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140 Broad Street - The Alfred Huger House

June 12, 2019

 

The “story behind the story” is far more compelling than a brief recitation of the attributes of the lovely frame home at 140 Broad St. The original house on this site once belonged to Postmaster Alfred Huger, a respected member of Charleston’s planter aristocracy who took his responsibilities seriously. His country seat was in Berkeley County at the plantation originally known as Pompion Hill. Its early owners had played a part in the Anglo-Huguenot machinations that caused a change in the Provincial government and finally gave Huguenot immigrants the civil rights that had been denied because of local prejudice against French “foreigners.” A little more than a century later, Huger purchased the property from Nathaniel Heyward and for unknown reasons changed the name to Longwood.

 

Alfred Huger was born on November 1, 1788, the son of John Huger and Ann Broun Huger. His father was a member of the Provincial Congress of South Carolina in 1775 and the Council of Safety. A captain in the state militia from 1776 to 1777, he served after the war as the Palmetto State’s first secretary of state and later as the mayor of Charleston from 1792 to 1794. While mayor and on November 12, 1792, he laid the cornerstone of the Charleston Orphan House, one of the city’s most notable buildings, though torn down decades ago to make room for Sears, which packed up about 15 years ago. Portraits of John Huger are in The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

 

After graduating from Princeton, young Alfred Huger returned to Charleston and studied law. He served in the S.C. Senate from 1818 to 1833, representing the parish of St. Thomas & St. Denis. He opposed nullification and received his postmaster appointment from Andrew Jackson in December 1834.

 

He was appointed postmaster when slavery was a hot topic in Charleston. On July 29, 1835, the steamer Columbia arrived in Charleston harbor, bringing mail sacks full of abolitionist tracts addressed to city leaders. Postmaster Huger set the abolitionist mail aside. That night a group called the “Lynch Men” broke into the post office and stole the mail. During the next night, the group led a “celebration” of almost 2,000 spectators cheering the burning of the purloined mail and effigies of Northern abolitionists in front of the Old Citadel on Calhoun Street.

 

There was widespread criticism of the Lynch Men breaking into the post office. According to popular tradition, when another group came for abolitionist mail, they were met by Postmaster Huger armed with a shotgun and prepared to die before permitting another outrage. The mob dispersed.

 

Huger wrote Postmaster General Amos Kendall and New York postmaster Samuel Grouvernor (the items had been mailed from New York City) that nothing could have stopped the offended citizens from seizing the abolitionist mail. The postmaster general’s reply downplayed federal postal laws in favor of states’ rights. Kendall noted that although Huger was a federally-appointed postmaster, he owed a higher allegiance to his community, saying that “if the former be perverted to destroy the latter, it is patriotism to disregard them.” The American Antislavery Society’s mail campaign was attacked by politicians across the South and by sympathetic Northern leaders. In his message to Congress that year, President Andrew Jackson sought legislation to prohibit abolitionist groups from using the postal system to deliver their message southward.

 

Back in Charleston and while Huger was postmaster, letter carriers began delivering mail to Charleston residents. This service was provided by bonded contract carriers. For a fee of a penny per letter in addition to the regular charge, the “penny post” was born and greatly improved mail delivery. Another innovation begun in 1847 was the first use of United States postage stamps.

A Unionist, Huger did not join 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, when they resigned shortly after Lincoln was elected president. South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860 and with the end of federal postal service, Huger continued as Charleston’s Confederate postmaster. The bombardment of the city caused the post office to be moved several times and by the end of the war Huger was operating from the Church of the Holy Communion Parish House. Huger was so well respected that at the end of the war he was offered the job of federal postmaster, which he declined because of his age.

 

The war also affected Huger’s personal life. Legend has it that, during the Great Fire of 1861, when his townhouse caught fire he pulled a chair into the street and stoically watched it burn to the ground. Huger was one of the few property owners on Broad Street who was able to rebuild after the war. It was a grand two-and-a-half story mansion with a projecting bay window, an arched Italianate doorway and piazzas facing Logan Street. Huger left the property to his son, Dr. William Huger. It was occupied by his widow after his death. In the 20th century, a family trust provided affordable rental rooms for young, single professional women. It has since returned to a single-family residence.

 

Alfred Huger’s portrait hangs over the dining room fireplace of the Huguenot Church Fellowship Hall at 44 Queen St. Letters to Huger’s friends and relatives expressing his anti-secession sentiments and his opinions on politics, political leaders and events in his state are in the Duke University Library. Topics include religion, duels, slavery and free blacks, epidemics, the banking crisis of 1857, military actions in the Charleston area, diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, Confederate naval operations in Louisiana and off the Carolina coast, Confederate politics and government and Confederate relations with Great Britain.

 

The story of Huger watching his house burn has continued in Charleston folklore for generations. The writer was first told about it by her grandmother, Margaret Simons Middleton, who lived only a few houses away. Mrs. Middleton was a friend of Miss Sue Frost and other contemporary historians, second cousin of the accomplished architect Albert Simons and fourth president of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (now the Preservation Society). She published four books about Charleston residents and was presented “The Roll of Honor” by the National Society of Colonial Dames for her contributions to the community.

 

My appreciation to Robert Stockton, Tony Youmans and Edwin Breeden for contributing to this article. Please contact pegeastman@comcast.net if you have any anecdotes about Broad Street’s rich history.

 

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