“Looking for Charleston’s Lost Barracks”

Posted on February 18, 2020

“Looking for Charleston’s Lost Barracks”

On a recent visit to Charleston, I was impressed by how conscious the city was about its seventeenth-century bastions. A tour of the Old Exchange Building included mention that the building was erected on the Half Moon Battery, while a walk along the water revealed remnants of a parapet. Indeed, throughout the city, I spotted signs marking where all of the bastions once were. For a visitor, the city’s awareness of its original boundaries was quite remarkable.
    Yet there seemed to be less knowledge of the barracks that once stood in Charleston. Of course, as anyone familiar with the College of Charleston knows, some of the first classes met in an old barracks. Shortly before the Civil War, the site was occupied by the building that became Towell Library. Today, a small sign on one corner of Towell marks how “the East Range of Barracks” once stood on the site, built “to house Royal & Provincial Regiments.”
     Knowledge about the barracks that became the College of Charleston has advanced considerably in recent years. Head of Special Collections Harlan Greene recently unearthed a sketch of the structure from the early nineteenth century. In commemoration of the college’s 250th anniversary, Alexandra Heath (MA, Community Planning, Urban Design, and Policy, 2020) completed a full-color rendering of the structure. The image is highly detailed with lamps and even a pig, completely consistent with a building that sat on the edge of the city in the 1810s.
     Yet the structure that once housed the College of Charleston was only one of three barracks in the colonial city. Uncovering the rest of Charleston’s military infrastructure can shed new light on the city in the American Revolution and help to explain the nation that followed. As I detail in my book Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2019), the debates surrounding where British soldiers were housed reveals a vital conversation about place in the eighteenth century, the consequences of which continue to reverberate today.

The Brick Barracks
     When English colonists first planted a colony at the junction of the Ashley and the Cooper rivers, they found themselves in a difficult situation. Although shielded by outer islands, the site was nonetheless vulnerable to Spaniards and high tides. To prevent either from overwhelming the capital of the newly established Colony of Carolina, the settlers erected massive bastions that made Charleston into a walled city. Beginning around 1680, the bastions provided an adequate defense, even helping to repel a Spanish force from Havana in 1706.
     By the 1740s, the bastions were no longer practical. As a 1739 map reveals, Charleston had already jumped the walls with houses and streets replacing the once pastoral countryside. Moreover, the recent Stono Rebellion of African American slaves prompted the colonial government to ponder a more fluid defense force. Ultimately, a new global conflict that pitted Great Britain against France and Spain (known to the colonists as King George’s War), convinced South Carolinians to petition the British government for help. Citing the “Calamities and Distresses of this Province that they have not been able to maintain in Garrison a sufficient Number of Men,” the colonial legislature dispatched a letter to King George II requesting the service of three companies of British soldiers to defend the province.[i] In 1745, the colonists’ prayers were answered and more than three hundred officers and soldiers arrived.
     However, there was no place to quarter these troops. Fort Johnson in the harbor had a few spaces for men to sleep, take their meals, and store their effects, as did the crumbling bastions. But neither had enough room to house all three hundred redcoats. So the South Carolina legislature ordered barracks built in Charleston. Within a few months, the Commissioners of Fortifications erected a U-shaped brick structure capable of housing up to five hundred men. The Brick Barracks as the building became known, was built at the western edge of the city on a high point just above the marshlands, next to the Old Burying Ground. The location (today near the intersection of Wilson and Magazine) was only four blocks from the center of Charleston. 
     Charleston’s Brick Barracks were the first permanent military quarters built in the American colonies. Before 1745, few British soldiers spent much time in North America, obviating the need for barracks. However, the forces that came to South Carolina in 1745 were independent companies, meaning that they were not part of the regular British Establishment. They intended to stay in the colony as a permanent defense force.
     The independent companies remained in Charleston after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle brought the war to an end in 1748. Soon, they became an integral part of the city. South Carolina looked to the independents to guard Charleston’s powder supply, having conveniently sited the Brick Barracks next to the magazine. Over time the soldiers assumed responsibility for the night watch, taking turns manning a guardhouse at the intersection of Meeting and Broad. Lawmakers even considered having the troops take control of the provincial jail.  The colony expressed its appreciation by paying the troops a bonus, keeping the barracks clean and serviceable, and continually providing utensils, tubs, and even a kitchen.
     As Charlestonians came to expect British soldiers to defend their city, they grew increasingly hostile toward the remaining bastions. In September 1752, “the most violent and terrible Hurricane that ever was felt” hit Charleston, killing untold numbers and leaving more homeless.[ii] The hurricane also eviscerated the city’s defenses, especially what remained of the bastions. In response, Governor James Glen hired John William Gerard De Brahm, a German-born engineer who had recently immigrated to Georgia, to design a new system of fortifications. However, the assembly rejected the plans as too expensive and dismissed DeBrahm. With soldiers, Charleston no longer needed walls to protect the city.
     Two years later, however, the situation had changed markedly. With the beginning of a new war against France (known to the colonists as the French and Indian War) in 1754, the British government pulled the independents from South Carolina and dispatched them closer to the action in Virginia. As a result, Governor Glen once again invited De Brahm to rebuild the capital’s bastions. This time, it was the colonists who opposed the project. By April 1756, De Brahm had hired sentries to guard his work against idle “young People” who attacked the structures and saboteurs like the “white Man” who approached the fortifications “with a Fire Brand in his hand” with an intent to set fire to them. But it was not only the idle and the insolent who objected to rebuilding the bastions. De Brahm noted that “Cart People” were also to blame for damaging the fortifications when then braced the gates “at Purpose to keep them open.”[iii] Once again, Charlestonians preferred filling barracks to rebuilding the bastions.
     All they needed were the soldiers.

The New Barracks
     In June 1757, redcoats finally returned to South Carolina. Since the independents had departed three years earlier, the French and Indian War had gone poorly for Great Britain with significant losses on Lakes George and Ontario. It thus came as a great relief to Charlestonians when Colonel Henry Bouquet arrived with nearly 700 soldiers of the 60th Regiment of Foot. However, it was not immediately apparent where all these soldiers would quarter. The Brick Barracks could only house a portion of the regiment, and Colonel Bouquet was anxious to recruit more men. The troops encamped outside of town as the South Carolina assembly ordered “the late free school be also fitted up” for quarters.[iv]. Before all men of the 60th Regiment could be quartered, things got worse. In September, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Montgomerie marched into Charleston with a thousand men in the First Highland Battalion. At first, the Montgomerie’s men encamped alongside Bouquet’s, but then the weather turned nasty. “The continual rains have driven us out of the camp, and our men are quartered in town very badly,” Bouquet observed. When soldiers started to desert, the colonel took matters into his own hands. He led soldiers into the city where they “were quartered in a half-finished church without windows, in damp storehouses upon the quay, and in empty houses where most of the men were obliged to lie upon the ground without straw.” By October, Bouquet squeezed 500 men into the barracks and public houses. But this was still not enough room and soon “the Highlanders have 187 men quartered in private houses.”[v]

[i] The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, ed. J. H. Easterby, et al., 14 vols. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951-89), 3: 554. 

[ii] “From the South-Carolina Gazette,” New York Evening Post, November 6, 1752.

[iii] “Journal of the Commissioners of Fortifications, 1755-1770,” South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, S.C., 17 April 1756. 

[iv] Journal of the Commons House,14: 429.

[v] The Papers of Henry Bouquet, ed. S. K. Stevens, et al., 6 vols. (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1951-94), 1: 170, 248, 217.

[vi] Journals of the Commons House of Assembly [manuscript], South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C., vols. 37-38, part 2: 603.

Biography: John Gilbert McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University where he has taught courses in colonial and Revolutionary America, as well as the gender and sexuality, since 2005. He is the author of two books: Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (Cornell, 2009) and Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Cornell, 2019), which was named Book of the Year by the Journal of the American Revolution