Comments from Camille of Wine and History Visited made me realize that I had a theme to my Charleston visit this time around: sites to visit for free! Touring the Dock Street Theatre and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church were free, and so was my next stop: the Charleston Post Office.
Now, before you stop reading, hear me out. Yes, if you were raised in suburbia, like I was, “post office” to you meant a square of brick and/or concrete in mid-century ugly. But the heyday of post office building construction in the early 1900s resulted in some stunning buildings.
The main post office in Charleston is on Broad Street — the street that divides the downtown Charleston population between Rich and Very Rich. Anyone who is anyone lives — as any Pat Conroy fan knows — “south of Broad.”
The post office — on the south side of Broad — was built in 1896 of South Carolina granite, in the Renaissance Revival style. The interior was restored in 2002. The stonework is red Brazilian marble and the wood is mahogany.
The building contains not only a functioning post office (with a federal courthouse attached), but also a one-room postal museum. This post’s history lesson comes courtesy of the envelope below, displayed in the museum.
During the Civil War, the Confederates occupied Charleston proper and the Union occupied Morris Island, across the harbor from the city. When the Union started shelling Charleston — and its civilian residents — from their position on Morris Island, the Confederates became upset. The Union should have warned them, they believed, so that they could move the civilians out of town. The Union hadn’t — warned them, that is — so the Confederates moved 50 Union prisoners — all officers, five of them brigadier generals — to a prison in the line of Union fire, to act as a shield for the town. In retaliation, the Union put 50 captured Confederate officers into a make-shift prison in front of the Union-held fort on Morris Island, in the line of Confederate fire.
Eventually, the 100 officers were exchanged. But then…
Union General Sherman started marching across Georgia and was getting too close to southern prison camps — like Andersonville — for Confederate comfort. So the Confederates began sending Union prisoners further north. Six hundred Union officers were sent to Charleston (along with 300 enlisted, but they don’t figure into the story because, as we all know, non-officers don’t count), back into the line of fire. The Union, on hearing this, ordered the transfer of 600 Confederate officers from a prison in Delaware to Morris Island.
Conditions for both sides were abysmal. About Lt. George Fitzgerald, a West Point graduate, a fellow prisoner wrote: “[T}his morning announcement was made that Fitz is dead. He was…a poor, miserable wreck–ragged, filthy, lousy…He has had no blanket, no socks, hardly clothes to cover him…and he slept alone, covering himself with an old piece of tent fly.”
Eventually, sanity prevailed and the Union soldiers were sent further inland and Confederates were sent back to Delaware. But not before more than a few died of starvation, disease or, most often, dehydration due to dysentery.
Which brings me back to the envelope. I wondered who Sally Dickinson of Bedford County, Virginia was. And who was she to the Capt. H. C. Dickinson who sent the letter under a flag of truce? A quick online search turned up Capt. Henry Clay Dickinson of the 2nd Virginia. Sally was his wife. Capt. Dickinson’s role among the 600 in Charleston was notable for two reasons. One was that he led an (unsuccessful) escape attempt while the Confederate prisoners were being transported back to Delaware. The second is that he was a prolific writer and kept a diary during his time on Morris Island, which was eventually published and from which the description of Lt. Fitzgerald was taken. Capt. Dickinson survived the war.