Sometimes when a place is especially beautiful, it’s easy to forget the pragmatic origins of its creation. Such is the case at one of Charleston’s most iconic historic sites, White Point Garden and its adjacent High Battery.
This urban oasis of majestic live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, outlines a grid of gravel pathways with Charleston-style benches that allow you to slow down, take a load off, and enjoy the harbor views. Yet the cannons and monuments you see there today are silent reminders that this idyllic spot was once a place of war.
When the first permanent European settlers sailed past this spot in 1670, it was nothing more than a marsh surrounding a high sand bar, covered with sun-bleached oyster shells discarded by Natives who harvested shellfish here in the springs and summers – thus the name White Point.
To help protect the colony from the Spanish, French and pirates, a cannon was placed on the little island in 1737 and its surrounding fortification, or bastion, named in honor of Lt. Gov. Thomas Broughton. Six years later, colonists added a breastwork - a temporary wall about chest high that allowed soldiers to fire over it - that ran from “the White Point” to Granville Bastion, then the colony’s southeastern corner of high land and today the site of the Capt. James Missroon House at 40 East Bay St.
Broughton’s Battery was heavily damaged in the hurricane of 1752, so when Britain declared war on the French three years later, S.C. Royal Gov. James Glen ordered hundreds of free and enslaved laborers to refortify Broughton’s Battery and the half-mile long seawall that connected it to the peninsula.
The fortifications were dismantled after the American Revolution, however the city retained the seawall and widened it into a 60-foot promenade. Though hurricanes in 1797, 1800 and 1804 hampered progress, by 1818 High Battery, now built upon a stronger granite foundation, was completed.
Its crushed ramparts and other infill were dumped over its western side, filling in the marshes behind it to create new residential lots, highly valued for their views and breezes. Along a new street named East Battery, wealthy antebellum planters and merchants built magnificent townhouses where they resided during Charleston’s social season, from January to April.
By 1837, the city had also filled in about seven of the marshy acres surrounding the White Point to create a waterfront park, the predecessor of today’s White Point Garden. For the next several decades, the city’s antebellum elite gaily gathered and socialized along the park’s promenade.
The idyllic park underwent a transformation in 1861, however, its leisurely pathways destroyed as the Confederate Army threw up massive earthworks to support three large cannons. Again the site became not one of leisure and pleasure, but of warfare.
The park’s eastern battery was named for Confederate Maj. David Ramsay, who was mortally wounded on Morris Island in 1863 and is buried in Circular Congregational churchyard. Yet in the end, the guns at Battery Ramsey were superfluous, as Federal naval forces never made it past forts Sumter and Moultrie to enter the harbor.
The night before Charleston fell to Federal troops on Feb. 18, 1865, Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard gave orders to destroy anything the Union Army could use if left behind. Too large to be loaded on the last train out, Battery Ramsay’s huge Columbian cannons were blown up by the Confederates who had manned them. Decades later shrapnel from the explosions were removed from the Louis DeSaussure House at 1 East Battery, while pieces of a cannon itself remain in the attic of the William Roper House at 9 East Battery to this day.
After the war, the park returned to its former use as an open urban space in which to share a picnic or read under an oak’s gentle shade. Couples, families, dog-walkers, and joggers have reclaimed the park with no visible signs of Battery Ramsay remaining, other than a historic marker. The cannons that ornament White Point Garden today are filled with concrete, there just for show as kids clamber around on top of them, posing for their parents’ cameras.