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The Life and Times of Thomas Grimball (1744–1783)
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Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the life story of a man who lived in the Charleston area in the eighteenth century and today is remembered by very few people. I’m talking about a man named Thomas Grimball, who was born in rural South Carolina in 1744 and died in Charleston in 1783. Never heard of him? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Actually, I’d be more surprised if you had heard of him. Thomas Grimball was not a major figure in the history of South Carolina. He was not what we might call an ordinary man, but neither was he a remarkable figure. His life story is one of many untold, interesting biographies in the long history of our state, but it’s one that piqued my interested. As part of a larger book project that I’m working on, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the past decade or so collecting details about the life of this Thomas Grimball from historic documents in archives here in Charleston and at the state archive in Columbia. This isn’t the forum for trying to tell you the whole story of the book project—we’d need a few weeks for that narrative. Rather, today I’d like to simply tell Tom’s story (and I did find documentation that at least one person called him “Tom” during the American Revolution). So sit back and set your time machine for the early days of South Carolina, as we trace the brief but dramatic life story of Major Thomas Grimball of Charleston.
We can trace the roots of the Grimball family in South Carolina back to the year 1682, when an English merchant named Paul Grimball immigrated to the colony with his family. Paul Grimball was apparently a man of some means and connections, for in 1683 he was appointed to the important office of secretary of the Province of Carolina. In recognition of this status and the size of his household, which included several indentured servants, Paul Grimball received a land grant for nearly 1,600 acres on Edisto Island. There he built a large house, which unfortunately was burned and looted by Spanish invaders in the autumn of 1686. Despite this setback, the Grimball family prospered in Carolina and continued to acquire land in the area south of Charleston. Paul Grimball died in early 1696 leaving several children to continue the family into a new century.
Paul’s eldest son, Thomas Grimball, who was born in England around the year 1674, inherited his father’s estate on Edisto Island and continued to acquire land grants in the area of Colleton County. Thomas’s first wife was Elizabeth Adams, and the vast majority of Grimballs in 21st century South Carolina are descended from this couple. We know that Elizabeth died sometime before 1721, because in that year Thomas married Sarah Pert at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston. Their marriage was rather brief, unfortunately, because Thomas Grimball died less than two years later, in early 1723.
The first Thomas Grimball of South Carolina and his wife Elizabeth Adams had a number of children, but for our story we’ll focus on the most obscure of them: Thomas Grimball II. He was born sometime in the early years of the eighteenth century, but the exact date is unknown. In fact, most of his life is a mystery. Thomas Grimball II may have been born on or near Edisto Island, but he acquired land grants further inland, and may have settled near the Coosawhatchie River. The name of his first wife is lost, but I’ve uncovered the names of four of their children: Joseph, Ann, Mary, and another Thomas, who we’ll call Thomas Grimball III—the subject of our story. The paper trail of evidence for this branch of the Grimball family is exceedingly thin, but after extensive searching I’ve been able to piece together a few details of young Tom’s childhood.
Thomas Grimball III was born sometime in the late spring of 1744, probably in Colleton County. His mother’s name is lost, but it appears that she died sometime around the year 1750. Around that time (again, the exact date is lost), young Thomas and his younger brother, Joseph, were sent to Charleston to live with a distant relative by marriage, a wealthy merchant named Benjamin D’Harriette. Born into a family of French Huguenot refugees in New York in 1701, D’Harriette settled in Charleston by 1725 and prospered. After marrying Anne Odingsell, a granddaughter of the first Paul Grimball, Benjamin D’Harriette made a fortune in trade and acquired a number of plantations. The couple had no children of their own, but apparently they served as foster parents to several distant relations. By the early 1750s Thomas Grimball III and his brother, Joseph, were living in the D’Harriette’s household in Charleston, an extensive mansion that once stood at the southeast corner of Queen and Meeting Street. When Anne D’Harriette died in July of 1754, an obituary in the South Carolina Gazette called her “a most affectionate wife,” and “a tender Mother to the otherwise Motherless.” A year later, Benjamin married a widow named Martha Fowler, and the Grimball boys had a new maternal figure in their lives. Around this time Mr. D’Harriette retired from commercial life to enjoy the fruits of his labors, but his health rapidly declined. Benjamin D’Harriette made his last will and testament in January of 1756 and died one month later. In his will, the childless D’Harriette left the bulk of his estate to the twelve year-old Thomas Grimball. The young boy received all of D’Harriette’s wearing apparel, his library of French books, a gold watch, his best silver-hilted sword and pistols, and a suit of mourning clothes for young Tom and for his nurse, an enslaved, mixed-race woman named Clarinda. Finally, D’Harriette left Thomas a lump sum of £14,000 South Carolina currency, which was to be invested and held in trust for Thomas’s education until his twenty-first birthday. In 1756, that £14,000 currency was worth approximately £2,000 sterling. In n today’s money, that would be worth roughly $300,000.
Thomas Grimball probably lived out the rest of the 1750s in Charleston with D’Harriette’s widow, Martha, who died in 1760. In that same year Thomas turned sixteen, and his life changed dramatically. First, he began to serve as a clerk to a local attorney, William Burrows, who was also Master of the South Carolina Court of Chancery. As most apprentices did at that time, young Thomas probably lived with the Burrows family in Tradd Street while he studied law and assisted with clerical duties. Second, the sixteen-year-old Thomas was required to enroll in the local militia, as all boys his age had to do in colonial South Carolina. Through his connections to the elite families of Charleston, Thomas apparently joined the ranks of the Charleston Artillery Company, which was South Carolina’s first uniformed militia company and its first artillery unit.
After five years of study and clerkship, and soon after his twenty-first birthday, Thomas Grimball III was admitted to the South Carolina bar in early June 1765. Two weeks later, he married twenty-year-old Mary Magdalen Prioleau (1745–1813), and soon the young couple settled into an old Prioleau family house in Church Street, just a few yards north of Broad Street. Through the rest of the 1760s, Thomas Grimball was an industrious and increasingly respectable member of local society. As a solicitor, his legal work dealt mainly with civil matters, debts, and chancery cases. He served as a churchwarden and vestryman for St. Philip’s Parish, and also as a commissioner of the markets and work house of urban Charleston. He was socially active, joining the South Carolina Society, the Fellowship Society, and probably also the town’s subscription concert organization, the St. Cecilia Society.
By 1772, Thomas Grimball had worked his way through the ranks of the Charleston Artillery Company to become second lieutenant, the lowest ranking commissioned officer of that elite militia unit. Besides their regular militia musters at which they practiced firing of their brass cannons, the Charleston Artillery Company paraded and fired salutes on every public holiday, such as the king’s birthday and the arrival and departure of the various royal governors of South Carolina.
In October 1773, the government of South Carolina commissioned twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Grimball to be Sheriff of Charleston District. This was a position of great responsibility, and it required a great deal of time and effort. The sheriff was responsible for overseeing a number of public operations, including the collection of taxes, the delivery of legal writs and subpoenas, the publication of government proclamations, the incarceration of prisoners awaiting trial, the delivery prisoners to court for trial, and the execution of sentences imposed by the various courts.
By the mid-1770s, Thomas Grimball III was a well-known and well-respected member of the Charleston community. Had his continued on this path without interruption, his name would probably be much more familiar to modern South Carolinians. The commencement of the American Revolution in the spring of 1775 changed everything, however. In June of 1775 the rebellious South Carolina Provincial Congress created several regiments of a new provincial army, a full-time uniformed force that would become part of the General George Washington’s Continental Army. In the summer of 1775 the nascent South Carolina army recruited experienced officers from the existing militia system, and so Thomas Grimball, who remained in the militia, found himself due for a promotion. By the end of 1775, or perhaps the beginning of 1776, after all three of his superior officers in the Charleston Artillery Company had joined the provincial army, Grimball advanced from the lowest ranking lieutenant to the rank of captain, or commandant, of Charleston’s elite militia artillery unit.
As the town prepared for an expected British naval assault in the spring of 1776, our government held out little hope of preventing enemy warships from sailing into Charleston harbor and attacking the town directly. South Carolina forces were hastily building a palmetto log fort on Sullivan’s Island to harass any British ships attempting to enter the harbor, but few expected the unfinished fort to fulfill its mission. In the meantime, Captain Thomas Grimball and his crack artillery troops were assigned to protect the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula, which would be the first target for any British warships that entered the harbor. A large fort at this site, called Broughton’s Battery when it was constructed at White Point in the 1730s, was renamed Grimball’s Battery in 1776 in honor of the artillery captain in command. Against all odds, the South Carolina troops manning the unfinished palmetto fort on Sullivan’s Island managed to drive off the British Navy on the 28th of June 1776, and the Charleston Artillery Company at Grimball’s Battery breathed a sigh of relief. At that time, two of Capt. Grimball’s lieutenants, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward Jr., were on leave in Philadelphia, where they affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence that summer.
Later in 1776, Thomas Grimball III was elected to represent the urban parishes of St. Philip and St. Michael in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Over the next several years of the war, he maintained a very busy routine, serving as an elected politician, sheriff, militia commander, lawyer, and husband. As the war continued into the spring of 1778, the South Carolina legislature voted to enlarge the Charleston Artillery Company into a battalion of three companies. As a result of this expansion, Capt. Thomas Grimball was promoted to Major Thomas Grimball of the Charleston Battalion of Artillery. From the spring of 1778 to the end of the war, Major Grimball commanded a force of three captains, nine lieutenants, twelve sergeants, twelve musicians, and more than two hundred uniformed rank and file militiamen drawn from urban Charleston.
When British troops ventured up from Georgia into lower South Carolina in early 1779, Major Grimball and his troops accompanied Governor John Rutledge on a march into the Orangeburg district in an effort to check the enemy’s progress. When British troops under General Augustine Prevost closed in on Charleston in May of 1779, Major Grimball and his men scurried back to town and were posted at the Horn Work, a large tabby fortress built in the late 1750s to guard the northern entrance to the town, at what is now the intersection of Calhoun and King Streets. General Prevost’s British troops turned back from Charleston in 1779, but the war was far from over.
As South Carolina struggled to amass the resources necessary to combat the British invasion in 1779, hundreds of citizens responded by loaning their private fortunes to the war effort. In late 1779, Thomas Grimball liquidated much of his personal estate and made two loans to the state, one for £50,000 and another for £30,000. These sums were rendered in South Carolina currency, which at that time had greatly depreciated in value. According to a table of depreciation adopted by the South Carolina legislature in 1783, the value of Major Grimball’s £80,000 loan to the state in late 1779 was equal to £2,854 sterling, which, in today’s money, would be worth nearly $400,000.
In early 1780 British troops returned to Charleston under the command of General Henry Clinton. As they began encircling the town and constructing siege trenches, American troops under Generals Benjamin Lincoln and William Moultrie readied Charleston for a gallant defense. Major Thomas Grimball and the Charleston Battalion of Artillery were assigned to guard the Horn Work, the strategic center point of the town’s defenses and the headquarters of the American command. The elevated cannon platform of the Horn Work was also the highest point of the siege lines, and Grimball’s men made easy targets for the British cannon and sharpshooters as the siege commenced in early April 1780. After nearly six weeks of bombardment, the American hopes of defending Charleston dimmed. In early May Major Grimball joined the vast majority of his fellow officers in recommending the surrender of the town. When the formal surrender ceremony took place on May 12th 1780, Grimball’s Battalion of Artillery was given the honor of leading the American parade of more than five thousand troops through the gates of the Horn Work.
As a member of the militia, Major Grimball was considered a prisoner on parole and was allowed to return to his home in Church Street. Three months later, however, on August 27th, British soldiers arrested Major Grimball and dozens of other militiamen on the pretence that they had been conspiring in secret to commit “seditious conduct against the crown.” Grimball and the others were placed on board a British prison ship in the harbor, and a week later they were transferred to another vessel that sailed for St. Augustine, Florida, on September 5th, 1780. For the next ten months, Thomas Grimball was one of nearly sixty Charleston men who lived as exiled prisoners on parole in British-held Florida. Their conditions were poor and sparse, but they were given liberty to walk within a narrow range of the town. Nevertheless, after several long years of constant activity, Grimball’s health began to decline.
In June of 1781 the British command in Charleston announced that the American prisoners held at St. Augustine would be transferred to Philadelphia, where they would be liberated but not allowed to return to South Carolina. At the same time, British authorities in Charleston informed the families of the prisoners in St. Augustine that they had just over a month to evacuate the town. Accordingly, Mary Magdalen Grimball packed up a few belongings and sailed to Philadelphia to join her husband, whom she hadn’t seen in nearly a year. For the rest of 1781 and all of 1782, the Grimballs lived in Philadelphia, but I haven’t been able to locate any details about their activities in that city. With no income, no possessions, no savings, and no family to support them, Thomas and Mary Magdalen apparently lived on the credit of their name and reputation, but their lives must have been difficult. Thomas’s health continued to decline, and the northern winters probably contributed to his worsening condition.
The American victory at the Siege of Yorktown in October 1781 dashed the British hopes of quelling the rebellion, but the war wasn’t over yet. Skirmishes continued after Yorktown, mostly in the southern states, but there were no further major battles. The British army was on the back foot, and throughout the year 1782 they began withdrawing troops and resources from the United States. In the late summer of 1782, British authorities in Charleston formally announced that they would begin evacuating South Carolina, and the countdown to our liberation began. After several months of logistical foot-dragging, British forces finally began departing from Charleston harbor in December of 1782. At that same time, several American merchant ships in the port of Philadelphia were preparing for a voyage to Charleston. The sixty-odd men who had been arrested and exiled to St. Augustine in 1780, and then exchanged to Philadelphia in 1781, along with their family members who were banished from Charleston, were about to return to their home state. The first of the exiles sailed from Philadelphia in early December, while others had to wait until the early months of 1783 to book passage to Charleston. It’s unclear exactly when and on which vessel Thomas Grimball and his wife, Mary Magadalen, returned to Charleston, but it appears they may have been among the last of the exiles to depart from Philadelphia. Perhaps they were delayed because Thomas was in poor health and Mary feared the winter journey might sap his strength. In the early weeks of 1783, while most people were celebrating the American victory as the long war for independence concluded, the Grimballs returned home to Charleston in a shattered condition. I haven’t found any documents to explain whether he sustained wounds during the brave defense of Charleston in 1780 or grew ill during his long period of imprisonment and exile, but it’s clear that Thomas Grimball was gravely ill when he returned to Charleston in early 1783. How do I know that? Because the next clue in the life story of Thomas Grimball III is his obituary.
On the 1st of March 1783, the South Carolina Weekly Gazette published the news that Major Thomas Grimball of the Charlestown Battalion of Artillery had died on the morning of Wednesday, February 26th, just shy of his 39th birthday. Following this news is a brief obituary, which I’ll share with you in its entirety:
“At the Commencement of the War, inspired with the sacred Love of his Country, [Major Thomas Grimball] took an early Part, and sacrificed the greatest Part of his Fortune and domestic Tranquility in Defence [sic] of her Liberties. At the Surrender of this Capital to the British Arms, he was taken in the same, and afterwards, contrary to solemn Capitulation, he was banished by a lawless Banditti to St. Augustine, during which Time, in the Hour of his Country’s deepest Distress, he steadfastly adhered to and never forsook her; after which he was exchanged and sent to Philadelphia, and from thence but lately returned to his native Home.–His Remains were on the next Evening followed by a numerous Train of Relations, Friends, Acquaintances, Brother Officers, and Men of his Battalion, and interred, with Military Honours, in the Family Vault in St. Philip’s Church Yard.”
As I said at the beginning of this program, Thomas Grimball is not a major figure in the history of South Carolina. He was not what we might call an ordinary man, but neither was he a remarkable figure. His life story is one of many untold, interesting biographies in the long history of our state, and I think it’s one worth remembering. Thomas Grimball was a talented, hard-working member of his community who sacrificed his property and his health in the effort to create the independent United States that we often take for granted today. There are, of course, a lot more details to his story, but you’ll have to wait until I finish the book to hear the rest of the narrative. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey into the past aboard the Charleston Time Machine.