Battery Park and White Point Gardens
Bounded by East Battery, King Street, Murray Boulevard and South Battery
Charleston, South Carolina
N.B. This article was edited and revised 5 May 2019.
Throughout the South history creates layers. In some places there are literal layers that an archaeologist may sift through, in other places those layers can be formed through names; names that may span the centuries from the present day to another historical layer many centuries earlier. The Charleston Battery is one of those places with a few layers of names. I’ve encountered so many different names for this location; I’m not sure which is really correct. Wikipedia calls it The Battery and says that White Point Gardens is a part of that. I’ll just stick with that. A Post & Courier article from 2001 adds that even the use of “Gardens” (plural) as opposed to “Garden” (singular) is inconsistent. Nevertheless, the jumble of names adds to the layers of history that have accrued here.
In April of 1670 when the 93 passengers aboard the Carolina first sailed into what would be called Charleston Harbor, they were greeted by the tip of a peninsula at the point where two mighty rivers came together. The ship’s captain knew one of the rivers as the Ashley, as he had accompanied the earlier expedition that had named the river for Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the colony’s Lord Proprietors. The local Native Americans called the river Kiawah (which is now applied to a barrier island south of the city), and the Spanish had called it the San Jorge. At the tip of this peninsula was a Native American oyster shell midden, or trash heap. Over time, this point would be called alternately Oyster Point, or White Point, for the sun-bleached oyster shells piled there.
Initially, the settlers landed and began to build their city, named for King Charles I, on the opposite bank of the Ashley River on what would later be called Old Town Creek. Colonel William Sayle, the colony’s first governor saw the strategic importance of the peninsula’s tip, however. “It is as it were a Key to open and shutt [sic] this settlement into safety or danger,” he stated in a letter to Lord Ashley, and he began to grant land to settlers in this area. In 1679, it was decided that Oyster Point and the Cooper River side of the peninsula was a much better place for a town.
Throughout its three hundred some-odd years of existence, White Point Gardens has seen a variety of uses. It has been covered with shacks and tenements, served the defense of the city, been created as a pleasure park, and as a place for execution. Walter Fraser, Jr. in his Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City, describes a storm surge sweeping over White Point during the Hurricane of 1752, with the poor people escaping their shacks there for more substantial shelter. Following the hurricane, the White Point remained “a desolate Spot” until 1770 when the low marshy areas were filled in and elegant homes began to be built there along with a sea wall on the eastern side created with palmetto logs. This held until 1804 when it was swept away by another hurricane and it was replaced with a wall of ballast stone.
It was in the space created here that open-air concerts were given during the summer months. When the British blockaded Charleston Harbor during the War of 1812, fifteen guns of large caliber were placed along the White Point aimed at the harbor and the point began to be known as The Battery.
Following the war, this pleasant point was planted with oaks and gained the name White Point Gardens during a major period of building in the late 1830s. When English actress Fanny Kemble, who married Georgia cotton planter Pierce Butler, visited the city she delighted in the promenade and the “large and picturesque old houses.” Fraser notes that in the 1840s, African-Americans were not allowed to use the park between five and ten in the evening.
From this promenade and roofs of the pretentious mansions lining the battery, the citizens of Charleston witnessed the first shots of the Civil War as Confederate attacked Fort Sumter in the harbor. Gunfire from ships during the war destroyed some of those mansions, but they were later rebuilt even more ostentatiously. The tradition of promenading along the seawall and under the sprawling live oaks continued into the 20th century. The 1941 Works Progress Administration guide to the state of South Carolina describes the scene of “Charleston children, guarded by white-turbaned Negro ‘maumas,’ play[ing] among monuments and guns that recall the city’s war-torn history of more than 250 years.”
Today tourists stroll the Battery and under those oaks. They may pass a stone monument reminding them of the fact that they stand on an execution ground. In fact, this spot may still be haunted by those who hung here in 1718, when Charleston was still a small colonial port. Over the course of five weeks that year some 49 men were hung here for piracy.
In response, Governor Robert Johnson asked the Lord Proprietors for assistance, but received no response. When pirates again appeared in the waters near Charleston in August, a group of local merchants banded together and under the command of William Rhett, they set out to stop this threat to their business. In the waters of North Carolina, they encountered pirate Stede Bonnet refitting his ship in the Cape Fear River.
Stede Bonnet wasn’t born into a life of crime. The son of a wealthy English family on the island of Barbados, Bonnet had had a fairly successful life which enabled him to buy his way into piracy. It was the usual custom for pirates to begin their work by seizing a ship that they then used to prey on other ships, Bonnet, however, bought his ship, the Revenge. He also hired his crew and paid them regular wages. Due to lack of experience in sailing or piracy, Bonnet had to hire someone to command his men. After terrorizing shipping off the Virginia coast, Bonnet sailed for the pirate’s paradise of Nassau in the Bahamas. There, he met Blackbeard and decided to join forces.
After a night of maneuvering sloops back and forth to gain advantage in battle, the sun rose on the morning of September 27, 1718 with Bonnet sailing his one sloop, he had combined all of his men into one ship from three, towards the three sloops under Colonel Rhett. Nearly all the ship ran aground during the battle with a rising tide eventually freeing Rhett’s vessels, while Bonnet’s sloop, the Royal James, remained stuck. The Royal James was quickly boarded by Rhett’s men who outnumbered the pirates. In a last ditch effort, Bonnet ordered his gunner to blow up the ship’s powder stores, but this suicidal act was prevented by Bonnet’s men who surrendered instead. Rhett returned triumphantly to Charleston with Bonnet and twenty-nine of his men in chains.
In Charleston, Bonnet’s men were imprisoned in the Half-Moon Battery where the Exchange and Provost Dungeon were later constructed, and still stands today. Because of his gentlemanly upbringing, Bonnet was imprisoned with his boatswain, Ignatius Pell, in the home of the town’s Provost Marshall. Shortly thereafter, Bonnet and Pell, accompanied by a slave and a Native American, escaped the house possibly disguised as women, at least according to legend. The group however, wasn’t able to go very far and had only gotten as far as Sullivan’s Island, north of the city, when they were captured. Bonnet and his men were put on trial before Vice-Admiralty judge, Nicholas Trott and found guilty.
Bonnet’s own men were hung at White Point, two days before his trial, and their bodies left dangling from the gallows before the bloated, decaying corpses were cut down and unceremoniously dumped in the marsh just off the point. Those same marshes that would later be filled in for the building of homes. Reportedly, Bonnet begged for clemency and turned much of the Charleston female population to his side, so much so that the governor had to delay the execution seven times. Even Colonel Rhett offered help by escorting Bonnet to England for a new trial, but Judge Trott’s decision stood firm.
During the time between Bonnet being found guilty and his execution, 19 other pirates were found guilty and hung at White Point. Bonnet’s day of execution finally dawned on December 10. Walter Fraser describes the scene:
…manacled and clutching a nosegay of wildflowers, [he] was taken in a hurdle to the place execution near White Point where the once bold pirate appeared terrified and near collapse. The executioner dropped the noose over his head and around his neck and then Bonnet was ‘swung off’ the cart. He died an agonizing death of strangulation, the invention of the gallows that would break the victim’s neck being years away.
His body was left hanging for a few days then unceremoniously dumped in the marsh with the remains of his men and his pirate brothers where they were eaten by crabs, riddled with maggots, and pecked by the gulls.
Over the course of five weeks, forty-nine pirates swung from the gallows at White Point. Within a couple months, pirate Richard Worley and nineteen of his men met the same fate. While the leaves of White Point Gardens’ oaks calmly sway in the ocean breeze, their roots are feeding on the blood of pirates.
There is a legend that the spirits of these pirates still stalk Battery Park and White Point Gardens. Denise Roffe includes a story of a couple who encountered an apparition hanging in midair beneath the oaks of the park. Alan Brown mentions that the spirits have been witnessed standing under the oaks and screaming at passersby. He notes that if one looks out on the bay from the foot of Water Street, where Vanderhorst Creek once met the waters of the Cooper River, when the moon is high, they may see the bloated faces of the long dead pirates just under the water’s surface. Like so many Charleston ghost stories, this story may be mostly legend, but it is grounded in a marvelous history.
- Battery Park (Charleston). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 August 2011.
- Blackbeard. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 August 2011.
- Brown, Alan. Haunted South Carolina: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Palmetto State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2010.
- Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia, SC: U. of SC Press, 1989.
- Hardin, Jason. “You can say it with an ‘S,’ but early documents show there is just one garden.” Post & Courier. 2 September 2001.
- Richard Worley. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 August 2011.
- Roffe, Denise. Ghosts and Legends of Charleston, South Carolina. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2010.
- Stede Bonnet. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 August 2011.
- Workers of the Writer’s Program of the Works Progress Administration in the State of South Carolina. South Carolina: A Guide to the Palmetto NYC: Oxford University Press, 1941.