Rainbow Markets, Civil War History, and Crabbin’ with Myrtle: Charleston, South Carolina

After touring many of the Revolutionary War Battlefields, Jeff and I were looking forward to a weekend in Charleston to learn a bit about American Civil War life. Okay, that was actually not the main reason we decided to visit the coastal city last September, but it had a funny way of working out.

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The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston.

When we arrived into the city and crossed over the beautiful Cooper River, our teeth chattered from the old original cobblestone roadways into the historic downtown neighborhood in the French Quarter. We found a place to park (for a good price) near the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and found ourselves completely distracted by the beautiful and old cemetery along the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the church and cemeteries were closed to the public, but we still loved seeing the integrity of the city on display.

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Headstones inside the St. Philip’s Church Cemetery.

The first St. Philip’s Church dates back to the late 1600s and is the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina, but a hurricane destroyed the church in 1710. Building was severely delayed, so the next St. Philip’s wasn’t finished until 1723 only to burn down in 1835. What stands today is the result of a hurricane and fire, but it is one of the biggest landmarks in the historic district.

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St. Philip’s Church in the downtown historic district.

Just around the corner from this church on Chalmers Street was our first planned destination: The Old Slave Mart Museum. Tucked in its original building, the historic market is easy to miss among the other homes and balconied buildings, but if you merely look up and around, the unmistakable “MART” and old cement walls make the building painfully obvious.

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The Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street.

We walked in and paid a small fee to walk through the converted marketplace, and you could feel the sadness clinging to the building. Pictures were not allowed inside the museum itself, but I will say the National Park Service has done a lovely job transforming the place into an informative and beautiful two-floored museum that I would highly recommend visiting.

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No further pictures were allowed inside the museum, but the displays were incredible and really informative.

Tons of information is placed up on the walls describing slave life in the 1800s with some audio guides and stunning statistics, one of which I found surprising.

In 1860, of the 15 people who had more than 500 slaves, 8 were in South Carolina.

The building, itself, was built in 1859 as a part of an extended structure or “shed.” Since Charleston sits on the water, ships would make it one of their first ports of call thus bringing many, many enslaved Africans, not unlike the famous New Orleans port. Inside this market, slaves were sold in the north annex where tables mounted three feet above the ground were used as a display place.

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The historic district in Charleston.

While you can still see some of the original structure from the outside, the museum has been so transformed that it is hard to picture what the building may have looked like those many, many years ago, but that may be because once slavery was outlawed, the building was turned into a residence in 1878. If you’re looking for more information on how slavery transformed South Carolina and the South in the 1800s, this place is definitely worth a visit. The building itself is really something to see.

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The Charleston City Market with beautiful murals on the exterior.

Much like Cajun cuisine in New Orleans, Charleston has its own flavor brought over from Africa called Gullah or Sea Island Creole. While it’s mostly okra, sweet potatoes, rice, and beans, it’s also well-known for harvesting from the land and sea at certain times of the year. Typical dishes we saw advertised around were oyster rice, conch stew, and perloo (a take on jambalaya), but instead of ducking into a cafe or restaurant, we wanted to see what the Charleston City Market had in store for us. (We have a reason to return to Chucktown now!)

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Inside the market with stalls and stalls of trinkets.

We thought that with all of the stalls and wares for sale, we would have a wide variety of food stalls including some Gullah cuisine, but unfortunately, there were only a small handful of places to grab some eats from surrounded by the countless basket, scarf, and necklace stands. We still found some amazing sandwiches (complete with gluten-free bread) from Caviar and Bananas inside the market, but what really captured my imagination was the fact that I was walking in the footsteps of countless people from as early as 1790.

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A great place to grab a gluten-free sandwich inside the City Market.

At the size of four city blocks, this covered marketplace was originally a replacement for the Beef Market building that burned down. While we didn’t see the Confederate Museum which is located in the Market Hall, it is one of the biggest draws to the market “rectangle.” After we went up and down the long walkway, we saw that a lot of the stalls were the same with the same type of trinkets and souvenirs, so we decided to head off to our next point of interest and main draw for us: Fort Sumter.

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The entry gates to Liberty Square near Fort Sumter.

At Liberty Square, right next door to the aquarium is the National Park Service Fort Sumter National Monument. While the museum at Liberty Square is free, the boat ride and visit on the fort island is a bit pricey at $19.50 per person.

The museum does give a lot of information about the American Civil War including a display of one of the first American flags, lesser known quotes from American leaders, and fascinating displays of how the battle progressed, but there is so much more in depth information and relics on the island itself.

“Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.” — Abraham Lincoln

We had enough time from grabbing our tickets to when the next boat would arrive to see the entire museum, but we didn’t think to look at the schedules beforehand. Do make sure to plan properly when making Fort Sumter your destination for the day. We boarded the last boat of the day and in about 20 minutes, we were standing on the fort where the first shots were fired signaling the beginning of the American Civil War.

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Fort Sumter from our boat.

Built after the War of 1812, the fort was reinforced with high walls and many canons, and despite the early beginning of construction, it was not ready for when South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860.

With the war beginning, tensions were high in the South. The Confederates had asked the Union soldiers of Fort Sumter to surrender the fort, but U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson refused. Attempts at conditions and compromises failed through the night of April 11, 1861, and the following day, Confederate forces stationed on Fort Johnson, opened fire on Fort Sumter and didn’t stop for 34 straight hours.

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A relic on the monument island.

It took a couple of hours before the Union finally returned fire from the initial 4:30am attack, but it was futile. The next day, April 13th, the fort was surrendered and the Confederates took it over.

Two years later, the Union attempted to take Fort Sumter back, but again, the Union failed in recovering the Confederate stronghold that had grown stronger with the use of slave labor. But it would be for nothing since by the time the war was over, the fort was in complete ruin.

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The fort walls in ruins.

Today, there are still bricks and walls standing built by slaves in the 1800s, and canons are placed strategically to show where the fire had come from. Standing on that monument really did give us a better perspective of how the war began and where the first shots were fired.

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The flag being lowered at the end of the day with volunteers helping out.

Our time on the island was short, but we felt we had plenty of time to go through the entire museum and walk around the island and witness the end-of-the-day flag lowering ceremony. It truly was a perfect way to spend a day in Charleston.

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The James Island area.

At the start of this entry, I said that Fort Sumter was the reason we went to Charleston, but that’s not 100% true. Jeff got it in his head that he really wanted to go crabbing. So, the next morning, we woke up early and headed to the James Island County Park, known for its blue crab spots and outstanding views.

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Loading up with ice in anticipation of some crabbing.

It was right after the Labor Day weekend, so we were incredibly lucky to have missed the crowds. Surrounded by silence, we set up our gear and brought out our rotten and disgusting turkey necks to toss into the rushing water.

Looking back, we were so unprepared. We had let turkey necks come to room temperature overnight in a cooler outside, and we only had twine and a single net. We set up the strings with the rotten meat and tied them off to the dock and watched as nothing happened.

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Jeff waiting, waiting, waiting.

And nothing happened for a couple of hours.

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Where I prepared to enjoy the day.

I was actually content looking over the water with my book, but Jeff was starting to get anxious. And then, a woman with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and curlers in her hair came rolling up the boardwalk with two coolers, about six crab baskets, and a radio. We were in the presence of a serious pro. She introduced herself as Myrtle, “like the beach,” and we watched her set up her station. We were in complete awe because within ten minutes, she had three, good sized blue crabs in her nets.

We watched her technique and immediately saw she only used baskets and not rotten meat. I was relieved because if Jeff had wanted to continue this outdoor activity, I would have to seriously psyche myself up to being around repulsive and warm raw meat.

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Once we started rolling, I was hooked.

Discarded on the deck was a broken crab basket. Jeff swiped it and repaired it as best we could with our limited tools, and Myrtle was kind enough to give us some weights to tie to the basket. Our tied off twine was not reaching the bottom of the river, so we weren’t even on the crabs’ murky radar.

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Waiting…waiting…waiting.

To give you an idea of how deep this river was, at one point, Jeff saw a pod of dolphins swim by. Of course, this was the moment I decided to run to the restroom, so I missed the phenomenon, but Myrtle backed up Jeff’s story, so who was I to question?

As soon as we cast the repaired crab net into the water, we were picking up crabs one at a time. We were so excited! Finally! This continued for a couple of hours, and then, the water came to a dead stop. The entire morning, it moved at an western clip, but right around 2pm, the water was beginning to turn east. But what was miraculous was that in that 45 minute transition period, our single lines started to snag and bob. The stopped water gave the crabs the perfect view of our bait, and they were eating it up!

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We couldn’t have found a better place to be.

The sun beat down on us, but we were having a blast going from line to line to basket and scooping up good-sized crabs for our weekend supper. With a four hour drive ahead of us, we pulled up our little camp and iced down our crabs.

Tip from Myrtle: If the ice starts to melt, drain as much off as you can. The fresh water the ice is made of makes the crab meat mushy. So it’s best to chill the crabs in salt water and get home as fast as you can.

We managed to keep the ice relatively solid, so the crabs slept all the way back to Spartanburg where we boiled them in classic Creole seasoning and enjoyed a very messy meal.

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Boiled blue crabs, fresh from James Island.

After our weekend in Charleston, I do think we’ve taken away many things. For one, we have a much deeper (than before) appreciation of American history and how it continues to be relevant today with things that keep coming up in the news. But it also shows us just how young America still is. The American Civil War was only about 150 years ago, and there are many lessons we haven’t learned yet.

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Horse-drawn carriage tours in the historic district.

But also, sitting on the dock of the bay, sitting under the sun and enjoying a day crabbin’ has only reinforced our desire to embrace every single moment and unabashedly enjoy an adventurous life.

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Overlooking the Cooper River from the Charleston Historic French Quarter.

And our adventures do continue! In Charleston we saw the beginning of the Civil War, but next week, I’ll tell you all about visiting the place of the Confederate surrender: Appomattox, Virginia.

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