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Charleston’s Calhoun statues: Part Two

By Peg Eastman

Hiram Powers' statue of John C. Calhoun. Image in the public domain.

There is a footnote to the Calhoun statue narrative covered in part one of this series. Some people confuse Clark Mills’ Calhoun bust with a similar work by Hiram Powers done shortly after the artist arrived in Washington in 1836.

As Senator John C. Calhoun was recognized as one of the most important Southerners in Washington, Powers felt it would enhance his career to do Calhoun’s image. (Several marble busts of Calhoun were made by Powers from a clay version for which Calhoun actually sat. One is now in the Smithsonian and another in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.) Powers moved to Florence, Italy, the year after he did the bust.

By 1844 Powers had established himself in Italy as the protégé of the Preston family in Columbia. John S. Preston was a wealthy planter, attorney and state senator who later became a Confederate brigadier general; his wife, Caroline, was a daughter of Wade Hampton III. During the period in Italy when Preston financed him, Powers created busts of Preston family members and other works currently on display in the Hampton-Preston Mansion in Columbia.

In 1844, the senator helped in securing Powers’ commission by the city of Charleston to do a life-size marble statue of Calhoun, and Powers created a plaster version later that year. The statue is described in the September 1909 issue of Confederate Veteran Magazine, as cited in David Brinkman’s article “Where Is Truth and Justice?”:

“It represented Calhoun standing wearing a Roman Senator’s toga. In his left hand, which was uplifted, was a scroll representing ‘Truth, Justice, and the Constitution,’ the right hand of the figure was pointing toward the scroll. The cost, it is stated, was $10,000.”

The statue was finished in Rome in 1849 and almost immediately became a symbol for the preservation of the institution of slavery, in contrast to Powers’ earlier famous work “The Greek Slave,” which became an abolitionist symbol with the help of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “Hiram Powers’ ‘Greek Slave’”:

They say Ideal beauty cannot enter The house of anguish. On the threshold stands An alien Image with enshackled hands, Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her (That passionless perfection which he lent her, Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)

To so confront man’s crimes in different lands With man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre, Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere long The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone, From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong! Catch up in thy divine face, not alone East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong, by thunders of white silence, overthrown.

On March 31, 1850, John C. Calhoun died at the age of 68. In May, Powers’ marble masterpiece departed Italy on the ship Elizabeth. Also aboard the ship was Margaret Fuller from Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. She worked for Horace Greeley at the New York Daily Tribune as its first full-time book critic and then as its first female journalist. In 1846, Greeley sent Fuller to Europe as his first female foreign correspondent. In 1848, she married Roman nobleman and revolutionary Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who in 1848-49 worked with Giuseppe Mazzini to establish a Roman republic as part of an effort to unify Italy. The revolution was unsuccessful, however, as French troops, brought in by Pope Pius IX, forced Mazzini and his supporters into exile.

Ossoli was left penniless, and the couple decided to embark for America on the Elizabeth. Interestingly, shortly before the departure, Fuller wrote: “I am absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling ... It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close” (quoted from In Search of Margaret Fuller by Abby Slater).

Soon after the Elizabeth left shore, a smallpox outbreak killed the captain, and on July 19, during a storm, the inexperienced new first mate mistook the Fire Island, New York, lighthouse for the Cape May lighthouse, and the ship hit a sandbar. The ship was so close to shore that a lifeboat could have saved them all, but the U.S. Life Saving Service was unable to launch one due to the heavy seas.

The crew and passengers gathered on the forecastle, the only part of the ship still above water. Giovanni Ossoli could not swim, and Elizabeth refused to be separated from him or their son, so the three family members clung to each other until the ship’s steward tried to save the baby by snatching him and jumping into the sea. He and the child drowned, and Margaret and her husband were lost when another massive wave crashed into the hull.

Fuller’s death was widely publicized by her fellow authors and feminist contemporaries; the Ossoli family tragedy was the inspiration of the epic poem “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Calhoun’s massive statue sank to the bottom of the sea, but nobody knew exactly where. Charlestonians, however, were determined to save their masterpiece. The New York Times and the Charleston Courier reported that the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morris located the shipwreck about six weeks after Elizabeth capsized. Attempts to raise it failed until an engineer who was known for his improvements to the diving suit, James A. Whipple of Boston, was hired. Inclement weather and the size and weight of the box containing the statue caused it to remain on the ocean floor until October 31, when the sea finally settled. Whipple lowered five 100-pound grappling hooks to the crate, but they were unable to grab it. As a last resort, the inventor donned the submarine armor, braved the sea and personally put the hooks in place. Amazingly, the statue was still in its crate; only the top portion of the scroll with the words “Truth and Justice” and the lower left arm had been broken off.

The monumental statue was repaired and proudly displayed in Charleston’s City Hall. It originally stood at the westerly end of the first-floor hall. After the repairs were completed, it stood on a pedestal in the recess near the stairs, as depicted in the 1858 photograph.

On April 12, 1861, Southern troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, and in time the city was bombarded daily by Union warships. The statue remained in City Hall until city fathers decided to ship it to Columbia for safekeeping. No one knows exactly where Powers’ masterwork was put; conflicting accounts identify the courthouse and the old State House. Either way, the statue was lost when General William Tecumseh Sherman burned Columbia in February 1865. Ironically, throughout the war Union forces were never able to penetrate Charleston, and the statue would have survived had it remained at home.

Part III of this series will appear in the next issue of the Mercury.

My appreciation to Bob Stockton for introducing me to some of Charleston’s lost history. Anyone with a good Broad Street story is invited to contact

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