Living in the West coast, one is far, far away even from memories of the American Civil War. But when you visit Charleston, South Carolina, you cannot walk three downtown blocks without being reminded of the war that shaped and changed America forever. Charleston was the city where the Confederate states signed to secede from the Union. The first shot of the civil war was (according to one story) fired here. The longest siege in American history took place right across Charleston, in the Bay, at Fort Sumter. That war truly is still remembered in every corner of this city.
The civil war changed many things for ever, and I was reminded of one of it’s greatest impacts, when we drove by a large, very old market (now selling sea food, curios and sweet grass baskets. This was, over a hundred years ago, the local slave market. It’s the same walls, but a world of difference inside.
The civil war also resulted in some major technical innovations that changed warfare forever. The machine gun was invented and first used during the civil war. Repeating rifles were perfected, and iron-clads, those lumbering, steam-powered, armored ships that were the forerunners of modern battleships, were first made and used during the civil war. There are too many stories about great naval ironclad battles, and I was quite hoping to find one, preserved beautifully (as most historical artifacts are here in the States) around these parts. Alas, I couldn’t find any.
We did find some other kinds of naval ships though. The US military presence is everywhere in these parts. The South remains the largest recruiting region for all the armed forces in the States. Almost every one has friends or family who are serving or have served in the armed forces. There are a number of naval bases all around. So, we were hardly surprised to find the historic USS Yorktown decommissioned and resting as a museum in Charleston harbor. This aircraft carrier is perhaps the most well known of all US ships, with a glorious combat record from World War II (more here). Harbored adjacent to it are two other decommissioned ships, USS Laffey, a WWII destroyer, and USS Clamagore, a diesel attack submarine. It was fascinating, walking through the submarine, in little torpedo rooms which were claustrophobic for a handful of tourists, but which held eighteen sailors in just that little room, while in service. The aircraft carrier Yorktown now houses a little museum of flight, holding fighters and bombers from World War II, and some more modern planes as well. It was fascinating walking through the ship, and learning about the great wars.
Perhaps India’s own recently decommissioned first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, with it’s own glorious past, will find a suitable permanent home as a museum, for generations to remember.
Charleston city itself is architecturally unlike any US city I’ve been to. The city has strived to maintain it’s historic character. So, there are NO high rise buildings in the entire downtown (the tallest building seemed to be some 6-7 stories high). Most buildings are a few decades old at least. Newer houses are built strictly according to old colonial style houses, that rich plantation owners once lived in. The downtown itself reminded me of some older European cities (though Charleston is a bit run down). The oldest house we passed by (which perhaps was the oldest house in the city) was built in 1690 (or thereabouts). A nice feeling of history all around. Interestingly, many of the older houses had interesting styles. Most houses these days have a large façade facing the street. But the older houses here seemed to run from front to back, with long balconies or porches on the side, but very little area out in front, with just a little door to the house. The more ornate door to enter the house was on the right side. This seemed rather odd, until I found out that in the old days, property tax for houses was based directly on how much front area the house had! So, all one had to do to save some tax money, would be to build the houses with balconies and entrances on the side. The houses themselves were gorgeous (the plantation owners must have been glad to have slaves, if not the expenses in keeping paid servants would have driven them bankrupt), and the postcard pretty rainbow row of houses was beautiful, with each house painted a different color or shade. Architects, urban planners, designers and civil engineers would just love to visit this city.
The nicest thing about the South Atlantic coast is that the water is warm. The Pacific Ocean on the west coast is so darn cold (even in California, leave alone Washington) that even getting the feet wet is hard. So when I got in to the water there, for a few moments I felt like I was back in Madras, enjoying the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. No wonder Hilton head and Myrtle beach are so popular.
Travel has plenty of little highlights. Ours was finding a little fridge magnet, with a recipe for the nasty Okra gumbo on it.
Truly, only in the south.