country from which most of our visitors come.

If I may quote a good friend who conducts research for some of the Heritage Matters columns: “Bermudians historically had strong connections with Charleston, whether via trade or emigration.

“Even today you can visit sites where Bermudians left their mark on history, whether in a white clapboard house in Charleston, or on Morris and Sullivan’s Islands, which face each other across the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

So let’s look at those three connections to Bermuda in chronological order, starting with the unpleasant rebellion of the 1770s, to a matter of slavery in the 1820s and ending with a battle of the US Civil War, which claimed the life of Robert John Simmons.

The stage for the first event was constructed on the evening of 14 August 1775, when Bermudians stole the gunpowder from the Island’s main magazine at St George’s, and loaded some of it for southerly delivery on the Savannah and Charlestown Packet, the rest going north on the Philadelphia ship, the Lady Catherine.

Dr Michael Jarvis suggests that some of this gunpowder was ‘probably used by Carolina gunners in repelling Sir Peter Parker’s amphibious campaign to take Charlestown’ in June [1776], a defeat that had critical significance for the course of the war’.

On 28 June 1776, Sir Peter launched an attack on ‘Sulivan’s Fort’, on what is now Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

Starting with the inappropriately named HMS Friendship, Parker had eight other vessels, namely, the Bristol (flagship) and another 50-gun ship the Experiment, the frigates Actaeon, Active, Syren, Sphinx and Soleby, and Thunder, a bomb vessel.

Lined up against that formidable package of firepower was a rebel fort hastily constructed of palmetto palm trunks, which proved invaluable as the British cannon balls either bounced off or were absorbed by the spongy timber.

The Royal Navy would have taken Sulivan’s Fort, but three of the vessels grounded on sandbanks.

One of those, the Actaeon, was abandoned and set on fire, but that did not stop the cheeky ‘Americans’ from going aboard and using its guns against the British, jumping ship just before the magazine blew up!

The second event ended in the death by hanging of a former Bermuda slave, Denmark Vesey, who today has a National Historic Landmark house named for him near the site of his original residence.

After a period in Bermuda, Vesey was taken by his Bermudian owner to live in Charleston, where he was trained as a carpenter. He won a life-changing lottery in 1800, and purchased his freedom.

From 1818, as a stalwart member of the community, he was very active in the Emanuel African Methodist Church at a time when it was often shut down by the authorities.

Four years later, he and others were charged with conspiring to mount a slave revolt that would have included the destruction of Charleston.

Vesey, the alleged ringleader, refused to testify against anyone else implicated in the plot.

His former owner, Captain Joseph Vesey testified in his favour — as did several dozen other white Charlestonians for other black defendants — ‘resisting the hysteria sweeping the city’, but Denmark Vesey and thirty-five others were sentenced to death.

The third matter of interest to Bermudians occurred during the Civil War between the north and south states of the country, which began in 1861 and was the first modern conflict of epic proportions, in terms of the high number of soldiers killed.

One of those was a Bermudian, Robert John Simmons, who had emigrated north, and joined the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of the Union (northern) Army.

Sent down to South Carolina, the 54th took part in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor on 18 July 1863, in which its commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw died and over half of the Regiment’s strength of 600 men were ‘killed, wounded or captured’.

While not taking the Fort, the 54th was ‘widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle, and the event helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops’.

Those killed in the action, including Robert John Simmons, were interred in a single grave near the Fort, which was abandoned by the Confederates a few months later.

Morris Island is deserted today and reachable only by boat: the remains of Fort Wagner are no longer evident, but the quiet natural environment is a fitting place to reflect upon the marks left by our fellow Bermudians on the soils of Charleston and South Carolina.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

&Copy; Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of ArtThis watercolour was painted by Henry Gray, and titled ‘The Morning After the Attack on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston NC. June 29, 1776. The fort is on the left. On the right, the Royal Navy frigate, HMS Actaeon is ablaze on a sand bar, with two other British warships in distress to the right of that vessel. The boats returning to the Fort Sullivan may be the ‘Americans’ who went out to loot the Actaeon. Inset is the ‘Liberty Flag’ designed and flown by the defender of the fort, Colonel William Moultrie, after whom a later rendition of the structure was named.
The military situation at Fort Sullivan on 28 June 1776 is captured on this chart, which shows the layout of the fort and the entrance to Charleston Harbor. HMS Actaeon and Sphinx are lodged on a sandbank, while the other British warships pound the fort from anchored positions. Had the former two vessels reached their intended sites to the left of Fort Sullivan, it would have been taken by enfilade.
The building in Charleston designated as the Denmark Vesey House (although it is apparently several doors away from his residence at the time of the trial).