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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Great Fire at Charleston

By Elkanah Watson (1758–1842)

[Born in Plymouth, Mass., 1758. Died at Port Kent, N. Y., 1842. Men and Times of the Revolution; or Memoirs of Elkanah Watson. Edited by his Son, Winslow C. Watson. 1856.]

IN the intervals of business I mingled with delight in the elegant and gay society of this refined metropolis, under the wing of Mr. Russel, the consignee of Mr. Brown, a gentleman of New England origin, but occupying a distinguished position in the mercantile community of Charleston. My prospects were brilliant and auspicious, when a deep public and private calamity cast a dark pall over the whole. I had passed the evening of the 15th of January, ’78, with a brilliant party, at the splendid mansion of a wealthy merchant of the city. In two hours after we had left the scene of elegant refinement, the stately edifice, the rich furniture, and all its gorgeous appliances, were wrapped in flames. In the mid-hours of a cold and tempestuous night, I was aroused by the cry of fire, and by a loud knocking at the door, with the appalling intelligence—“The town’s in flames.” I pressed forward to the theatre of one of the most terrific conflagrations that probably ever visited Charleston. The devastation was frightful. The fire raged with unmitigated fury for seventeen hours. Every vessel, shallop, and negro-boat was crowded with the distressed inhabitants. Many who, a few hours before, retired to their beds in affluence, were now reduced, by the all-devouring element, to indigence.

After laboring at the fire for many hours, I returned to my quarters to obtain a brief respite. I had scarcely seated myself before a man rushed in, exclaiming—“Your roof is on fire!” The mass of the conflagration was yet afar off, but it, as it were, rained fire. When we had extinguished the flame on the roof, I thought it time to remove my trunk, containing funds to a large amount. Not being able to procure assistance, I was constrained to shoulder it myself. Staggering under my load (a burden which, in ordinary times, I could scarcely have lifted), I proceeded along Main Street. The fire had extended far and wide, and was bearing down, in awful majesty, a sea of flame. Almost the whole of this spacious street exhibited, on one side, a continuous and glaring blaze. My heart sickened at beholding half-dressed matrons, delicate young ladies and children, wandering about unprotected, and in despair.

I soon found myself prostrated on the ground, along-side of my trunk, by the explosion of a large building. Fortunately being uninjured, I hastened on until I reached an elegant house in the suburbs of the city. Without hesitation I entered it, and, seeing no one, went into a splendid parlor, deposited my trunk in a closet, locked the door, and put the key in my pocket. Early the next morning I went in pursuit of my trunk. I everywhere saw heart-rending spectacles amid the smoking ruins, and the constant falling of walls and chimneys. I reached the house where I had left my trunk, which I then first discovered was the residence of Governor Rutledge. A young gentleman answered my knock, of whom I requested my trunk. He eyed me with attention, and casting a suspicious glance upon my person and clothes, replied, that not knowing me, he could not deliver it. My face and hand had been injured, and my clothes torn, in the confusion of the fire. I was mortified, but conscious that my appearance justified his suspicion. I forthwith proceeded to a friend, borrowed a clean shirt and decent clothes (my own being locked up in the Governor’s parlor), got shaved and powdered, and again proceeded after my trunk. I knocked with confidence, was politely received by the same young gentleman, who evidently did not recall my features. I was ushered into the presence of the Governor. I stated to him where I had placed my trunk, and was apologizing for the liberty, when he interrupted me, remarking that the fearful crisis justified me. He continued—“Sit down, sir—will you take a glass of wine? My secretary informed me that a person called for the trunk an hour or two ago, but not liking his appearance he had declined delivering it.” The Governor was much amused at understanding that I was the person who had called. I record this incident to show the importance of external appearance to a man’s success in the world, and more particularly, among strangers.