Buildings along the western edge of Marion Square and at the corner of King and Calhoun Streets in 1876, from a plat in the Charleston Archive at CCPL.
Friday, June 02, 2017 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

In our last episode, we talked about history of the Charleston park called Marion Square from the early 1700s through the American Civil War, so let’s resume the narrative with the Confederate evacuation of Charleston in February of 1865.

On the 18th of February, the first soldiers of the United States Army moved into the nearly deserted town and set up camp.  For the next fourteen years, a period historians call the “Reconstruction Era,” Charleston was an occupied city.  The Citadel, the state-owned guard house that was converted into a military school in 1843, served as the barracks for United States Army units that represented Federal authority in post-war Charleston.  Citadel Square, the open green space in front of the barracks, continued to serve as a parade ground for military exercises, just as it had since 1833, when the City of Charleston sold the property to the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade of the South Carolina Militia.  Per the details of that landmark agreement, however, the square in front of the Citadel also remained open to the community as a “public mall.”

During the late 1860s and the throughout the 1870s, Citadel Square hosted a variety of community events that drew thousands of citizens.  About once a year a traveling circus would come through town and set up tents on Citadel Square for a week-long stay, just like they had done in the 1850s.  On a much more frequent basis, the flat open space was used for the first games of baseball in Charleston.  Baseball may have been invented in the north, but it was being played in Confederate military camps as early as 1862.  By 1867, Charleston was home to a handful of amateur teams that regularly played matches, as they called them, on Citadel Square.  These long, high-scoring games drew thousands of spectators, and occasionally ended in violence.  In the summer of 1869, for example, tensions between Charleston’s best home team and a visiting Savannah team led to a full-scale riot on Citadel Square that the city police firing pistols into the air couldn’t contain.  Only when U.S. troops marched out of the Citadel with rifles and bayonets did the mob begin to disperse.

Some of the new activities taking place on Citadel Square were of a more serious nature.  Since the 1st of January 1866 Citadel Square has traditionally played a major role in Charleston’s annual Emancipation Day parade, in which the city’s black population gathers on New Year’s Day to commemorate the end of slavery.  In March of 1867, just a few weeks after the ratification of new civil rights legislation in Washington, D.C., several thousand African-American citizens gathered in Citadel Square for a political rally that led to the formation of the Republican Party in South Carolina.  During Reconstruction, the Federal government oversaw the reformation of the South Carolina militia system under a new name, the South Carolina National Guard.  Because of the strange racial politics of that era, our post-war local National Guard was almost entirely composed of African-American citizens.  From 1869 through the early months of 1876, thousands of black militiamen paraded on Citadel Square during their regular musters and on civic holidays like Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July.  The first—and last—time that Charleston witnessed large numbers of armed black soldiers marching and drilling in uniform was during Reconstruction on Citadel Square.

Thinking about marching in uniform under the hot sun of a Charleston summer makes me thirsty, and I’ll bet those soldiers wished there was a water fountain nearby.  In fact, the City of Charleston had that very same idea in the 1870s.  After many years of fruitless plans to construct a municipal water supply system for the Charleston, our City Council funded an expensive project to drill an artesian well in Citadel Square.  In 1879, after three years of work to drill nearly two thousand feet below the surface, engineers tapped into a supply of clean water that produced approximately 350,000 gallons a day at a pump near the west or King Street side of the square.  A short time later a second well was placed on the east or Meeting Street side.  After the creation of the Charleston Water Works company, city workers installed a pipeline to carry the warm artesian water underground from Citadel Square to a manmade reservoir behind the Water Works headquarters on George Street.  At that time, there was no tap or fountain above ground within the square.  We’ll come back to this story shortly.

United States soldiers occupied the Citadel from the spring of 1865 through the spring of 1879.  In April of that year the federal government transferred the last of these soldiers to Atlanta, and the Citadel became vacant.  Over the next three years, state and local officials campaigned to reclaim the old guard house from the Federal government and to reopen the state’s military academy.  At the same time, the white militia system was reorganized under Governor Wade Hampton, and the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade began to work with the City Council of Charleston to re-assert control over the parade ground known as Citadel Square.  Both of these efforts came to a head in 1882, when the Citadel Academy finally reopened and the City of Charleston embarked on a bold new plan for the future care and management of Citadel Square.

In late September of 1882, as the Citadel Academy was making preparations to receive its first cadets in nearly twenty years, Charleston’s Mayor, William Courtenay, took the opportunity to review the history of the open green space in front of the military school.  In a long presentation to City Council, Mayor Courtenay observed that in 1833 the city had sold the property known as Citadel Square to the Field Officers of the Fourth (or Charleston) Brigade of the state militia, but the conveyance was made “in trust,” on condition that the site be maintained as a parade ground for the local militia and as a public mall for the citizens.  Nearly fifty years after that agreement, it appeared that the Field Officers had not fulfilled their end of the bargain.  During that time the city had spent nearly $50,000 in efforts to assist the Field Officers in re-purchasing parts of the square, along King Street, that the city had sold to private parties in the early nineteenth century.  Despite such efforts, said Mayor Courtenay, the “neglected” condition and “dismal appearance” of Citadel Square was “a standing reproach to the city.”  The mayor recommended that City Council appoint a special committee to confer with the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade with the goal of formulating a plan for the better management of this unattractive public space.

On the 4th of October 1882, a committee of City Council met with the Field officers to discuss the future of Citadel Square.  By the end of the meeting they had formulated a number of recommendations, which they forwarded to the mayor and the members of City Council.  First, the members of the joint conference were united in their plan to clear away all of the remaining buildings along the King Street side of the square, including the foundations of a few houses, the remains of a U.S. Army hospital, the disused Picquet (or Picket) Guard House, and a troublesome “saloon” at the corner of King and Calhoun Streets.  Second, the conference members agreed that the terms of the 1833 trust should be executed, that is to say, “the conversion of this square into a public mall and parade ground.”  In order to achieve this goal, they recommended the creation of a board consisting of seven commissioners—three appointed by City Council, three representatives of the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade, and finally the superintendent of the Citadel Academy.  After making a few other remarks, the members of the joint conference submitted a very important observation regarding the name of the square itself: “Your committee are unanimous in the opinion that this public Mall and Parade Ground, which promises to be in the near future so useful and so attractive a resort, should be designated by some historic name acceptable to the people.  They unite in the recommendation that it be known hereafter as Marion Square.”  The reasons for choosing this name are a bit of a mystery.  Francis Marion (1732–1795), while a bona fide hero of the American Revolution in South Carolina, had no special connection to the site or the city of Charleston in general, nor did he play any role in its development.  It seems likely that the members of this joint conference merely wished to honor the memory of a well-known, uncontroversial military figure by applying his name to this historically militarized site.

Mayor Courtenay and the rest of City Council heard this report at a regular meeting on the evening of 10 October 1882, and immediately embraced the recommendations of the joint conference.  On that date, the city ratified an ordinance that formally created a board of commissioners to manage the square, and formally adopted the name “Marion Square.” This was the real beginning of the public park we know today.  In the final months of 1882 and throughout 1883, the commissioners of Marion Square rolled up their sleeves and initiated a major clean-up of the site.  Several old buildings were knocked down and the debris hauled away.  New sidewalks and pathways were paved with flagstones.  A parade ground measuring approximately 300 feet by 500 feet was laid out in the center of the square and topped with red clay.  Around the perimeter of the square laborers planted an 80-foot wide lawn, which included a number of newly planted trees and several wooden benches.  In the midst of all the demolition and landscaping in 1883, the commissioners allowed a single, odd vestige of the distant past to remain above ground.  A slab of oyster shell tabby, measuring about six feet tall and eight feet long, was enclosed in a plain iron fence that to this day bears a simple inscription:  “Remnant of Horn Work.  May 1780.  Siege of Charleston.”  This small memorial, which has puzzled countless visitors to Marion Square, is but a tiny fragment of what was perhaps the largest tabby structure ever built in the world, and which formed the genesis of the public park we enjoy today.

In the years after the formal creation of Marion Square in 1882 and the major landscaping work of 1883, the now-familiar elements of the park gradually coalesced.  The early lawn and small trees eventually flourished, despite the fact that the square was transformed into a temporary tent village after the earthquake of late August 1886.  Seven months later, in April 1887, nearly twenty thousand visitors trampled the lawn at the unveiling of a stone and bronze monument in memory of John C. Calhoun.  That statute, which included an awkward looking Calhoun atop a rather low granite pedestal, was deemed unflattering, so it was replaced in the summer of 1896 with the taller version we see today.

In 1905, in the wake of some plumbing maintenance work, many Charlestonians were surprised to learn that there were two artesian wells bubbling up in Marion Square.  The wells had been drilled in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but most people had forgotten about them because the water was being piped away under their feet.  Fresh water was still a rare commodity in the city in 1905, so a number of citizens clamored for public fountains above ground in the park.  City Council agreed, and with the aid of some private donations, in 1906 the city purchased and installed two elegant bronze fountains, one atop the well on the west side of the park and the other on the east side.  The first fountain, which stood near King Street, was removed sometime before World War II and now stands in the Chapel Street Park, about a quarter of a mile away from its original home.  The second fountain, installed in December 1906, is still flowing today among the trees next to Meeting Street.  Near that site is another monument, a stone obelisk dedicated to the memory of Gen. Wade Hampton (1818–1902) which was installed in late March 1912.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Marion Square was slowing evolving into the public park that we see today, but in reality, it was only a part-time park.  Even as shade trees, benches, and fountains took root, these features formed a backdrop to the central parade ground that was used by the city’s local militia units and the Citadel cadets.  In the early years of the new century, however, both before and after World War I, Federal authorities reduced the number of National Guard units allowed to exist in each state.  Eventually, all that remained of the state’s Fourth (or Charleston) Brigade was two units: the Washington Light Infantry (formed in 1807) and the Sumter Guards (formed in 1819).  Just as the city’s contingent of citizen soldiers was declining, the leaders of the Citadel Academy announced their intention to move the school to a new, larger campus on the upper west side of the Charleston peninsula.  As a result of these changes, the summer of 1922 was a watershed moment in the history of Marion Square.  For the first time in ninety years, the sound of soldiers marching and drilling ceased to dominate the landscape.  The site was still technically a public mall, but the terms of the 1833 sale of the property and the 1882 agreement to manage the square were both based on the assumption that it would always serve a paramilitary purpose.  Suddenly in 1922, there was no military purpose for Marion Square, and the future of the site seemed unclear.

Throughout the rest of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the old Citadel building and Marion Square languished as neglected vestiges of a by-gone era.  After several years of disuse, the Citadel was transformed in 1937 into a makeshift office building for Charleston County government.  As the automobile came to dominate our city streets in the second quarter of the century, Marion Square became an impromptu parking lot whenever conventions and other special events brought large numbers of tourists to town.  In 1941 the City of Charleston’s Historical Commission installed a modest bronze marker containing a brief summary of Marion Square’s history near King Street, where it still stands.  In an effort to dress up the run-down park, City Council in 1944 approved a plan to build a brick bandstand with two white-only “comfort stations” on the west side of the square near King Street.  The bandstand, designed by local architect Augustus Constantine, hosted a few USO events in the latter days of World War II, but its restrooms were soon boarded shut and the entire structure became more of an eyesore than an asset to the city.  In short, Marion Square was struggling to find a purpose in mid-twentieth century Charleston.

The transformation of Marion Square from a disused parade ground to a mature public mall and successful “people’s park” began in the summer of 1948 with a largely symbolic act by the Charleston Rotary Club.  On the first day of June of that year, members of the downtown Rotary Club gathered in Marion Square to plant a single oak tree, and to pledge to use their community connections to make a difference in the park’s future.  Over the next six years, a Rotary Club committee chaired by Jack Krawcheck worked with the City of Charleston and Charleston County, as well as a number of other entities and private businesses, to “beautify” Marion Square and to make it more welcoming to the public.  In July of 1949 the Rotarians sponsored the installation of a new flagstone pathways around the park.  A few months later they oversaw the planting of 10,500 new shrubs around the perimeter of the square.  In December of 1949 they installed sixteen new benches and re-activated the old artesian fountain near Meeting Street, which had been neglected for many years.  In 1951 the Rotary Club helped the city install electric wiring throughout the park, and in early August of that year Marion Square was illuminated at night for the first time.  In March of 1952 the Rotarians paid for the installation of sixteen new street lamps in the park.  These were just any street lamps; they were specially-made reproductions of the Antebellum gas lamps that were rapidly disappearing from Charleston’s streets.  Finally, in the late winter and early spring of 1954, the Rotary Club literally rolled out the final phase of their “beautification” campaign.  Working again with the city, the county, and local contractors, they oversaw the grading and sodding of Marion Square.  The dusty, hard-packed surface of the old parade ground in the center of the park was covered with eight inches of topsoil.  Soil experts then fertilized and seeded the fresh soil with Bermuda Grass.  The crisscross, diagonal pathways that now lead pedestrians to a small circle in the center of the park were created during the final days of this work in the spring of 1954 and have endured ever since.  In short, the Charleston Rotary Club raised the bar of public expectations for Marion Square, and their work inspired further improvements in more recent years.

After the beautification efforts of the early 1950s, the appearance of Marion Square changed little during the rest of the twentieth century.  The park’s next big facelift came nearly half a century later, after the damaging winds of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.  As early as 1991 the city’s Parks Department had a working blueprint for a renovation of Marion Square, which the city estimated might cost as much as $400,000, but the project stalled.  The work was delayed by a number of factors, including a sluggish economy, political foot shuffling, design changes, and the simple fact that the city doesn’t own the property in question.  Whatever the reasons, the work to refurbish Marion Square in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo didn’t commence until April of the year 2000, and the $4 million project wrapped up with a rededication ceremony in December of 2001.  In the course of this work, the disused 1944 bandstand was removed, the park’s infrastructure was improved, and the Rotary Club sponsored the installation of a large new fountain at the corner of King and Calhoun Streets.  Coincident with the city’s renovation, but funded by private parties, a Holocaust memorial was erected in 1999 on the southern border of the square facing Calhoun Street.

The appearance of Marion Square today reflects the legacy of its varied use in the past.  The park is greener and more welcoming that it has ever been, and it has truly has become the vital community gathering place that city leaders hoped it would become nearly two hundred years ago.  In fact, I personally worry that Marion Square might become a victim of its own success.  Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of visitors tramp through the square every year, but few of them realize they’re treading through the site of the American headquarters of one of the most important battles of the American Revolution.  A brief archaeological dig in 1998 proved that just twelve inches beneath the grass lie the substantial foundations of the tabby Horn Work built here in the late 1750s.  Every time a tent is erected in Marion Square and stakes are driven into the ground, we’re potentially damaging an important part of our cultural heritage.  The old Citadel, now a fancy hotel on the northern edge of the park, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, but Marion Square enjoys no such recognition or protection.  In 2010 a historical marker was erected in the square near King Street to tell visitors about the British siege of 1780, but there is no other interpretive signage anywhere in the park.

In order to protect and to preserve Marion Square properly, I believe it’s important that the community understand the full scope of the park’s story.  Marion Square is a strong, healthy park at the moment, but some aspects of its character might be too fragile to endure the current level of activity well into the future.  Marion Square needs informed users as well as informed custodians, especially since it’s a much-loved city park that doesn’t actually belong to the city.


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PREVIOUSLY: A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1
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