Learn why the fire spread so quickly
Ruins of the Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar on Broad Street
Fire is the friend of no city; in Charleston it has often been a menacing enemy. Conflagrations destroyed neighborhoods in 1740, 1778, and 1838. But none matched the fury of the flames on December 11, 1861.
The day had been mild, but the wind began to blow from the northeast as a fire started at East Bay at Hasell streets. By midnight, buildings as far away as Meeting Street were aflame. Circular Congregational Church was lost, then the Catholic Cathedral on Broad Street. The fire cut a southwest swath across the peninsula, quenched only when it reached the Ashley River south of Tradd Street. Five-hundred forty acres and, by some estimates, more than 1,000 buildings were lost.
(Clockwise from above left) The fire of 1861 and later Union bombing damaged the Catholic Cathedral; The Circular Congregational Church; Four years later in 1865, the city had not recovered from the destruction.
Even before the wind dropped, rumors were flying: were enslaved people responsible? Had Union forces, soon to besiege the city, started it? The answer was lost until the rediscovery about a decade ago of the diary of then city fire chief Moses Henry Nathan. What some saw as an act of God, Nathan said, was man’s. While it is unclear who or what started the blaze, the city had not maintained its equipment nor kept up adequate water reserves in its tidal pools.
Still, Nathan saw the hand of God at work as well. With so many structures lost, many residents fled, and when the Federal troops started shelling the city in 1863, the bombs fell into the abandoned, already devastated district.