CHARLESTON, S.C. —
There’s always plenty to see in this beautiful seaport, founded more than 300 years ago and long one of the most wealthy cities in North America.
Meeting Street is even home to “Museum Mile.” There’s the wonderful Museum of Charleston — the oldest city museum in the country — plus art museums, house museums, galleries and all sorts of exhibition spaces.
But my favorite is one that most tourists walk right past, unnoticed. It is the Confederate Museum, on the upper floor of my favorite Charleston building — Market Hall.
Market Hall was built in 1841, and it was modeled after the Temple of the Wingless Victory in Athens. I can’t imagine a more perfect and perfectly proportioned example of the Greek Revival style. Painted in terra cotta, mustard and burnt umber, it looks like a piece of Grecian pottery when viewed from a few blocks away.
But it has always been at the very heart of Charleston. The upper room of Market Hall was used as offices for the market commissioners, and for elegant social functions and important meetings. Beneath it were open stalls where meat, fish, fruit and vegetables were sold each day. In those pre-refrigeration days, Charleston women and Charleston slaves came to the market each morning to buy that day’s food.
Those stalls — which stretch for six blocks behind the Market Hall building — are now filled with vendors selling artwork, jewelry, sea grass baskets, candy and souvenirs. The hall itself, however, has housed the Confederate Museum since 1899.
The museum is my favorite, because it’s so old-fashioned, low-tech and genuine. I love talking to the old ladies who take your $5 and tell you about the collection.
They are members of Charleston Chapter 4, United Daughters of the Confederacy. The chapter was formed in 1898 and immediately began collecting war souvenirs from members of the United Confederate Veterans, for a permanent museum.
At that time, the mayor and city council members were Confederate veterans, so in 1899 they agreed to provide Market Hall for museum space. That same room is where thousands of young South Carolinians came to enlist in 1861, as Fort Sumter — at the mouth of Charleston Harbor — was being bombarded, starting the war.
The UDC doesn’t promote the museum that much, and because it isn’t at street level, many innocently pass it by. But the collection is unsurpassed. Old glass show cases are jammed with swords, revolvers, bullets, photographs and Confederate uniforms — each one accompanied by a card that provides its story, as provided by the original donor. There’s the first cannon made for the Confederate Army; the white cloth that the mayor used to surrender the city; a doll that a Yankee soldier took from a Southern child, only to have it returned by a Union soldier with a kinder heart. There are cannon balls, battle flags, and an original copy of The Charleston Mercury, with the famous headline “THE UNION IS DISSOLVED!” The framed pen and ink blotter were used to sign the secession document.
“All of these items were given to us. We don’t buy, sell, or trade,” said the volunteer curator, an old lady whose grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. As a child, she saw the last two Charleston-area Confederate veterans at a memorial ceremony; as a young member of the UDC, she knew widows who had been married to Confederate veterans, and several daughters of Confederate veterans.
The Confederate Museum isn’t really politically correct, these days, but the ladies who run it don’t mind.
They are paying homage to their ancestors. They are preserving pieces of history that, without them, would have been lost. That’s quite enough.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.