A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War

A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War

The beeping of construction equipment pierced the morning air. The dull sounds of traffic and commuters interrupted by a backhoe in the middle of the park. Then, a groan and a creak, and the taut cable began its work. The column upon which John C. Calhoun’s likeness stood for more than a century then collapsed to the ground. An echoing boom not unlike the crack of artillery that once rained over Charleston almost 160 years prior.[1]

Statue on a marble column with buildings in background.
Calhoun’s monument stood silently over Marion Square for 124 years. Like the man himself, this reserved monument caused its share of conflict. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Visual reminders of Charleston’s past surround the now empty pedestal in Marion Square. Fort Sumter, where the first bellowing  shot of the Civil War was aimed, sits idly in the harbor. Less than a mile away, the towering white steeple of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands high in the skyline. Below, tour guides recount tales of the steeple being painted black during the Revolutionary War to shield it from British bombardment. The story paints a striking visual contrast to the white tower that stands today.[2]

While the sites of history are a driving force behind Charleston’s economy, its sounds have been lost to time or buried beneath the noise of a modern city. John C. Calhoun’s likeness stood over Marion Square, gazing down upon Calhoun St., towering above the greenscape it surrounds, but his memorial was silent. Silent until it fell this summer.

While the monument stood quietly over Marion Square, the public below was not so subdued in its response. In 1895, the News and Courier referred to the first statue as a “dreadful eyesore” and the African American community in Charleston immediately recognized the statue as a symbol of Jim Crow’s rise. Many critics took advantage of any opportunity to vandalize the monument, including using “the Calhoun Monument for target practice.” In 1894, an African American was even arrested for inadvertently shooting a white child while aiming at the statue.[3]

Criticism of the monument rose to new heights in 2015. A re-envisioning of public memory and memorialization was sparked first by the racially-motivated attack in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. In 2017, the Charleston Commission on History and the City Council agreed to amend the plaque at the statue, adding specific language defining Calhoun’s support of slavery. The new plaque was never installed. Controversy over public monuments and memorials continued in the coming years. The Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds in response to the Mother Emanuel shooting. Tensions then reached new heights in 2017, when right-wing protesters violently marched on Charlottesville, VA protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. The reckoning with public monuments gained new momentum in 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.[4]

The monument’s collapse in 2020 provided the perfect allegory for the man it memorialized—as silent and reserved in death as he had been in his life and political career. Just as Calhoun’s elegant, yet divisive, rhetoric was overshadowed by the chaos and destruction of war inspired by his sectional oratory; the silent, inanimate statue sowed its own divisions that were eventually punctuated by modern noise and destruction.

The Cast-Iron Man—later immortalized in stone twice in Marion Square—was not known for loud or boisterous tones. Calhoun was “resistant to either emotional pleas or divine commands” and did not rely on them in his speech.[5] He did not present a fire and brimstone lecture on sectionalism and division, even as he began secession discussions in response to the Compromise of 1850.

Handwritten cursive writing on aged document.
Calhoun was neither able to write nor deliver his final speech to the Senate. He did, however, make his own visible revisions after dictating the speech to his secretary. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In giving his most famous speech, his final statement before the Senate, on March 4, 1850, Calhoun was stone quiet. Weakened by chronically poor health, Calhoun instead relied on Virginian Senator James Murray Mason to deliver his remarks. As Mason began the address, “every senator listened with profound attention and unfeigned emotion; the galleries were hushed into the deepest silence.” This was not the scene of a Southern Fire-Eater rallying for war. Instead it carried the “impressive solemnity of a funeral ceremony.” Mason was, in a sense, delivering Calhoun’s eulogy before his own eyes and, quite possibly, eulogizing the Union at the same time.[6]

Calhoun “sat motionless in his chair, sweeping the chamber now and again with deeply luminous eyes.”[7]Silently watching over his comrades in the chamber, his own words sounded out beyond his seat, absent of his voice. He wrote that, if the North were unwilling to compromise on the addition of new territories to balance the divide between free and slave states the two sections should, “agree to separate and part in peace.” Northern “silence,” Calhoun continued via his proxy, would send a signal loud enough to the South that the Union would not and should not continue.[8]

Calhoun’s silent and feeble figure slipped out of the Senate chamber and later out of this world, passing only weeks after his final address. The 1850 Compromise passed. His quiet remarks laid the foundation for the explosion of war in Charleston.

Just over a decade after Calhoun’s death, the cacophony of war reigned over Charleston. In what the Citadel calls “first hostile shots of the Civil War,” the silence was first broken by Citadel cadets firing upon the Star of the West, a merchant vessel sent to resupply Fort Sumter. The regular noise of city life was replaced for the next four years by artillery bombardments at Fort Sumter, infantry assaults at Battery Wagner, and naval battles in the harbor.[9]

The sounds of this clash soon passed and Marion Square would return to more familiar duties. It served as a parade ground for the occupying federal troops. It hosted circuses and baseball games, including at least one game that got so out of hand that police had to disperse the rioting crowd with gunfire. The echoes of war, it seemed, again interrupted Charleston’s atmosphere.[10]

Under Calhoun’s watchful eye, Marion Square returns to its Antebellum duties, providing a parade ground for Citadel Cadets. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Calhoun’s steely gaze returned to South Carolina in 1887, 37 years after his final speech and death, as part of the Civil War culture wars. The state was reemerging from Reconstruction and Calhoun’s monument would not only memorialize the Cast-Iron Man but also remind the city of an era of Southern strength in national politics, instead of the federal occupation it had experienced for more than a decade after Confederate soldiers abandoned Charleston in February 1865.

The monument was installed at the center of the city, making Calhoun’s effigy the focal point of a growing and expanding Charleston. The statue set in stone the new order of the Southern government. White “Redeemers” had already set about undoing the democratic progress made during Federal Reconstruction and began systematically stripping African Americans of their newfound voting rights. Calhoun’s memorial was installed only five years after the state passed the “Box Law,” silencing African American votes “by requiring voters to place ballots in separate boxes.”[11]

When the “cannon fire and enthusiastic shouts” of the dedication ceremony fell silent, Marion Square was instead filled with the critiques of the monument and the sounds of pen knives steadily chipping away at its marble. Almost immediately, it became the subject of disdain in both the white and black communities in Charleston, albeit for entirely different reasons. White objections were predominately aesthetic. A Charleston cotton broker, Henry S. Holmes described the first monument as “a frightful sight to citizens passing over Marion Square.”[12]

For the African American community in Charleston, Calhoun’s monument was the physical embodiment of segregation.[13] In her memoir, Lemon Swamp and Other Places, Charlestonian Mamie Garvin Fields describes the African American reception to Calhoun’s first monument, writing that Calhoun’s likeness seemed to say, “you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.” Such a loud statement by the memorial was sure to cause a response and Fields and her neighbors set out to strike back, defacing the monument at any opportunity they had. “We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose.”[14]

Elevated to its new position nearly one hundred feet over Marion Square and out of harm’s way, the quiet statue stood watch for more than a century before its removal in late June 2020. Still reeling from the racially-motivated shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, the city began efforts to reconcile with its destructive past. Shortly after the vote unanimously passed to remove the monument, a thunderstorm detonated across the Charleston sky.[15] The air in Marion Square undoubtedly echoed the sounds of January 1861, when the Citadel Cadets fired upon Union merchant ships in Charleston Harbor.

The noise of its demolition that followed—first the calm and calculated removal of the stone figure, and then the fleeting collapse of the granite column—ended the city’s long history with Calhoun’s monument, while briefly reminding it of the sounds of a war he once influenced. Reporters on-site wrote that “Marion Square shook” as the steel cable pulled the column down from its now-empty pedestal. As the crashing column fell and then returned to silence, the small crowd of witnesses returned to their normal Wednesdays and the sounds of present-day life fell back over the city.[16]

His words had long since fallen beyond our ears, but his beliefs remained for generations. For decades, Calhoun’s figure silently watched over a city that struggled to grow out of the past that he once advocated. After a life in which Calhoun argued that slavery was a “good—a great good,”[17] his image watched over a city that grew and modernized. After his death, Charleston struggled with racism, and hosted countless Civil Rights demonstrations that included strikes, marches and speeches led by both Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. All of this under the watchful eye of his stone image.[18]

The removal of the monument may have briefly returned the sounds of destruction to Charleston’s ears but it also, as Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg so somberly stated, brought peace to the city.[19]

[1] Mikaela Porter, “In 21 Seconds, Granite Column That Held John C. Calhoun above Charleston Tumbled to Ground,” Post and Courier, September 03, 2020, Accessed September 01, 2020.  https://www.postandcourier.com/news/in-21-seconds-granite-column-that-held-john-c-calhoun-above-charleston-tumbled-to-ground/article_ea5a9238-e712-11ea-a826-03d4603d02cf.html.

[2] “St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (U.S. National Park Service),” National Parks Service, Accessed September 01, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/places/st-michael-s-episcopal-church.htm.

[3] Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of Confederacy (New York, NY: The New Press, 2019), 109.

[4] Fleming Smith, “Sparked by Protests, Campaigns Renew to Remove Calhoun Monument from Marion Square,” Post and Courier, June 4, 2020, Accessed September 17, 2020. https://www.postandcourier.com/news/sparked-by-protests-campaigns-renew-to-remove-calhoun-monument-from-marion-square/article_09fb3ae0-a66b-11ea-a37e-3742194576e3.html.

[5] Holley Ulbrich, “John C. Calhoun,” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, March 06, 2003, Accessed September 01, 2020, https://uudb.org/articles/johnccalhoun.html.

[6] Hermann Von Hoist, “John C. Calhoun,” Internet Archive, January 01, 1883, Accessed September 01, 2020, https://archive.org/details/johnccalhoun04holsgoog/page/n10/mode/2up?q=1850. Digital copy of original 1883 publication. Added to the internet archive 14 April 2008.

[7] “John C. Calhoun’s Speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850, 4 March 1850,” The Library of Congress, Accessed September 04, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/mcc.009.

[8] “John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, Speaking before the Senate, March 4, 1850,” National Humanities Center, Accessed September 01, 2020, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ows/seminarsflvs/Calhoun.pdf.

[9] “War Between The States,” The Citadel, Accessed September 03, 2020, http://www.citadel.edu/citadel-history/war-deaths/war-between-the-states.html.

[10] “A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 2.” Charleston County Public Library, October 26, 2018, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/brief-history-marion-square-part-2.

[11]  Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 106.

[12] Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 108.

[13] Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 105.

[14] Quoted in Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso Book, 2014), 182.

[15] Victoria Hansen, “Calhoun Statue Overlooking Charleston Takes Time to Come Down,” South Carolina Public Radio, June 25, 2020, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.southcarolinapublicradio.org/post/calhoun-statue-overlooking-charleston-takes-time-come-down.

[16] Porter, “In 21 Seconds…”

[17] Ethan S. Rafuse, “John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil War,” HistoryNet, May 02, 2019, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.historynet.com/john-c-calhoun-the-man-who-started-the-civil-war.htm.

Originally published in the October 2002 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

[18] Lottie Joiner, “Charleston Church Shooting and a City’s Place in Civil Rights History,” Time, June 19, 2015, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://time.com/3928713/charleston-civil-rights-movement/.

[19] Ray Rivera, Patrick Phillips, “Crews Remove John C. Calhoun Statue from Marion Square,” WTOC. June 24, 2020, Accessed September 03, 2020, https://www.wtoc.com/2020/06/24/live-crews-removing-john-c-calhoun-statue-charlestons-marion-square/.


Justin Bristol

Justin Bristol is an educator and public historian in Savannah, GA. A graduate of both the University of South Carolina and Armstrong State University's (now Georgia Southern University) History programs, Justin has sought to make Savannah's past relevant to his students and museum guests through participatory and active experiences. Inspired by his museum and classroom experience, his ongoing research seeks to grow sensory connections between our modern sites and the events and people that make them historic.

5 Replies to “A Crashing Monument and the Echoes of War”

  1. This is great, Justin! Thanks for this informative article. There is so much about the South (and the Civil War) that I don’t know. I appreciate all your knowledge and info! Keep it up.

    1. Excellent article. Thank you to the Journal of the Civil War Era for enlightening its readership with this visceral and engaging take on our history and the long shadow it is casting on us today. More like this, please.

  2. Excellent article. Thank you to the Journal of the Civil War Era for enlightening its readership with this visceral and engaging take on our history and the long shadow it is casting on us today. More like this, please.

  3. Excellent article. When we lived on Jekyll Island, we were able to visit Savannah and Charleston and took several tours. Always interesting to learn more about this beautiful area. More articles like this are always welcome.

  4. Very informative and excellent article Justin. As a Resident of SC, I have learned more from you over the years about SC history and the Civil War era. Keep up the good work and I am Looking forward to your next article.

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