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The Robinson Library >> South Carolina

the seat of Charleston County, and the second largest city in South Carolina

Charleston is located on a narrow, low-lying peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, at the head of a broad bay leading to the Atlantic Ocean. The city also includes an area on the west bank of the Ashley River. The city proper covers an area of about 178 square miles. As of 2013, the city had a population of approximately 128,000; the metropolitan area -- which includes Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties -- has a population of approximately 727,700. It is also known for being the place where the Civil War began, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in the harbor.

location of Charleston (red dot)
location of Charleston

Charleston's motto is Aedes Mores Juraque Curat (She cares for her temples, customs, and rights).
official seal of the City of Charleston


Charles Towne was founded at Albemarle Point on the west bank of the Ashley River in 1670; it was named for Charles II, King of England. The settlement was moved to its present site in 1680. It served as the capital of Carolina Colony from 1670 to 1790. By the mid-18th century, Charles Towne had become a bustling trade center, and the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia. By 1770 it was the fourth largest port in the colonies, after Boston, New York and Philadelphia. It had also become famous as a center of luxury and culture, with a distinctly cosmopolitan population that included many French Huguenots and the largest Jewish community in the American colonies.

map of Charles Towne in 1733
map of Charles Towne in 1733

During the American Revolution, Charles Towne repulsed two British naval attacks (1776 and 1779) but was captured in 1780 and occupied until 1782. In 1783 it was incorporated as a city and its name was shortened to Charleston. The state capital was moved to Columbia in 1790, and by the early 19th century the port had declined dramatically.

On December 20, 1860, the South Carolina General Assembly made the state the first to secede from the Union. On January 9, 1861, Citadel cadets fired the first shots of the American Civil War when they opened fire on the Union ship Star of the West entering Charleston's harbor. On April 12, 1861, shore batteries under the command of General Pierre G.T. Beauregard opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter in the harbor. After a 34-hour bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort. The fort remained in Confederate hands until the city was captured by Union forces in February 1865 (following a 19-month siege). Federal forces remained in Charleston during the city's reconstruction. The war had left the city in ruins and destroyed most of its industry and infrastructure, but Charlestonians worked hard to restore their community institutions.

Charleston at the end of the Civil War
Charleston at the end of the Civil War

The discovery of nearby phosphate deposits in 1867 brought a new source of industrial wealth. The Avery Institute, the city's first free secondary school for blacks, was established in 1867. The William Enston Home, a planned community for the city's aged and infirm, was built in 1889. Completion of a new Post Office and Courthouse in 1896 signaled renewed life in the heart of the city.

In 1886, Charleston was nearly destroyed by an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale -- it was felt as far away as Boston and Bermuda. The quake damaged 2,000 buildings and caused $6 million worth of damage ($123 million in today's dollars). Once again, city residents banded together and rebuilt their city.

Disaster hit the city again in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo damaged three-quarters of the homes in Charleston's historic district and caused over $2.8 billion in damage.


Revival of Charleston's economy began in earnest during World War II, when several military-related industries were established in the area. In 2004, the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command became the largest employer in the metropolitan area. Charleston is also home to the Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy, an initiative by the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide mail order prescriptions to veterans using computerization at strategic locations throughout the country. An Air Force base, Coast Guard station, Army Depot, and Naval Prison are also located in the area.

The nearly landlocked harbor handles both coastal and overseas trade. Charleston is also a rail, road, and air transportation hub. Paper, metal products, chemicals, and petrochemicals are some of the products manufactured here. Tourism is also a major industry, with visitors coming to see Fort Sumter, as well as some of the best-preserved historic homes in the country. Other major industries include biotechnology and medical research.

The Charleston area is served by Charleston International Airport.


Charleston has a mayor-council form of government.


The Charleston County School District educates approximately 48,500 students, in 42 elementary schools, 13 middle schools, 8 high schools, 12 magnet schools, and 4 charter schools.

Charleston is home to the Porter-Gaud School, a K-12 prep school founded in 1867, and to the prestigious Ashley Hall, an all-girls school founded in 1909. The Medical University of South Carolina, located in downtown Charleston, is known for its research in the biotechnology field. Charleston is also the seat of the College of Charleston (1770), the oldest municipal college (since 1837) in the country; the Citadel Military College of South Carolina (1842); Charleston Southern University (1960); Trident Technical College (1964); the Charleston School of Law; Springfield College; the Roper School of Practical Nursing; and branches of Webster University.

Sites and Attractions

Charleston is famous for its preservation of buildings and charm of the 1700's and 1800's. Many of the old homes are built of stuccoed brick, and have steep slate roots. Known locally as single houses, most are built flush with the sidewalk.

A major tourist attraction is Charleston's extensive historic district, noted for its lush gardens and varied architecture. Many of the city's structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Three historic fortifications stand at the mouth of Charleston Harbor: Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney (1797), both built on shoals, and Fort Moultrie, on Sullivans Island. Fort Moultrie was instrumental in delivering a critical defeat to the British in the Revolutionary War.

The Old Exchange and Customs House in downtown Charleston, completed in 1771, is considered by many the third most important Colonial building in the country (behind Fanueuil Hall in Boston and Independence Hall in Philadelphia). The building features a dungeon which held various signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was the site of South Carolina's ratification of the Constitution in 1788, and the host of events for George Washington in 1791. It has also served as a U.S. Post Office, the first Confederate Post Office, and was used by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Cultural attractions include the Gibbes Art Gallery, one of the country's oldest art organizations and home to over 10,000 works of art; Charleston Library Society (1748), one of the oldest libraries in the country; and the Charleston Museum, the first museum in the Americas. For those who are into nature, Charleston offers the South Carolina Aquarium, the Audubon Swamp Garden, Cypress Gardens, and Charles Towne Landing.

Charleston annually hosts Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day art festival featuring over 100 performances by individual artists in a variety of disciplines. Other major events include the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, Charleston Food and Wine Festival, Family Circle Tennis Cup, Cooper River Bridge Run, and the Moja Arts Festival.

Charleston is home to several minor league teams, including the Charleston Battery (soccer), the Charleston RiverDogs (baseball; affiliated with the New York Yankees), the South Carolina Stingrays (ice hockey; affiliated with the Washington Capitals); and, the Charleston Sandsharks (indoor football).

Other Information

The Gilbert and Sullivan opera Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston.

Scarlett, the 1991 sequel to Gone With the Wind, is partially set in Charleston. In both the original and the sequel, Rhett Butler was originally from Charleston.

aerial view of Charleston
aerial view of Charleston

Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

Civil War
New York City
Charles II
American Revolution
Civil War
Pierre G.T. Beauregard
World War II
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Gilbert and Sullivan

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The Robinson Library >> South Carolina

This page was last updated on June 27, 2018.