Near one end of cobblestoned Chalmers St. stands the last remaining building in Charleston where slave trade took place before and during the Civil War. During that period, the area between Chalmers and Queen St. contained a group of buildings, known as Ryan’s Mart, that supported this lucrative business. The only building left is the one you see here – to the right of the old firehouse. It’s currently used as a “slave museum”. The last actual slave auction in Charleston occurred in this building in November, 1863.
As most people know, slavery was an important issue in the war, but not the critical one. The seeds of the conflict, as it turns out, took root in Charleston in a house on Meeting St., not far from Ryan’s Mart. It was here that John C. Calhoun and others finalized the idea of “Nullification”. It was the right of any state, they said, to “nullify” any law passed by the federal government. This all took place before Calhoun died in 1850, nearly 11 years before the Civil War actually began. As with so many things, it had mostly to do with money (tariffs). Not surprisingly, military conflict almost took place then, but was avoided by a compromise.
The subsequent “Orders of Secession” in 1860 (also signed in Charleston) were largely based on Calhoun’s ideas and did lead to the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter (and the war) a few months later. Calhoun is buried in Charleston (under a very large headstone).
Interestingly, even though Charleston was considered the birthplace of the Confederacy, it was essentially spared during Sherman’s infamous march to the sea. Many residents of Charleston had evacuated and gone to Columbia to avoid Sherman’s army. Ironically, it was Columbia that Sherman’s forces leveled. Why Sherman chose Columbia and spared Charleston is something of a mystery. Some say it was because he had served there at Fort Moultrie and had a soft spot for the city. Others claim that he may have had a “woman friend” there. Or maybe he felt that an intact Charleston – with its harbor – had more strategic value than the inland Columbia.
Whatever the reason, one can only wonder what Charleston would be today if Sherman had made a different choice.