300 Years of History: The Powder Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina was first settled in 1670 under the authority of eight landowners – the Lords Proprietors. As a private colony with no formal military presence, self-defense was a constant concern. By the 18th century the Proprietors had learned the difficulties of managing their colony from afar. They appointed governors to oversee the province from its capital in Charles Town (Charleston). These governors faced many challenges, including competition with Spain and France, conflict with Native Americans and, as the colony grew, slave insurrection.

A Magazine for your Stores of Powder Bullett and other warlike tooles Necessary is greatly wanting. – Governor Nathaniel Johnson, March 7, 1706

In the early 18th century, plans were made to build fortified walls around Charles Town, and Governor Nathaniel Johnson also encouraged the construction of a magazine to protect the town’s stores of black powder. In 1712 the proprietary government hired Colonel William Rhett, Commissioner of Fortifications, to supervise the construction of a gunpowder magazine. When completed the following year, The Powder Magazine could store up to five tons of black powder.

The Powder Magazine was built in the northwest portion of the walled city (present day 79 Cumberland Street), away from most other structures. The Powder Magazine consists of nine brick pillars, eight on the perimeter and one in the center. The square pillars flare as they ascend to create a vaulted ceiling. The 27-foot-square room has 35-inch-thick perimeter walls. Above the ceiling is a sand-filled attic, covered with a layer of bricks and capped by a pyramidal tile roof.

Although no original plans for The Powder Magazine exist, some historians and architects believe its walls and sand-packed attic were designed to dampen or even contain the energy of an internal explosion. Others speculate that the dense walls and attic were intended to shield the powder from enemy projectiles.

Completed during the final months of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), The Powder Magazine immediately played a vital role in the defense of colonial South Carolina. Most notable was its apparent use during the Tuscarora War, the Yamasee War, the Stono Rebellion, King George’s War and The American Revolution. In 1718 several pirates, including the infamous Edward Beard (Blackbeard), held Charles Town hostage. The Powder Magazine supplied Colonel William Rhett and Governor Robert Johnson with powder in their respective missions to capture Stede Bonnet (The Gentleman Pirate) and to rid the harbor of pirate Captain Richard Worley.

In 1780 British forces laid siege to Charles Town for 42 days. During this time, Continental General William Moultrie ordered the contents of The Powder Magazine transported four blocks away, where it was secreted in the “Exchange cellars.” Despite their lengthy occupation (1780-82), the British never discovered the hidden gunpowder. The American Revolution was the last time gunpowder was stored in The Powder Magazine as part of a military campaign.

Throughout most of the 19th century, property owners used this facility as a print shop, livery stable and for miscellaneous storage. During the Civil War, the Manigault family devoted a portion of this room to the storage of 2,100 bottles of Madeira wine. The Powder Magazine survived the Great Earthquake of 1886, but was left in disrepair. In 1902 The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in The State of South Carolina (NSCDA-SC) purchased the arsenal, initiating one of the first major preservation projects in South Carolina. This organization still maintains the facility today.

In 1993 Historic Charleston Foundation began a 10-year project to finance vital capital improvements and archaeological research at The Powder Magazine. In 2011 the NSCDA-SC redefined the museum’s mission. Beginning in April 2013, with the installation of a new exhibition, The Powder Magazine will focus on educating the public about South Carolina’s colonial military history. Today, this architectural relic stands as a valuable witness to South Carolina’s rich heritage. As The Powder Magazine enters its 110th year as a museum property, the facility routinely hosts both education programs and private events. The museum’s exhibition is open daily for visitation and can easily be located on the Charleston Museum Mile (www.charlestonmuseummile.org). For information on tours and upcoming events, visit www.powdermag.org or call 843-722-9350.