People come to Charleston for many reasons – architecture, food, beaches and cultural events. Yet one of the main draws for Charleston is her incredible past. From Colonial times to the Civil War, this city by the sea played a prominent role in the country’s history.
The Charleston area has numerous museums and historical attractions that help tell the city’s many stories. It can be tough to see them all in one trip. For the best highlights, plan a visit to these homes, museums and attractions to learn all about Charleston, SC, history.
#1) CHARLES TOWNE LANDING
To see where it all began, spend some time at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site. This state park sits on a marshy point off the Ashley River on the spot where a group of English settlers landed in 1670 and established what would become the birthplace of the Carolina colony. Walk the self-guided history trail, explore the exhibits in the Visitor Center or visit the 22-acre natural habitat zoo to see a variety of animals that inhabited South Carolina at the time when this site was a newly settled English colony.
#2) COLONIAL DORCHESTER
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site was a fortified post for the Americans. Its garrison was briefly commanded by Francis Marion, later known as the “Swamp Fox.” Near the end of the Revolutionary War, the village was a British post, occupied until American forces prompted the British to evacuate.
Ultimately, the town was abandoned after the Revolution. As the surrounding forest reclaimed the site, archaeological remnants were preserved under the surface. Visit the site where archaeology is on-going, and visitors have the chance to get an up-close experience.
#3) THE POWDER MAGAZINE
Completed by 1713, The Powder Magazine at 79 Cumberland St. is the oldest government building in South Carolina. It was used as an arsenal from 1713 to 1748 to defend the colony from the Spanish, French, pirates, slave rebellion and native attacks. During the American Revolution, it was temporarily reinstated by the Continental Army. After the facility was retired in 1780, private owners used it for a stable, print shop, blacksmith shop, wine cellar and carriage house. In the early 1900s, it was restored and opened as a museum.
#4) THE OLD EXCHANGE & PROVOST DUNGEON
According to historical accounts, petitions and arguments before the Assembly by Charles Town’s wealthy merchants and investors prompted the government to pass an act in 1767 for the building of an “Exchange or Custom House.” During 1771 and 1772, The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, with its Palladian symmetrical design, was constructed at the foot of Broad Street. It was renovated in the late 1970s and formally opened on Oct. 5, 1981. It remains a much-visited tourist attraction at 122 East Bay St.
#5) FORT SUMTER
Easily visible in the center of the Charleston harbor, Fort Sumter National Monument is not only an interesting tourist attraction, but an important piece of American history. Confederate forces fired the first shots of the Civil War at Federal troops at Fort Sumter at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Throughout the war’s duration, Fort Sumter would play an important role as Union forces spent nearly four years trying to take it back.
#6) FORT MOULTRIE
Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island has undergone numerous changes over the years. The first fort was still incomplete when Commodore Sir Peter Parker and nine warships attacked it on June 28, 1776. After a nine-hour battle, the ships retired. Charleston was saved from British occupation, and the fort was named in honor of its commander, Col. William Moultrie. After several years of neglect, little of the fort remained by 1791. At the end of the 18th century, a second fort was built – one of 20 new forts along the Atlantic Coast. But, once again, the fort was neglected and eventually destroyed by a hurricane in 1804.
By 1809, a third brick fort was constructed on Sullivan’s Island. When South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, the Federal garrison abandoned Fort Moultrie for the stronger Fort Sumter. By the 1880s, Fort Moultrie was modernized, but ultimately became a small part of the Fort Moultrie Military Reservation that covered much of the island.
#7) EDMONDSTON-ALSTON HOUSE
The Edmondston-Alston House located at 21 East Battery was constructed in 1825. The views from its piazza are magnificent. In fact, Gen. P. T. Beauregard watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, signaling the start of the Civil War. Later that year, on Dec. 11. Gen. Robert E. Lee stayed at the house when a large fire spread through his Charleston hotel.
#8) OLD SLAVE MART MUSEUM
Charleston’s history as a player in the domestic slave-trading system is detailed at the Old Slave Mart Museum, located at 6 Chalmers St. In the 70 years between the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil War, more than one million American-born slaves were sold away from plantations in the upper South to work the rapidly expanding cotton and sugar plantations in the lower South. This museum details the city’s role in inter-state slave trade after the 1808 ban on international slave trade. Slave auctions at the Old Slave Mart ended in November 1863. The property changed hands through the years and had various uses. In 1988, the City of Charleston acquired the property.
#9) H.L. Hunley
On Feb. 17, 1864, the H. L. Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine when it sank the USS Housatonic. After signaling to shore that the mission was accomplished, the submarine and her crew of eight mysteriously vanished. Lost at sea for more than a century, the Hunley was located in 1995 by Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency. The vessel was raised in 2000 and delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, where scientists are working to preserve the Hunley for future generations.
#10) Drayton Hall
John Drayton’s 350-acre home and gardens was conceived as a show place and a management hub at the center of his vast commercial plantation empire. Throughout his lifetime, Drayton owned upward of 100 different plantations totaling about 76,000 acres across South Carolina and Georgia. On those
plantations, scores of enslaved Africans, Native Americans and their descendants grew rice and indigo for exportation to Europe and reared cattle and pigs for shipment to the Caribbean sugar islands. Drayton Hall Preservation Trust is a nonprofit tasked with preserving Drayton Hall, A National Trust Historic Site.