Located midway on the South Carolina coast of the Atlantic Ocean where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers merge, Charleston is a quintessential “Southern” city, with a lot of early American history and the Caribbean flair of palm trees, breezy patios, wrought-iron balconies and lush gardens. The city was founded by English aristocrats in 1670 as a money making venture. Then named Charles Town (after the then King of England), Charleston went from a booming port for rice and cotton plantations to the city where the American Civil War began at Fort Sumter (1861).
Highlights of any visit, besides the fabulous Southern cooking and cuisine — there are many excellent restaurants, ranging from bars with bar food to haute cuisine establishments — include: the city’s cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and pastel pre-Civil-War-era houses, particularly in the bustling French Quarter and Battery areas. The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park both overlook Charleston Harbor, while Fort Sumter, a Federal stronghold where the first shots of the Civil War rang out, lies across the water on the outskirts of Charleston Harbor (see an upcoming blog post). Pictured above is the entrance to the enclosed portion of the three-block-long Charleston City Market (which originally was where the city’s slave auctions were held). This was one of the USA’s earliest public markets and remains a vibrant shopping destination in the heart of Charleston.
As noted above, Charleston was established in 1670; the earliest known reference to a Jew in the English settlement was in 1695. Soon other Jews followed, attracted by the civil and religious liberty of South Carolina. By 1749, these pioneers were sufficiently numerous to orgnanize Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (translated from the Hebrew to English as “Holy Congregation, House of God”). Fifteen years later, they also established the now historic Coming Street Cemetery, the South’s oldest remaining Jewish burial site.
At first congregants worshiped in private homes; in 1780 they used an improvised synagogue adjacent to the present temple grounds. In 1794 they dedicated a new synagogue building described then as the largest in the United States, “spacious and elegant”. This handsome, cupolated Georgian synagogue was destroyed in the great Charleston fire of 1838 and replaced in 1840 on the same Hassell Street site by the present imposing structure. The colonnaded temple, dedicated in early 1841, is renowned as one of the country’s finest examples of Greek Revival architecture.
The KKBE sanctuary is today the second oldest synagogue building in the United States and the oldest in continuous use. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
Charleston is acknowledged as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the U.S. Fourteen years after the first Reform Jewish congregation was started in Germany in 1810, forty-seven KKBE congregants petitioned the trustees to change the Sephardic Orthodox liturgy. Turned down, they started a new congregation, which merged back with KKBE in 1840 when the new temple was built. An organ was also added to the synagogue, making that the first time that a synagogue introduced instrumental music into its worship.
The British capture of Charleston in May 1780 was one of the worst American defeats of the Revolution. On March 30 – 31, General Henry Clinton’s British, Hessian and Loyalist force crossed the Ashley River north of Charleston. On 1 April Clinton advanced against the American defenses near the site of the plaque below (at Marion Square, in the heart of downtown Charleston today), held by General Benjamin Lincoln’s Continentals and militia. The 42-day siege would be the longest of the war.
As General Charles Cornwallis closed off Lincoln’s escape routes on the Cooper River, Clinton advanced his siege lines and bombarded Charleston. On 12 May 1780, in front of the American works near the above plaque, Lincoln surrendered the city and his force of 6,000 men, after what one British officer called “a gallant defense”. The British occupied Charleston for more than 2.5 years, evacuating on 14 December 1782.
It seemed rather ironic to be walking through the Charleston City Market later on in the afternoon and to come across contemporary paintings of plantation slavery scenes — being sold where 250 years ago slaves themselves were being sold off incoming boats or by slave holders.
Our ship was docked on the waterfront piers at Fleet Landing (a former U.S. Navy site), immediately behind the United States Customs House — construction began in 1853, was interrupted by the American Civil War and was completed in 1879 — one of the most imposing historical buildings in Charleston.
We arrived on the pier at sunset to catch the image below — two sailboats in Charleston harbor framed by the front hull and mooring lines of our ship.