Charleston is a city of cultivation and Old South charm, acknowledged for over a decade as the "best-mannered city in the U.S." Laid back and genteel, Charleston is a city of grand homes, wrought iron gates, and tree-lined streets. The downtown area, located on the peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper rivers flow into the Atlantic, serves as the business center for the Greater Charleston area (which encompasses three counties and 15 towns/cities, including North Charleston and Folly Beach). The Port of Charleston is one of the busiest in the nation, making the city a center of international trade. Yet the historic cityscape of Charleston is famously low and unobtrusive, unadulterated by high rises or glass towers. Steeples from the city's numerous churches dot the skyline, earning Charleston the nickname "The Holy City."
Established in 1670 by English settlers, "Charles Towne" was named for King Charles II of England. The original settlement was situated west of the Ashley River. Colonists poured in from England, Ireland, and Barbados, as well as the neighboring Virginia colony, enticed by the promises of religious freedom and landed estates. In 1680, the settlement moved across the river and established its Atlantic harbor. With aspirations of emerging as a "great port towne," Charles Towne became the gateway for colonial expansion. The region was contested by France and Spain, who periodically attacked Charles Towne. In addition, Native American tribes (allied with France) harassed Charles Towne with constant attacks, and marauding pirates assaulted its harbor. The colonists built a wall around the settlement in 1713 to aid in Charles Towne's defense. The Old Powder Magazine, a National Historic Landmark, is all that remains today of the fortification.
Charles Towne grew prosperous during the 18th century, thanks to the cultivation and export of indigo and rice. However, trade with England deteriorated in the aftermath of the French and Indian War as England began assessing taxes the colonists deemed unreasonable. The Tea Act of 1773 sparked open rebellion in the colonies. While Boston openly demonstrated by hurling crates of tea into the harbor, Charles Towne was a bit more restrained in their response; they simply confiscated the tea and stored it in their Exchange and Custom House. Colonial representatives gathered at the Exchange in 1774 to elect delegates to the Continental Congress, and it was on the steps of that same exchange that South Carolina declared its independence from England.
During the Revolutionary War, the steeples of Charles Towne were a frequent target for the British warships. The colonists responded by painting them black, so they'd be invisible against the night sky. In 1776, British General Henry Clinton tried to take Charles Towne with just 2,000 men and a naval squadron, banking on the hopes that Loyalists within South Carolina would rise up and assist. However, the Loyalists failed to rally as expected, and Clinton's assault was repelled. He returned in 1779 with 14,000 soldiers, and this time succeeded. American General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to Clinton in what was deemed the worst American defeat of the War for Independence. The British finally withdrew from the city in 1782, as the war drew to a close. In 1783, perhaps as an act of defiance, the city's name was officially changed to Charleston.
Following the war, the state capital was relocated to Columbia after a suspicious fire destroyed the Capitol Building in Charleston. Despite the loss of capital status, Charleston's plantations grew prosperous. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, Charleston's economy moved away from rice and indigo and began to focus on cotton. As the city came to rely more and more on slave labor, the Port of Charleston became a major hub of the slave market. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, citing the election of Lincoln as their primary motivation. In 1861, cadets at the Citadel fired the first shots of the Civil War at a U.S. steamer in Charleston Harbor that was carrying troops and supplies to the Union-held Fort Sumter. In April of that year, Confederate troops captured Fort Sumter as locals gathered on their rooftops to watch and cheer. However, the victory was short-lived as the North retaliated with 567 consecutive days of bombardment. By the time General Sherman and his Union army marched into Charleston, the beautiful city had been all but demolished.
But Charleston recouped and rebuilt, determined to preserve the best of its heritage even as it looked to the future. Today, Charleston enjoys profitable international trade as a world-class seaport. However, the city is known, first and foremost, as a tourist destination. Most of the historic downtown area is readily accessible by foot, but many visitors prefer to take a tour via bus, boat, or horse-drawn carriage. The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773, bears the distinction of America's oldest museum and features eclectic, fascinating exhibits ranging from Civil War firearms to an Egyptian mummy. Charleston also features a multitude of churches dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, including the French Huguenot Church, the Beth Elohim Synagogue, and St. Michael's Episcopal Church (visited by both George Washington and Robert E. Lee). Other points of interest include Rainbow Row, a series of brightly-colored homes along the waterfront, and the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which date back to 1676.