The Great Charleston Fire of 1861

When you ask the average person to tell the tale of a great fire that occurred in the 1800s, most of them will point to Chicago, Illinois and its Great Fire of 1861. But ask anyone from Charleston the same question and you’ll likely get a different answer that a little closer to home: the Great Charleston Fire of 1861. This famous blaze started from an unknown origin and quickly spread throughout the city impacting many in the area and even endangering the life of General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.

In all, the Great Charleston Fire burned some 540 acres of land, causing millions of dollars in damage at a time when millions of dollars meant even more than it does today. The severity of the damage can be witnessed today in photographs of the time that show a city near in ruins. Though the event wasn’t a happy one, it was nonetheless an essential chapter in the story of Charleston, SC.

How Did the Great Charleston Fire Start?

charleston fire damageThe actual origins of the fire aren’t very well-known. Some people have attributed the fire to slave refugees starting a cook fire or a simple outdoor that someone hat set to keep warm. There’s no way to verify the accuracy of these sources, however.

What is known about the fire is that it started on the night of December 11th of 1861 and was fanned into a roaring inferno by the winter winds. The intersection of East Bay and Hassell Street appeared to be the origin of the fire, which then spread quickly to the southwest, aided by the wind coming from the opposite direction.

Immediate Effects & Aftermath

charleston fire damage 2General Robert E. Lee had been staying nearby in the Mills House Hotel during the time and had a front-row seats to the fire. He likely watched the blaze as it approached their location from the balcony, but he and his staff were able to get away to the safety of the Edmonston-Alston House.

As the fire spread, it threatened essential areas like hospitals, a medical college, and even a Roman Catholic orphanage. In an attempt to stop the spread of the fire, authorities destroyed some of the local houses. By the next day, at about noon, the fire finally showed signs of stopping, though not without causing an enormous amount of damage. Some estimates say as much as a third of the city was affected.

Experience the History of Charleston with a Carriage Tour

The Great Charleston Fire of 1861 is just a slice of Charleston’s magnificent history, which goes to show just how eventful the last few hundred years have been in Charleston. There is more than enough history to go around—and one of the best ways to experience it is with a guided tour on a horse-drawn carriage.

Book your historical tour with Charleston Carriage Works today to see great historic sites and hear more stories about the area’s history while riding in a classic horse-drawn carriage.