The 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing in the streets of Charleston in 1865.
Friday, August 17, 2018 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

This week, in honor of the 235th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Charleston (13 August 1783), I’d like to draw your attention to a little-known but incredibly important fact about the history of this city. During the early days of the Federal occupation of Charleston in the spring of 1865, nearly all of the city’s public records mysteriously disappeared. Because of this large-scale loss of records, our ability to learn, to know, and to tell the story of the city of Charleston was permanently abridged. To find out how this great memory loss took place, let’s put on our detective caps and rewind to the scene of the crime.

Charles Town, the original capital of South Carolina, was an unincorporated town from the founding of the colony in 1670 until the late summer of 1783. (Some months ago I wrote an essay about the public administration of colonial Charleston, if you’re interested in learning more about that topic.) On the 13th day of August of that year, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified a long-overdue statute incorporating Charleston, as it was now officially called, as a “body politic and corporate,” governed by a City Council elected by the community’s white male citizens. We’ll discuss the structure of the city’s government and the extent of its jurisdiction in future programs, but for the moment I want to follow the city’s paper trail. From the moment of its first elections in early September 1783, Charleston’s City Council began keeping records and creating a political machine that generated paperwork on a daily basis. All of this work of transcribing and copying was done by hand, of course, and over the years these manuscripts gradually accumulated into a sizeable collection of valuable government records.  

In the ever-expanding sphere of Charleston’s municipal government, two of the most important positions hired by Council were the Clerk of Council and the City Treasurer. The Clerk of Council was responsible for keeping written minutes of every Council meeting, transcribing and indexing “fair” copies of the minutes, and compiling them into journals that were kept in a corporate reference library for the use of city government. In addition, the Clerk also made fair copies of every resolution, order, communication, and bill taken under consideration by City Council. Every bill that Council ratified and passed into law as a city ordinance ended up in the hands of the Clerk, who made fair copies and acted as the curator and keeper of the city’s official code of laws. Similarly, Charleston’s City Treasurer kept hand-written records of every penny acquired and spent by the city. He maintained the tax lists that identified every denizen of Charleston, from the wealthiest planter to the humblest slave. His records traced every expenditure to build the city’s infrastructure, every fine collected from lawbreakers, and all the revenue collected from the city’s role in regulating and taxing the business of slavery.

From the inception of Charleston’s municipal government in 1783 to the end of the year 1818, the city’s accumulated paper records were housed in the city’s offices on the upper floor of the Exchange Building at the eastern terminus of Broad Street. In 1818, the city purchased the Charleston branch building of the defunct first Bank of the United States, located at the northeast corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. Shortly after that purchase, the Clerk of Council, City Treasurer, and every other city officer moved their records to that bank building, which has served as City Hall for the last two hundred years. These public records were open to citizens, just as they are today, but not everyone back then (or today) had the time to attend Council meetings or visit City Hall to peruse the meeting minutes. As a new and improved service to the public in mid-September 1836, however, the city began publishing the official text of the proceedings of every Council meeting in one or more of Charleston’s daily newspapers. This practice of publicizing the work of City Council, which continued well into the twentieth century, provides the key to unlocking the rest of today’s story.

In order to ensure the consistent quality of the records kept by the City Treasurer and the Clerk of Council, City Council periodically appointed committees to audit the treasurer’s accounts and to inspect the clerk’s manuscript journals. The surviving periodic reports of these ad hoc committees (found in the surviving newspapers) confirm that the records of the city’s accounts and the minutes of its meetings were intact for at least three quarters of a century, up to the commencement of the American Civil War. As late as November 1862, for example, the committee appointed to inspect the clerk’s work reported their satisfaction “with the neat and concise manner in which the Proceedings of Council have been kept—they find the Proceedings all properly recorded and indexed—and congratulate the Council upon having such an efficient officer as the present Clerk [William H. Smith], who has so faithfully discharged the duties assigned him.”[1] The records of Council remained peacefully in City Hall until the tumultuous autumn of 1863, when they were suddenly exposed to great hazards.

After the United States Army occupied the greater part of Morris and James Island, across the Ashley River from peninsular Charleston, it began preparing to bombard the city with powerful artillery. The shelling of civilian Charleston commenced on Friday, August 21st, 1863, and then paused briefly for the exchange of military communications. Despite protests and condemnation from the citizens of Charleston and Confederate officials in the city, the Federal shelling recommenced late in the evening of Sunday, August 23rd. Over the ensuing seventeen months, artillery volleys battered the city almost daily and caused widespread destruction. Among the first buildings damaged by the bombardment was Charleston’s City Hall, which, according to an 1866 report, was struck by shells four times and sustained serious damage. The first hit reportedly occurred on the evening of August 23rd, 1863, striking “the Northeast wing [and] demolishing the Clerk’s office.” At that time, the “courteous and esteemed Clerk, W[illiam]. H. Smith, Esq.,” was in the office with two ladies who sought official passports to depart from the city, which had been under martial law since May 12th, 1862. Following the impact of the artillery shell, Smith and the two ladies “made a very narrow escape by a precipitate retreat down the flight of stairs into the hall below.”[2] I think that’s perhaps a genteel way of saying that the impact blast catapulted the trio down the stairs of City Hall.

At a City Council meeting on September 15th, 1863, Charleston’s mayor, Charles Macbeth, “informed Council that the Books of the [city] Treasury Office had been sent to Columbia,” the state capital, located 100 miles inland, “and it was necessary that some arrangement should be made for the payment of interest which would soon become due.” Despite the war, the city still had bills to pay, and so Council resolved to make the necessary financial arrangements.[3] The matter was complicated, however, by the fact that the treasurer had limited access to the necessary records, an unknown portion of which had been sent inland for safe keeping. With the Union Army literally at the city’s doorstep, the city treasurer’s decision to send public records to Columbia seemed like a reasonable plan at the time, when there was no indication that the state capital might soon become a target of the Union’s battle plan.

In response to the commencement of the Federal bombardment of civilian Charleston in August 1863, the residents and merchants remaining in the city sought safety by moving further north up the peninsula. Even the children of the Charleston Orphan House, residing in a large building near the northwest corner of Calhoun and King Streets, were sent inland to Orangeburg to spend the rest of the war far from the scene of battle. Likewise, the seat of city government and its records were removed from Broad Street to a safer location. The surviving details of that move are very muddled, unfortunately. Newspaper notices seem to indicate that City Council continued meeting at City Hall for at least three months after the commencement of the Federal bombardment. On November 2nd, 1863, for example, the representatives of Charleston’s municipal government received Confederate States President Jefferson Davis “on his arrival at the City Hall.”[4] As late as November 24th, 1863, newspaper notices suggest that the regular meetings of City Council continued to take place in the customary “Council Chamber” at the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets.[5]

By mid-December 1863, however, a change had definitely occurred. The first clue to this change appears in local news reports of the theft of $100 in “city change bills” from the desk of the Clerk of Council on December 13th, though the published reports disagree on the location of the desk. The Charleston Courier reported that the robbery took place “in the Clerk of Council’s office, at the Orphan House,” while the Charleston Mercury simultaneously reported that the money was taken from “the Chamber of the Clerk of Council . . . over the Guard House,” the police station at the southwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets.[6] Regardless of this discrepancy, it is certain that the city offices removed to the empty Orphan House by late December 1863. On December 19th, the Courier included for the first time a “Directory of Public Offices” that noted the removal of the location of numerous city and district offices (including the mayor, city assessor, clerk of court, sheriff, and others) to the city’s Orphan House. After a holiday recess, the proceedings of the City Council meeting on January 26th, 1864, were published in the newspaper under the heading “Orphan House, Council Chamber,” and this phrase was repeated in all subsequent wartime publications of City Council proceedings.[7]

Thus by the end of 1863, the city’s Clerk of Council, William H. Smith, had removed the necessary effects of City Council from the City Hall to the Orphan House. That material undoubtedly included the manuscript journals of Council and its manuscript code of laws, but Smith was not able to save everything. After City Council transferred its meetings to the Orphan House, the City Hall, like many other abandoned buildings in the lower part of the peninsula, was ransacked by the “plunderers and thieves” that infested urban Charleston during the darkest days of the war. A post-war report lamenting the poor condition of City Hall noted the fate of a few particular items: “The beautiful carpets and considerable furniture were stolen, and the building badly injured. The pictures [that is, paintings] which now adorn the walls [of City Hall] were safely removed by the Clerk, Mr. Smith, to the Orphan House, and on the evacuation of the city [the paintings were] concealed in rubbish, thereby escaping the general seizure of property [that is, looting] which took place afterwards.”[8]

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1864, Charleston’s city treasurer, Archibald Campbell, transferred some further portion of the city’s treasury records to an unknown location in Columbia. Details of this move are not included among the contemporary minutes of City Council, but a later report confirms that it was done with the city’s consent. At a meeting at the Orphan House on July 19th, 1864, City Council heard a report from a special committee appointed to examine the books and accounts of the city treasurer. The committee reported that they had performed their duty “as thoroughly and efficiently as the circumstances would admit,” but were delayed by “part of the books and accounts being kept in Charleston and part in Columbia.”[9] In the absence of any further specifics, we can only speculate as the nature and extent of the city records Campbell moved to Columbia. In addition to his duties as city treasurer, Archibald Campbell (1799–1866) served as manager of the Southern Presbyterian newspaper from 1856 until his death ten years later. According to a posthumous biographical sketch, Campbell removed the “material” of that newspaper’s office from Charleston to Columbia at some point “early in the war.”[10] It was probably during that same time that Campbell also made his first removal of city’s records from Charleston to the capital city.

The fragmented narrative that I’ve just laid out provides some insight into the movement of Charleston’s municipal records during the Civil War, but the fate of those materials at the conclusion of the war is still shrouded in mystery. No City Council minutes, in any form, survive from the final six months of the war, though Council continued to meet regularly through the end of January 1865. On the morning of February 17th, 1865, Mayor Charles Macbeth sent a communication to the Union commander on Morris Island that Confederate military forces had evacuated Charleston. When the Union army occupied the city later that day, Federal forces imposed martial law over Charleston and suspended the mayor and City Council from their civic duties. For the next eight months, Federal military officials oversaw the administration of urban Charleston as the city was demilitarized and the exiled civilian population slowly returned to their homes and businesses.

In the spring and summer of 1865, urban Charleston was visited by a significant number of Federal soldiers and Northern civilian tourists who apparently helped themselves to souvenirs of the city’s history. A group of civilian tourists from Brooklyn, who chartered the steamboat Oceanus and visited Charleston on April 14th–15th, for example, proudly took home “various mementoes and relics gathered among the gardens and public buildings” of the city.[11] In one particularly bold scene, they helped themselves to paper records at the Bank of Charleston on Broad Street. “Here the mania for ‘relics’ ran high,” one participant confessed. “Dozens of curiosity hunters were bending over them [the paper records] on hands and knees, untying old yellow and dusty bundles, selecting ancient and curious documents, and duly bestowing them in the voluminous depths of coat pockets, or carrying them off tenderly under the arm.” Alluding to the large New York paper emporium of Stockwell & Emerson, one of the tourists remarked that “enough of these valuable acquisitions were brought home to comfortably stock ‘No. 25 Ann St.’”[12]

Direct references to the looting of city records in 1865 are lacking, but it is possible to draw some conclusions about their fate based on contemporary events. Records sent inland for safekeeping in Columbia probably perished in the fires that consumed most of that city and a host of other antebellum records on the evening of February 17th, 1865. Records left in City Council’s temporary offices at the Charleston Orphan House were apparently plundered during the chaos that enveloped the city in the spring of 1865. During that time, the old Orphan House became the barracks for a regiment of the U.S.C.T.—the “colored” troops of the U.S. Army.[13] Paper was in short supply in Charleston in 1865, and it appears that the Clerk of Council’s valuable records went up in smoke as the soldiers cooked their meals, and down the latrines as they answered nature’s calling. Throughout the city that spring and summer, public records also vanished from other public buildings commandeered by Union soldiers, including the infamous Work House, the House of Correction, the several city Guard Houses, the City Hospital, and from Charleston District Jail.[14] The full details of such ransacking may forever remain a mystery, and, curiously, the post-war minutes of Charleston’s City Council contain very few references to this matter. Rather than confirming the loss or survival of the antebellum Council journals and other city papers, the post-war minutes offer only a bit contradictory evidence regarding the fate of its most important records.

On October 2nd, 1865, after nearly eight months of direct military rule, Brigadier General William True Bennett, commander of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, informed Charles Macbeth that he had “no objection to your immediately resuming your functions as Mayor of Charleston.” City Council reorganized the following day and notified the members of its various committees and commissions to resume their normal responsibilities as soon as possible.[15] Two weeks later, at the meeting of October 17th, 1865, Mayor Macbeth presented to Council a bill from Archibald Campbell, City Treasurer, “for expenses incurred in removing the papers, &c., belonging to his office.”[16] The bill was referred to the Committee of Ways and Means, who on October 20th recommended paying Campbell $300 in currency. In considering this matter, Council expressed its thanks to both the Clerk of Council, William H. Smith, and Treasurer Campbell for their attention to the city records during the war, but voted to reimburse Campbell only $100 in currency for his expenses.[17] The low state of the city’s post-war funds may have curtailed Council’s ability to compensate Campbell, but the aldermen were not unmindful of the treasurer’s efforts. At a meeting held on October 31st, the last meeting of the outgoing administration, City Council unanimously resolved to thank Archibald Campbell “for the invaluable services rendered during a time of alarm and danger, in saving the books and papers belonging to the city, which he has done at great personal inconvenience and sacrifice; and for this act of duty under circumstances extremely trying and arduous, he deserves some substantial recognition, which we would recommend to the favorable consideration of the next Council.”[18]

The succeeding administration of Mayor Peter Charles Gaillard, elected in early November 1865, did not take up the matter again until after Archibald Campbell’s death in October 1866. A month after his passing, Council acknowledged that “the City of Charleston was saved much embarrassment and loss by the devoted exertions of the late Archibald Campbell, Esq., then City Treasurer, in removing and preserving the City Records during the spring of 1865,” and that by its resolution of October 31st, 1865, Council had publicly acknowledged its obligation to Campbell, “though at that date the finances of the City did not permit of appropriately recompensing Mr. Campbell’s services.” In light of these circumstances, Council instructed that the Committee of Ways and Means to devise “some appropriate measure of acknowledgement to Mr. Campbell’s family, of the appreciation on the part of City Council, of his devoted and valuable services at a time of great confusion and danger.”[19] Despite Council’s earnest intentions, no further discussion of the city’s debt to Campbell appears in the minutes of succeeding meetings of City Council.

In late 1865 and 1866, therefore, Charleston’s City Council twice thanked its wartime treasurer for “saving the books and papers belonging to this city” and for “removing and preserving the City Records during the spring of 1865.” The precise identity of those rescued records was never stated, however, nor was the quantity of the materials in question. It is possible that Campbell was able to preserve some of the records related to his official duties as city treasurer. Such records may have been purged by later officials, as the extant records of Charleston’s city government now include only a few pages of antebellum financial documents. It is perhaps significant that City Council did not heap similar praise on William H. Smith, its Clerk of Council, for preserving or attempting to preserve the manuscript journals of council proceedings. Although Smith received Council’s thanks for his efforts in maintaining and moving those records during the war, the immediate post-war Council minutes include no mention of the survival of any such records. In fact, the loss of the antebellum journals is confirmed in a City Council discussion that took place more than ten years after the end of the war.

Following its 1866 discussion of Archibald Campbell’s wartime efforts to save some of the city’s antebellum records, Charleston’s City Council did not again consider the matter for nearly a decade. At the meeting of December 7th, 1875, Alderman J. Francis Britton introduced the following resolution relating specifically to the journals of proceedings, which the Council adopted:

Whereas, the journals of the proceedings of former Councils, prior to the year 1865, have been destroyed, or otherwise lost; and whereas, a large portion of the said records (which are of value to the city) are known to be in the hands of private citizens, dating as far back as the year 1844, having been preserved from the printed files of the daily press. Therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Committee on Council journals be, and they are hereby, authorized to procure all necessary information as to the cost of purchasing the said records, and report the same to this body at the next meeting of Council.[20]


From this description, it’s clear that the materials being offered in late 1875 were not the original manuscript journals of antebellum City Council minutes, but rather a collection of old clippings representing the authorized publication of Council proceedings that had appeared in the local newspapers. The committee appointed to examine these materials reported to Council on February 15th, 1876 that, “while fully recognizing the value of the missing records to the city,” they found it inexpedient to consider such an expense when the condition of the city’s finances was so poor. Foregoing the opportunity to procure even a reproduction of a portion of its antebellum minutes, Council adopted the committee’s recommendation “that the matter be indefinitely postponed until the condition of the city finances would better warrant the necessary outlay.”[21]

Fast-forward 142 years to 2018. The finances of the City of Charleston have greatly improved over the generations, of course, but no amount of money can bring back the priceless historical records that disappeared in the spring of 1865. There are many aspects of the city’s history that can never be told, the stories of many people that will never be heard, because of the ravages of a cruel war that Charleston started, and which ultimately brought the city to the brink of total destruction. The bulk of Charleston’s municipal records probably perished in the final weeks of the Civil War, but there is a small chance that some records might have been taken away by some soldiers and tourists as souvenirs of their brief stay in the city. For history’s sake, I implore everyone across the nation to please look in your family’s closets, attics, and basements (if you have one), to see if you might have any of Charleston’s long-lost looted treasures. If you do find something, please send it back to City Hall, and help us find a cure for the Great Memory Loss of 1865.


[1] City Council proceedings of 25 November 1862, published in Charleston Courier, 28 November 1862.

[2] Courier, 18 August 1866.

[3] City Council proceedings of 15 September 1863, published in Courier, 21 September 1863.

[4] Charleston Mercury, 2 November 1863: “City Hall, November 2, 1863. The members of City Council are requested to meet, this day, in Council Chamber, at 11 o’clock a.m., for the purpose of receiving the President of the Confederate States, on his arrival at the City Hall. W. H. Smith, Clerk of Council.”

[5] See the proceedings of 24 November 1863, published in Courier, 1 December 1863.

[6] See Courier, 16 December 1863, and Mercury, 16 December 1863. The city Guard House stood at the southwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets.

[7] Courier, 30 January 1864.

[8] Courier, 18 August 1866.

[9] See the proceedings of 19 July 1864, published in Courier, 23 July 1864.

[10] William L. King, The Newspaper Press of Charleston, S.C. (Charleston, S.C.: Edward Perry, 1872), 175.

[11] Justus Clement French and Edward Cary, The Trip of the Steamer Oceanus to Fort Sumter and Charleston, S.C. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Union Steam Printing House, 1865), 42.

[12] French and Cary, Trip of the Steamer Oceanus, 89.

[13] There are no extant minutes of the Commissioners of the Orphan House between 15 December 1864 and 6 October 1865. The post-war use of the Orphan House as a barracks is mentioned under the date 15 April 1865 in French and Cary, The Trip of the Steamer Oceanus, 120.

[14] The voluminous records of the Charleston Orphan House survived because they had been evacuated to Orangeburg along with the children in the autumn of 1863.

[15] Charleston Year Book, 1881, 352; City Council proceedings of 3 October 1865, published in Courier, 4 October 1865.

[16] City Council proceedings of 17 October 1865, published in Courier, 20 October 1865.

[17] City Council proceedings of 20 October 1865, published in Courier, 25 October 1865.

[18] City Council proceedings of 31 October 1865, published in Courier, 4 November 1865.

[19] City Council proceedings of 20 November 1866, published in Courier, 24 November 1866.

[20] City Council proceedings of 7 December 1875, published in Courier, 9 December 1875.

[21] City Council proceedings of 15 February 1876, published in Courier, 19 February 1876.


PREVIOUS: Benne Seeds in the Lowcountry
NEXT: Grasping the Neck: The Origins of Charleston’s Northern Neighbor
See more from Charleston Time Machine