Swords, Fencing, and Masculine Choreography in Early Charleston
From the earliest days of the Carolina Colony to the Civil War, many White men in the Charleston area carried various types of swords as both emblems of status and implements of self-defense. Fashion and function dictated the types of equipment used in different eras, and fencing lessons formed part of the education of many young gentlemen. In today’s program, we’ll explore the motivations for carrying different type of blades, the identities of some of the fencing masters, and the connections between music, choreography, and the fashionable violence of dueling.
If you read various primary sources related to the early history of South Carolina, such as letters, legislative journals, and old newspapers, you’ll find many references to different types of edged weapons. In a previous program (Episode No. 219), for example, I talked about South Carolina’s ceremonial “sword of state,” which Governor Nathaniel Johnson purchased in 1704. Swords of various descriptions were ubiquitous accessories in the history of the Palmetto State from the founding of the colony in 1670 to the final days of the Civil War in 1865. Since that time, most Americans have forgotten the vocabulary and skills that were once familiar to our predecessors.
Today’s program is just a brief foray into a huge topic that one could spend a lifetime exploring. I don’t claim to be an authority on the history of edged weapons or the practice of fencing, and I have no intention of constructing a detailed chronological history of those topics in early South Carolina. Nor do I plan to delve into the local history of dueling, a topic that my friend Grahame Long has already explored in some depth. Rather, my goal is to provide a brief overview of sword culture in the Charleston area and draw your attention to a few curious aspects of this topic. Some men wielded swords in the Palmetto State because they were required to do so as part of their compulsory military service, while others cultivated a culture of swordplay as a masculine exercise that enhanced their sense of personal honor. Their differing motivations for taking up the blade determined, in large part, the weapon they would use.
Swords of various designs have been used in different cultures around the world for many thousands of years, from the Bronze Age to the present. For the purposes of the present conversation, we’ll focus on Anglo-American trends from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Historians of European edged-weapons generally divide the swords of this era into two broad categories—weapons designed for cutting (with a chopping or slashing motion) and weapons designed for thrusting. Let’s consider the form and use of each category in turn.
Cutting weapons were used for martial purposes across all branches of military service, including foot soldiers (infantry), soldiers on horseback (cavalry), and mariners (sailors and marines). During an era when the process of reloading a firearm took more than a minute, combatants had to be prepared for personal defense at any moment on the battlefield. In addition, foot soldiers storming a fortress needed a weapon to chop at both obstructions and opponents. Cavalry riders required a blade suited to slashing at men on foot and for clashing with other horsemen. Sailors and marines attempting to board an enemy vessel needed swords to chop at their opponents and at the ship’s rigging.
To accomplish all of these martial objectives, soldiers of the late-seventeenth to the late-nineteenth centuries used several different species of broadswords. Unlike the short, double-edged broadswords of Antiquity, and unlike the long, double-edge broadswords of the European Middle Ages, most of the broadswords used in early South Carolina were single-edged weapons of a middling length that featured a slight curvature to the blade. More specifically, the martial broadswords favored here were backswords; that is, the unsharpened edge was thicker than the sharp edge and formed a spine along the length of the blade that added rigidity for chopping and slashing. Backswords designed for different uses were known by different names.
The sword carried by most foot soldiers in early South Carolina was known as a hanger. Sometimes called a hunting sword, a hanger is a broad, single-edged backsword with a slight curvature to the blade, which terminates in a broad point. The grip and hilt were usually rather simple, and they were carried by captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. Pioneers sometimes used hangers like machetes to chop brush and saplings out of the path of an army on the march. This was a very utilitarian weapon, and most surviving examples of eighteenth-century hangers in museums across the United States show obvious signs of wear and tear.
The colonial government of South Carolina organized a militia system almost immediately after establishing the first permanent settlement here in 1670, but the earliest surviving text of a militia law dates from 1696. That law, and all of its later revisions, required every able-bodied White male, aged sixteen to sixty, to carry a sword, bayonet, or hatchet in addition to a musket when they reported for duty. As bayonets became more common in the eighteenth century, however, the use of hangers was eventually limited to officers (both commissioned and non-commissioned). As in the militia, the officers of Charleston’s early police force—known as the “town watch” during the colonial era and the “city guard” after 1783—carried hangers when they patrolled the streets of the colonial capital.
At sea, the favored backsword of the seventeenth and eighteenth century was generally called a cutlass. Surviving cutlasses held in maritime museums and those depicted in contemporary illustrations resemble the hangers used by infantrymen. Early cutlasses were frequently shorter and included a larger hilt than a hanger, but, in truth, the two sword types became nearly indistinguishable later in the eighteenth century. Anyone who has perused the literature about the golden age of pirates will recognize the relatively short, curving, single-edged cutlass depicted in the hands of Blackbeard and other notorious seadogs who roamed the Atlantic some three centuries ago.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, South Carolina’s provincial government acquired and maintained a large inventory of various types of weapons and militia supplies for public defense in case of an enemy invasion. This martial stockpile, housed in a public armory within urban Charleston, included dozens of cannon, nearly a thousand muskets, pistols, and blunderbusses, and several hundred swords. The surviving legislative journals of the colonial-era, which include numerous inventories of the armory, consistently describe these swords as cutlasses. These public weapons were distributed to militiamen during times of emergency, and were intended to be used against enemy ships that sailed into the rivers and harbors of South Carolina. In fact, a 1735 inventory even described them as “sea service swords.” From an all-time high of 384 cutlasses in 1736, the public inventory dipped to 145 in 1748, after a decade-long war with France and Spain, but rebounded to 176 cutlasses stored in the State House in 1771.
Cavalry soldiers mounted on horseback generally required long, robust swords to slash at infantry and to spar with other horsemen. The earliest reference to cavalry swords in South Carolina that I’ve found dates from the spring of 1740 and requires horse troopers in Charleston to carry “a broad sword with a half-basket-hilt.” Although the term “broadsword” was often used in the distant past to describe double-edged weapons with straight blades, the paucity of surviving references from eighteenth-century South Carolina makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about their form. Cavalry swords used in the American Revolution were long, single-edge backswords with curving lines, generally called sabers. Although the traditional double-edge broadsword of the Scottish Highlands enjoyed a military revival in England around the turn of the nineteenth century, the curving, single-edged saber emerged as the preferred weapon of both cavalry and marines in Antebellum Charleston.
In contrast to military swords designed for slashing and chopping movements, a very different type of weapon emerged in the sixteenth century to satisfy a growing need for civilian defense. The rapier, with a relatively long, straight, narrow, double-edged blade, was lighter and more flexible than a broadsword. Although it was capable of cutting an opponent, the rapier was also designed to be effective in rapid thrusting attacks. Affluent European gentlemen adopted the practice of wearing rapiers as part of their civilian attire in the late sixteenth century. If such gentlemen were attacked by thieves, or insulted by one of their peers, they might draw their blade to defend their property and honor. The study and practice of such defensive moves became known as “fencing” among practitioners in England.
The rapier became a standard fashionable accessory for European gentlemen of the early seventeenth century and facilitated the rise of dueling in civilian contexts, but its form did not remain constant. As fencing strategies evolved during the second half of the seventeenth century, civilian swordsmen began to prefer shorter and lighter blades, and to concentrate on thrusting hits rather than cutting blows. The result of this trend was a new weapon known as the “smallsword” in England, where it gained popularity after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and held sway for more than a century.
The blade of a typical smallsword is straight and narrow, and tapers to a very small, sharp point. Its edges might not even be sharpened because it designed exclusively for thrusting combat in close quarters. While these characteristics rendered it completely ineffective as a cavalry weapon on horseback and relatively useless in storming a fort or boarding a ship, the light and flexible smallsword was ideally suited for gentlemanly self-defense and dueling.
In the early generations of the Carolina Colony, any man who aspired to the rank of gentlemen acquired a small sword and wore it in public as a mark of social distinction. This practice required the purchase of imported swords as well as the necessary fashion accessories, including leather sword belts, embellished scabbards, and decorative “sword knots” or tassels made of silk and other expensive textiles. In South Carolina as in Europe, many of the gentlemen who wore a smallsword on their hip sought to improve their skills by taking formal lessons in the proper management of the fashionable weapon. When personal tutors were not available, they resorted to printed books of instruction.
To reach broad audiences, scores of professional soldiers from the dawn of the printing press in the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century published treatises that described the use of various swords in narrative prose. The process of distilling a series of complex physical moves into words presents a pedagogical challenge for every teacher, whether the object is to teach a pupil to play the banjo, wield a sword, or dance the tango. To describe and illustrate the necessary skills as efficiently as possible, treatise writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began deconstructing their topics into a series of progressive modules composed of small steps, positions, actions, and gestures. In other words, they invented a sort of choreography for swordsmanship.
Fencing masters were not alone in this educational innovation. The five basic positions of modern ballet, for example, were codified by male dancing masters in late seventeenth century France to teach fashionable dance steps to gentleman pupils. Fencing masters used the same concept of choreography to create a vocabulary of physical positions and gestures that endured for many generations. Their motivation was the same: authors sought to illuminate a series of progressive skills in a clear manner for pupils they might never meet. Whether the subject was sword fighting, musketry, dancing, or playing the guitar, specialist writers created pedagogical outlines that purported to encompass the “art” and “science” of the topic at hand.
The literary tradition of fencing instruction, which first blossomed during the Renaissance, reached maturity during the eighteenth century and the “Age of Enlightenment.” In England, for example, numerous fencing manuals concentrating on the use of the smallsword were published between the Restoration of Charles II and the end of the eighteenth century. The most popular and most enduring of these treatises was that published in London in 1763 by an Italian virtuoso who went by the name Domenico Angelo (1717–1802). Angelo’s physical skill as a swordsman was well-known in aristocratic circles, and his position as fencing tutor to the Prince of Wales cemented his reputation. His treatise, first published in French and later in English, contained elegant illustrations that set a new visual benchmark for the art of swordplay.
To compliment these instructional treatises, gentleman in Europe as well as the various American colonies sought local tutors to provide personalized practical instruction. Enterprising fencing masters offered both classes and private tutorials for affluent men wishing to refine their martial skills. Charleston’s earliest weekly newspapers, which commenced publication in 1732, contain a number of advertisements for fencing instruction, which invariably focused on the management of the civilian smallsword.
James Vaughn of Bristol, for example, came to Charleston in the spring of 1736 and advertised “that he teaches gentlemen the art of fencing with the small sword.” When Israel Deveaux died in 1746, he was remembered in Charleston as a “peruke maker and fencing master.” Moreau Zarrazin (aka Sarrazin), better known as a goldsmith in the colonial capital, also advertised in 1746 to teach fencing at his house in Elliott Street, “or at the private habitations of such gentlemen as incline to learn that noble science.” George Corde, who described himself in 1752 as “an experienced master” with twenty years’ service in the British army, taught “the noble and ingenious science of fencing with the small sword” on East Bay Street, “at gentlemen’s houses in the country, and at boarding schools.” John Meyer announced in 1754 that he taught “young gentlemen the noble science of defence on moderate terms” in Elliott Street. Edmund Egan, better remembered as the premier brewer of late colonial-era Charleston, started his career here in the summer of 1762 by teaching “the use of the small sword . . . in the most regular and approved method now in use.”
The most prominent swordsman in eighteenth-century South Carolina, however, was an Englishman named Thomas Pike who came to Charleston in the autumn of 1764. Pike was a talented and ambitious man who advertised himself as master of several gentlemanly arts, including fencing, dancing, and music. As a musician, he taught several instruments and performed in concert on the French horn and bassoon. Pike distinguished himself from other dancing masters in Charleston by offering to teach “orchesography,” which he defined as “the art of dancing by characters and demonstrative figures, wherein the whole art is explained with complete tables of all the steps used in dancing.” In other words, Pike used an early form of dance notation (probably Beauchamp-Feuillet notation) to teach a vocabulary of positions, steps, and physical gestures that could be combined in various ways to create an infinite number of dances.
Thomas Pike’s use of illustrative figures to teach sophisticated dance steps reflects the same Enlightenment-era impulse that led fencing masters like Domenico Angelo to use a similar vocabulary of positions and gestures. Pike’s physical skill as a dancer thus facilitated his career as a swordsman because both activities were based on a series of movements that could be reduced to choreography. In fact, Pike’s career as a fencing master was contemporary with that of the celebrated Angelo, and his success with the smallsword in late-colonial Charleston was likely fueled by the wave of popular interest surrounding Angelo’s famous treatise of 1763.
Mr. Pike resided in Charleston for a decade and often fraternized with the local elite, but his social and artistic ambitions led to a financial crisis that compelled him to remove to Philadelphia in 1774. There he remained loyal to the British crown at the beginning of the American Revolution, joined the British Army, and participated in the Siege of Charleston in 1780. After losing all his property in South Carolina, he returned to Philadelphia and eventually to England. Thomas Pike was colorful character whom I can imagine as the protagonist in a future novel or screenplay, and perhaps we’ll return to his story in a future program.
While the popularity of the smallsword waned in Britain and the new United States during the final years of the eighteenth century, the art and science of fencing developed a life of its own. The lightweight and blunt fencing foil, which had emerged as a practice instrument at the dawn of the eighteenth century, became the weapon of choice for fencing students in the early nineteenth century. Divorced from the spheres of military service and aristocratic dueling, fencing persevered as a form of masculine exercise. Like the men who cultivated the use of the smallsword in earlier generations, the proponents of fencing in the nineteenth century emphasized its suitability for young men with pretentions to social gentility. In Charleston in 1821, for example, a French fencing master named Charles Perony published an advertisement explaining to parents why they should send their sons to study with him:
“This noble exercise affords a young gentleman, a manly and distinguished amusement; it forms his body; it teaches him to place himself in a proper, upright attitude, and instructs him in the means of self-defence. Every exercise, in general, has its advantages, and concurs in accomplishing a general effect; but none can give elegance and freedom in a greater degree than that of fencing, because in it every part of the body is continually in action; and to crown all, it brings and confirms health, the most invaluable blessings of life—It also enables those who practice it, to pursue other exercises with greater facility, particularly dancing.”
Interest in swordsmanship in general increased across South Carolina during the years preceding the American Civil War. In contrast to the young men who pursued fencing as form of genteel recreation, however, many citizen-soldiers participating in antebellum militia units sought practical instruction in the use of battlefield weapons like the saber and cutlass. Such paramilitary preparations echoed the experiences of earlier generations of Carolinians. Like the swordsmen of our colonial era, they read illustrated treatises and hired tutors to learn the positions, gestures, and choreography associated with the art and science of personal combat.
South Carolina’s sword culture, like that of other Southern states, withered in the wake of the destructive Civil War. Interest in militia sword exercises enjoyed a brief resurgence here in the late nineteenth century, and the sport of fencing survived locally within the rarified spheres of local colleges and private academies. While it might be uncommon to see someone carrying a smallsword or saber in the Lowcountry today, I think it’s intriguing to remember that edged weapons formed an important part of masculine culture in the first two centuries of South Carolina’s early history.
Citizens of the twenty-first century who’ve never wielded a saber or foil might think it odd to describe swordplay as a sort of choreography, but everyone has witnessed the legacy of this ancient tradition through the medium of film and theater. Stage combat has long formed part of the successful actor’s craft, and every swordfight seen in cinematic productions has been meticulously choreographed in advance of filming. Although the steps and costumes have changed over the years, I’d like to believe that the physical grace and fancy footwork of historic fencing masters like Thomas Pike and Domenico Angelo might win a few fans among modern audiences.
 J. Grahame Long, Dueling in Charleston: Violence Refined in the Holy City (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2012).
 The text of Act No. 138, “An Act for the Better Settling and Regulating of the Militia,” ratified on 2 March 1695/6, remains unpublished; a manuscript copy survives in Columbia at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Acts of Assembly, “Governor Archdale’s Lawes,” pages 1–8.
 See Alexander S. Salley Jr., ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina, November 8, 1734–June 7, 1735 (Columbia, S.C.: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1947), 53 (8 February 1734/5); J. H. Easterby, ed., The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, November 10, 1736–June 7, 1739 (Columbia, S.C.: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1951), 52 (8 December 1736); J. H. Easterby and Ruth S. Green, eds. The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, January 19, 1748–June 29, 1748 (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1961), 271, 280–82 (18–19 May 1748); South Carolina Department of Archives and History, manuscript Journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, No. 38, part 3, page 547 (3 October 1771).
 See the notice for the First Troop of Horse Guards under the command of Captain Ravenel in South Carolina Gazette, 9–16 February 1739/40, page 3.
 Domenico Angelo, L’Ecole des Armes, avec l’explication générale des principales attitudes et positions concernant L’Escrime (London: R. & J. Dodsley, 1763).
 South Carolina Gazette, 10–17 April 1736, page 2.
 South Carolina Gazette, 10 November 1746, page 3.
 South Carolina Gazette, 17 November 1746, page 3.
 South Carolina Gazette, 23 March 1752, page 2.
 South Carolina Gazette, 17 October 1754, page 1.
 South Carolina Gazette, 4–11 September 1762, page 3; South Carolina Gazette, 4–11 December 1762, page 3.
 South Carolina Gazette, 24–31 August 1765, page 4.
 Judith Cobau, “The Precarious Life of Thomas Pike, a Colonial Dancing Master in Charleston and Philadelphia,” Dance Chronicle 17:3 (1994), 229–62.
 [Charleston, S.C.] City Gazette, 16 May 1821, page 2.