By Peg Eastman

In the weeks following the victorious confrontation with the mighty British navy at Fort Sullivan on June 28, 1776, colonials learned of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. The British did not attempt to take the fort again and withdrew. They did not return to Charles Town until 1780, when Sir Henry Clinton successfully besieged the city and captured Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s army of 5,500 men. It was the largest surrender of the war and the largest in the annals of the U.S. Army until Corregidor.

 

Gen. Clinton set up headquarters in the Miles Brewton house and tried to reconcile South Carolinians to the crown. He issued a proclamation promising pardon of all offences if the revolutionaries took an oath of allegiance to the British government. Some ringleaders refused to take the oath and were rounded up in the middle of the night, among them signers of the Declaration of Independence — Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward, Jr. — who were held in the Great Hall prior to their exile in St. Augustine. Suspected collaborators were imprisoned with common criminals in the Provost Dungeon beneath the Exchange.

The occupying British demanded in 1781 that those who were paroled join the royal army or be subjected to close confinement. Col. Isaac Hayne was a prominent, well-connected planter, legislator and officer in the local militia from the Jacksonborough area. When his wife and several children were near death from smallpox, he went to Charles Town for medications. After being assured by the deputy British commandant that he would not be required to bear arms against his former compatriots, he took the oath of allegiance.

Once Gen. Nathaniel Greene left the British nothing but Charles Town, Hayne was summoned to join the royal army. He considered this a violation of the agreement and a release from his obligations. He went to the American camp and was commissioned a militia colonel. While leading a raid near Charles Town in July 1781, Hayne was captured and imprisoned in the Provost Dungeon.

The British commanders decided to make an example of Hayne to prevent others from violating their paroles. They refused to give him a trial and ordered his execution. The town rallied to Hayne’s defense. Lt. Gov. Bull and others tried to intercede, while the ladies signed a petition on his behalf. His children begged for his life on bended knees. The British commanders were inflexible.

Col. Hayne spent his final days in a small room off the Exchange Great Hall. On August 4, 1781, he was escorted by 300 men through thousands of spectators to gallows located near the corner of King and Calhoun streets. Witnesses said his demeanor was heroic. After he was hanged, his son was permitted to inter his father’s body at the family seat, Hayne Hall. Years later, the state would erect a monument at his gravesite commemorating South Carolina’s “Patriot and Martyr,” and the Exchange now has a room honoring his memory.

Ironically, the British occupied the Exchange for two-and-a-half years and never discovered 10,000 pounds of gunpowder that Gen. William Moultrie had stored behind a false brick exterior wall.

The city of Charleston was chartered by the General Assembly in 1783, when the name was changed from Charles Town to Charleston. At that time, the Great Hall served as City Hall. Just before the Constitutional Convention, the Statehouse down the street suspiciously caught fire and the seat of government was moved back to the Exchange. On May 23, 1788, 222 men crowded into the Great Hall and with a vote of 149 “ayes,” South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify the United States Constitution.

In 1791, President George Washington made a tour of the South that included a week in Charleston. On May 3, he sat beneath a triumphal arch for dinner with the leading citizens. Afterward, 15 toasts and speeches were accompanied by cannon shots. The next night Washington went dancing at the Exchange and, finally, on May 5, the building was decorated for a concert. Washington later wrote, “…there were at least 400 ladies — the number & appearances of which exceeded anything of the kind I had ever seen.”

The ratification of the Jay Treaty elicited more excitement in Charleston because of its effect on maritime trade and its failure to secure compensation for slaves taken by the British during the Revolution. Christopher Gadsden colorfully declared in the Exchange that he would “as soon send a favorite virgin to a brothel, as a man to England to make a treaty.” Angry citizens erected gallows in front of the Exchange where effigies of prominent advocates were hung and desecrated before they were burned on the Federal green.

In 1818 the city conveyed the Exchange to the federal government for $60,000. The building continued to serve as the post office, customhouse and meeting hall — and slaves continued to be sold in front of the north side of the building. The following year, the Exchange played a role in President James Madison’s visit to the city.

The first United States postmaster in Charleston was Thomas Bacot. His innovations caused the almanac of 1825 to report that the Charleston Post Office was the “best and most convenient in the U.S.” In 1831 Bacot contracted the new South Carolina Railroad to carry mail, the first rail delivery in the nation. This increased local mail service and other post offices soon adopted this practice. Bacot died in 1834, and Alfred Huger, a Princeton graduate and former state senator, succeeded him.

Huger’s authority was quickly challenged. By 1835, slavery was a hot topic and Charlestonians were infuriated when abolitionists began mailing anti-slavery literature to the city. One mob tried to destroy pamphlets at the post office and was turned away, but another was able to break in at night, seize the pamphlets and burn them in front of the Old Citadel building on Calhoun Street. The next group that came for the offensive mail was met by Postmaster Huger, armed with a shotgun and prepared to die before permitting more outrage.

The greatest change in mail service occurred when mail was delivered to city residents by bonded contract carriers. For a fee of a penny per letter in addition to the regular charge, the “penny post” greatly improved delivery. Another innovation began in 1847 with the creation of United States postage stamps.

Huger did not resign when federal judge Andrew Magrath, Walter F. Colcock (U.S. collector of custom duties), James Conner (U.S. district attorney) and Daniel Heyward Hamilton (U.S. marshal) resigned their posts shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

The Palmetto State seceded from the Union in December 1860. With the termination of the federal postal service, Huger remained as Charleston’s Confederate postmaster. Although the Exchange miraculously survived the Union bombardment, the post office moved several times; by the end of the war, it was operating from the Church of the Holy Communion Parish House. Huger was so well respected that he was offered the job of Federal Postmaster, though he declined because of his age. 

My appreciation to Tony Youmans, Old Exchange and Provost director and author, and historian Robert Stockton for contributing to this article.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.