South Carolina State Arsenal (Old Citadel)
Updated: Jan 26
The former Arsenal in the fall of 2017
Charleston, South Carolina, is, in many ways, a military city. During the Revolutionary War, it was besieged and captured by the British in one of the worst American losses of the conflict. Just outside the city in Charleston Bay sits Fort Sumter, famous forever as the place where the Civil War began. Across the Cooper River from Charleston is Mount Pleasant, SC, where the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, USS Clamagore submarine, and USS Laffey destroyer reside at Patriot's Point. North of the city, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy operate out of Joint Base Charleston.
Charleston is also home to The Citadel, one of America's six senior military colleges. The school has occupied its current campus on the marshy shore of the Ashley River in northwest Charleston since 1922. From 1843 until the move to that location, it was housed here in the old South Carolina State Arsenal on Marion Square in the heart of downtown. In fact, The Citadel draws its name from the fortress-like appearance of its longtime home.
The old Citadel and Arsenal, now in use as an Embassy Suites hotel, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is significant for its architecture and role in military and educational history.
In 1822, a free black man named Denmark Vesey (whose Charleston home is a National Historic Landmark) was tried and convicted of plotting a slave insurrection in South Carolina. Vesey was a talented craftsman who could read and write. He had traveled the world while a slave of a ship's captain and had later purchased his freedom with money won in a lottery. The Haitian Revolution and other successful slave uprisings in the Caribbean inspired him.
Vesey brought other educated, free Blacks in on his plan, including two who worked as paid servants to the Governor. His plot was well organized but was revealed to the government before it could be carried out.
When the white citizens of Charleston discovered the possibility of a slave revolt, they were utterly terrified, mainly because they knew how outnumbered they were by enslaved people. The 1820 census reported enslaved Blacks as a majority, some 51%, of the South Carolina population. Enslaved people outnumbered whites by more than 20,000, a significant sum in a state with only 500,000 people.
Vesey and over thirty others were convicted and hung, but the fear of a slave revolt remained prevalent in their wake. As a result, soon after the hanging, the South Carolina State Legislature passed an "Act to Establish a Competent Force to Act as a Municipal Guard for the Protection of the City of Charleston and its Vicinity," which created a "municipal guard" of up to 150 men serving for five years to protect the city and "carry into effect the laws of the State and the city ordinances, for the government of Negroes and free persons of colour" but which notably also had "no military power over the white inhabitants of the state."
As a headquarters for the new municipal guard, the Act provided that land in the city being used as a tobacco inspection station be given to the new group "for the purpose of being fortified as an arsenal and guard house."
Land in a different part of the city was granted to the guard to be sold to fund the construction. Its day-to-day operating costs, however, were paid for by "a tax of ten dollars...imposed on all houses within the limits so guarded inhabited by Negros or persons of colour as tenants or owners" as well as an additional ten-dollar tax on all "free male Negros or persons of colour who exercise any mechanic trade" within the city.
As one-sided as the law was, it did place one restriction on members of the guard: they, much like those they were charged with guarding, could not vote.
Under the provisions of the Act, well-known Charleston architect Frederick Wesner got to work designing the new building: a simple two-story brick construction, with bricks laid in the English bond style, featuring supportive interior arches that faced an open courtyard and topped by a wooden parapet. The structure was completed in 1829.
In 1826, as the building was rising, another famous Charleston architect, Robert Mills, described the process:
"An extensive citadel, or fortified arsenal and barracks, is now erecting at the upper end of the city, on the site of the old Tobacco inspection, where the principal stand of arms, etc. will be kept. The works will be guarded by bastions at the four angles, on which cannon will be mounted — the whole surmounted by a high wall."
His description was apt and accurate, but his choice of the word "Citadel" proved to be no less than prophetic.
Even though it had been built specifically for the Charleston municipal guard, the new arsenal was a state operation. Even so, in 1830, the state government asked the federal government to send troops to guard the building and its weapons cache.
The U.S. Army, under the command of President Andrew Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun, a native South Carolinian, was happy to oblige and sent over troops from nearby Fort Moultrie. The cooperation was not to last, however. By the end of 1832, Calhoun had resigned as Vice President. South Carolina found itself on the verge of seceding from the Union at the height of the Nullification Crisis, during which the state government asserted it had the right to nullify, or refuse to enforce within its borders, a tariff on imported goods enacted by Congress.
A compromise tariff with lower rates was eventually enacted, and open conflict was avoided, but the bad blood was such that neither party was any longer interested in having federal troops guard a state arsenal. So members of the state militia were used instead.
The state began consolidating its various arsenals into two significant stockpiles as the years passed. One became known as the State Arsenal in the capital city of Columbia. The Charleston building started officially going by the moniker Mills, and so many others had previously bestowed upon it: The Citadel.
By 1842, John P. Richardson was serving as Governor of South Carolina. While serving in the state legislature before his election as Governor, Richardson had attended the Nullification Conventions to debate the nullification question. However, he was known as a "Unionist" or secession opponent, and Calhoun endorsed his election to help ease the tensions between the factions. In his later years, Richardson attended the 1860 South Carolina Secession Convention and signed the Ordinance of Secession. He also helped write South Carolina's new constitution when it was readmitted to the Union after the war in 1865.
Though he may have been a Unionist during his gubernatorial term, Richardson was as strong an advocate for South Carolina as any. In an 1842 speech before the legislature, the Governor called for the state's two arsenals to be transformed into military academies. Apparently a passionate supporter of education, Richardson explained that the state stood to gain much from the new institutions:
"If the success of these institutions should form the basis of future and important improvements which may judiciously be extended to our free schools;
If they should supply better teachers from their alumni;
If they should suggest higher standards and better systems of morals;
…or if they only awaken greater ardor in the people, and a warmer interest in our rulers, to advance the cause of education;
They will achieve more for the weal [well-being] and honor of our state than all the other labors and appliances of government could in any other manner confer."
The legislature did as the Governor had asked. By the end of the year, two new academies, the Citadel Academy and the Arsenal Academy in Charleston and Columbia, respectively, had been established by law. The first Cadets arrived at the Charleston Citadel on March 20, 1843, a date now honored by the institution as "Corps Day."
By 1845, the Arsenal Academy in Columbia had been turned into an additional location of the Citadel, which trained first-year students only before sending them down to Charleston to complete their studies and training. The Citadel, known officially as the Military College of South Carolina, had become the state's premier center for military training and liberal arts education.
The Citadel Cadet Corps has never failed to live up to Governor Richardson's lofty expectations. Since its founding, the Citadel has produced many prominent military officers, business leaders, elite athletes, and several generations of South Carolina state leaders.
On January 9, 1861, Citadel Cadets stationed on Morris Island made history by firing the first shots of what would escalate into Civil War when they opened fire on the Star of the West, a ship hired by the federal government and sent by President James Buchanan to resupply and reinforce Fort Sumter. This federal installation had suddenly found itself in "foreign" waters. A second resupply mission sent in April by President Abraham Lincoln to Fort Sumter would send the nation into open conflict.
The Union got its revenge on the Cadets after the war in 1865 when federal troops occupied the Citadel building for over 15 years during and after Reconstruction. It was reopened as a military academy in 1882, thanks mainly to the efforts of the school's alum association.
The Interior Courtyard in a 1940 photo from the
Historic American Buildings Survey
From its completion in 1829, until the Citadel moved out in 1922, the building's most notable architectural feature was its interior courtyard and the arches that face it. The second story of arches was added to the building during the Citadel's tenure by the architect Edward B. White. The third story of arches (the fourth story overall) was added in 1910.
An interior view from 2017 shows that the courtyard has since been covered, and decorative towers (which house spiral staircases) have been added. Still, the original core of the building remains visible.
Though they are painted and well maintained today, the arches spanning the first two stories remain massive and unembellished, as they were initially, a reminder of the building's military past.
Once the Citadel had left the building, the exterior underwent significant remodeling. First, stucco was added to cover the brick of the original exterior. The remodel was done in 1933, and the above photo was taken soon after, in 1940, during the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Today, a porte-cochère fronts the separate east wing of the building, which serves as the main entrance to the modern Embassy Suites hotel, which now operates inside. The fortress-like features of the main building were also added to the east wing.
Through the years, the Old Citadel has witnessed much history in Charleston, much of it recounted on the plaque pictured below, which is mounted inside the building.
Dates of Historical Interest
1822: FIRST CONSTRUCTED AS A TWO-STORIED ARMORY AND FORTRESS AS A RESULT OF THE DENMARK VESEY SLAVE UPRISING
1842: OCCUPIED BY THE FIRST CORPS OF CADETS OF THE MILITARY COLLEGE OF S.C. (20 STUDENTS)
1853: THIRD FLOOR ADDED TO THE BUILDING
1865: OCCUPIED BY FEDERAL TROOPS
1882: RETURNED TO THE MILITARY COLLEGE OF S.C. AND OCCUPIED BY CORPS OF 185 CADETS
1890: MAJOR FIRE DESTROYED MUCH OF THE BUILDING
1910: "THE CITADEL" ADOPTED AS THE OFFICIAL NAME OF THE MILITARY COLLEGE OF S.C. FOURTH FLOOR ADDED TO FACILITY
1922: LAST CITADEL CLASS GRADUATED ON THIS SITE. COLLEGE MOVED TO ITS PRESENT LOCATION ON THE ASHLEY RIVER
1933: MAJOR REMODELING
1970: EXTENSIVE EXTERIOR RESTORATION AND INTERIOR RENOVATION COMPLETED
The 1970 restoration came in the same year the Arsenal was added to the National Register. At the time, the building was used as a "County Center," according to the nomination form. It was redeveloped into a hotel in 1994.
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