Calhoun’s fall from grace: Conclusion of the Calhoun statue series
By Peg Eastman
The Calhoun Monument, sculpted by Clark Mills, c. 1907.
Without question, in 1850 John C. Calhoun was South Carolina’s favorite son. As noted in a 2019 Mercury article, the state buried him with almost as much pomp and circumstance as Abraham Lincoln received nationally. And as Charleston was the richest city in the country (in the per capita wealth of the free population), many wanted to erect a monument in his honor in the most prominent location in the city, Citadel (now Marion) Square.
Hugh Wilson, a wealthy planter with connections to the Hampton family, began raising money for a suitable monument, but the endeavor got off to a bad start. His granddaughter, Ada Agnes Jane McElhenney, who was related to Calhoun through marriage, absconded with the funds her grandfather had raised. According to a biography by Gloria Goldblatt, McElhenney took at least several hundred dollars.
She moved to New York in 1854 and changed her name to Ada Clare. Breaking with Victorian traditions, she became an actress and had an affair with pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. At Pfaff’s Cellar, a hot spot for the literary and artistic, she was known as the Queen of Bohemia. She wrote for the Saturday Press and published a novel that received poor reviews. On September 9, 1868, Clare married actor Frank Noyes. In 1874, she came a bad end when a rabid dog bit her in her theatrical agent’s office.
But all was not lost. The ladies of Charleston came to the rescue through the Ladies Calhoun Memorial Association (LCMA). The driving force behind the revitalized monument project was Amarinthia Yates Snowden, a woman whose philanthropic works so inspired the S.C. legislature that in 1917 the General Assembly and the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a marble memorial tablet in her honor in the State House rotunda.
A Charleston native, young Miss Yates came by her appreciation of history naturally. When the family returned to Charleston after her brothers were educated in the North, she attended Madame Talvande’s exclusive finishing school on Church Street and completed her formal education at Dr. Elias Marks’s prestigious school for girls in Barhamville, near Columbia. One of her classmates was Ann Pamela Cunningham, who organized the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and worked to save President George Washington’s home from being developed as a hotel. Cunningham began her successful campaign with an appeal addressed “to the Ladies of the South,” which was published in The Charleston Mercury on December 2, 1853.
Miss Yates had known Calhoun personally, and in 1854, she gathered ten women in her mother’s drawing room on Church Street and organized the LCMA, whose stated mission was to erect a monument honoring Calhoun. They raised $40,000, and the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Citadel Square on June 28, 1858, the anniversary of the Patriots’ stunning victory at Fort Sullivan during the Revolution. Before the monument’s completion, however, war broke out, and the LCMA resolved to finish it when peace was restored.
January 1865 found a widowed Amarinthia Yates Snowden in Columbia when Sherman’s army was approaching the city. Mrs. Snowden had met Sherman in 1850 when he escorted her to a wedding in Charleston. She asked for his protection, and he extended every courtesy to her and her charges while Columbia was sacked and burned.
As the LCMA treasurer, Mrs. Snowden was responsible for safekeeping its remaining funds. To protect the money, she and her sister quilted U.S. bonds worth about $39,000 into Mrs. Snowden’s petticoat. No one suspected that she carried a small fortune on her person while she was protected by General Sherman. (This story was inscribed on a bronze marker attached to the base of the north side of the Calhoun Monument erected in Charleston in 1896.)
After the war, the LCMA reconvened and in April 1887, almost 30 years after their first meeting, they celebrated the erection of a monument by sculptor Albert E. Harnisch of Philadelphia, in Marion Square, as Citadel Square had been renamed in 1882. Parades were hosted across the city, and LCMA helped unveil the statue to a crowd that filled the square, shouting prayers for protection over the monument.
But the statue did not last untouched for long. Because of vandalism, the LCMA was forced to make new plans — this time to keep a monument out of the public’s general reach. The artist J. Massey Rhind of New York was one of America’s most prominent sculptors. The new statue was dedicated on June 27, 1896, with little fanfare. There was no mention of the new monument in the News and Courier. The statue cost nearly $20,000 in 1896, an amount that equates to more than $500,000. The contractor who erected the monument was Daniel A. J. Sullivan, a carpenter who became a prominent builder in Charleston after the war. He was active in the local Democratic Party and served in the state legislature.
Like the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square, a bronze Calhoun stood on a high marble column and reigned supreme. This preeminence continued well into the 20th century. In 1957, a Senate committee selected Calhoun as one of the all-time five greatest U.S. senators. Committee chairman John F. Kennedy praised Calhoun for being a “forceful logician of state sovereignty” and a “masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority.”
But according to Alfonso Brown’s A Gullah Guide to Charleston, beneath the surface, African Americans continued to hate Calhoun for his strong advocacy of slavery. They called the street “Killhoun” Street and meant it. They wanted the statue down, and ill will festered.
Attempting racial reconciliation, in the past two decades some local historians have tried to bring awareness of the monument’s dual symbolism in a proactive way. An interpretive marker about Calhoun’s place in history was considered by City Council and the History Commission, but nothing came to fruition.
Then the issue of police brutality surfaced in 2020 after the widely televised death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As elsewhere, protests turned violent, and Marion Square experienced destructive civil disorder unlike that in living memory. What started as a mostly peaceful protest of members of the faith community, civic leaders, college students and others who were exercising their Constitutional rights to assembly and free speech was taken over late in the afternoon by a criminal element that took advantage of the situation. The rioting and looting took the city by surprise, and the police were overwhelmed. Most malfeasants were habitual Charleston lawbreakers well-known to the police.
However, the national protesting and rioting had a lasting effect, even in Charleston. This time Calhoun’s strong support for the institution of slavery had an immediate effect, and his fall from grace was swift. City Council voted unanimously to remove Calhoun’s statue from Marion Square. It came down within hours of a vote in July. In September, demolition was stopped after the startling revelation that there was a 1,000-pound time capsule made of marble and limestone in the statue’s base.
The time capsule was removed in January 2021, and the city eagerly awaited the discovery of its contents. The tantalizing mystery was finally resolved on Feb. 25, 2021, when the lid was removed by archeologists with Mayor Tecklenburg in attendance. Thanks to water seepage, only a rusted cannonball believed to be from the battle of Fort Sullivan and three rusted tin boxes were discovered. Until further archeological research is done, the curious will have to content themselves with contemporary news accounts of what Calhoun memorabilia was preserved for posterity.
Public opinion has changed radically since the statue was erected. Calhoun championed slavery, and consequently, no local institution wants to be the statue’s custodian; it is still seeking a home. Elsewhere, Clemson University removed Calhoun’s name from its Honors College, and Yale University, his alma mater, removed Calhoun’s name from a student residence college. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol as well as three statues of antebellum white supremacists, including the Mills statue of John C. Calhoun, although the measure has yet to be approved by the Senate. Even the Calhoun Mansion on Meeting Street had its name changed back to that of its builder, George Walton Williams. Now suggestions are being made to return the name of Calhoun Street to its original name, Boundary Street.
Where will it end? One is reminded of Latin phrase: Sic transit gloria mundi.
My appreciation to Bob Stockton for reminding Charlestonians of Ann Pamela Cunningham’s contribution to Charleston history. Anyone with a good Broad Street story is invited to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.