Surely, no American city has endured such a history of disaster as Charleston, set beguilingly beside the Atlantic upon her fragile spit of earth between the Ashley and Cooper rivers.  Fires, floods, epidemics, blockades, sieges, bombardments, hurricanes, and earthquakes have repeatedly scarred her, but arguably the great Charleston earthquake of 1886 was the most destructive of all.  It came as a cruel blow to a city that had only just begun to recover from the devastation of the Civil War.  According to the authors of Upheaval in Charleston, the earthquake was probably caused by pressure spreading westward from a ridge of undersea volcanoes in the Atlantic—pressure that triggered a “slip” in one or more fault lines just to the northwest of the city, near the historic Middleton Plantation on the Ashley River, where three faults intersect—the chief of these known as the Woodstock fault.  Registering, by contemporary estimates, at least 7.3 on the Richter scale, the Charleston earthquake was not as powerful as either the New Madrid earthquake (1812) or the San Francisco earthquake (1906).  But the havoc in the Charleston area was substantial.  At least 124 people were killed, and hundreds more were injured.  Almost 70 percent of the city’s buildings were either destroyed or seriously damaged, and its three major hospitals were demolished.  Some 40,000 Charlestonians—roughly two thirds of the city’s residents—were forced into the city’s streets and parks as fires raged and firemen attempted to cope with a damaged water system.  Aftershocks (some 300 of them) continued, with gradually abating severity, for months.  It was, in short, the most powerful earthquake ever to strike the East Coast.  In Atlanta, over 300 miles to the west, newspaper editor Henry Grady felt the initial shock rattle the walls of his house, while a chimney plunged through the roof of a neighboring home.  So frightening were the tremors in Richmond that some 800 prisoners in the Virginia state penitentiary clamored wildly to be released from their cells.

Yet the enduring significance of the Charleston earthquake, according to Williams and Hoffius, was social and political rather than material, for it exposed “a country torn between the fading ideals of racial justice and the lure of white reunion.”  Ten years earlier, Radical Republican rule in South Carolina had been brought to an end by the rise of the Redeemers under the leadership of Wade Hampton.  Ten years later, Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation.  Thus, the earthquake struck during a period of transition before the Jim Crow regime had hardened the lines of racial relations in the South.  The authors strongly imply, following the lead of C. Vann Woodward, that the 1880’s were a period of flux, in which blacks and whites might have moved toward greater equality.  Instead, this opportunity was squandered, and “rather than build a new city on the ruins of the old, Charleston constructed a fresh set of walls to separate the races.”

This is a dubious assumption, but first let it be said that, insofar as the authors confine themselves to a study of the earthquake and its immediate social and political aftermath, they must be commended for a painstaking and at times gripping reconstruction of the events that began on the night of August 31, 1886.  Working largely from primary sources such as diaries, letters, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts, Williams and Hoffius have created a narrative history, intricate and meticulously documented, that reads like a well-plotted novel, largely avoiding the tedium of far too many academic histories.  While the events themselves are compelling enough, the authors have chosen wisely to organize their account of those events around a select cast of “characters” who played decisive roles in leading the city toward recovery or in coping with the social and political fallout.  Chief among these was Francis Warrington Dawson.  Indeed, Dawson is featured so prominently in Upheaval that he might be called its protagonist.  Born Austin John Reeks in London to a well-to-do English Catholic family, Dawson changed his name at the age of 20, forsook family and homeland, and sailed on a Confederate steamer to North Carolina, where he joined the Confederate Army and rose to the rank of captain.  After taking up journalism on the staff of the Richmond Examiner in 1866, Dawson moved to Charleston, where in 1867 he became part owner of the Charleston News.  Nearly two decades later he had become not simply the most influential newspaperman in the state but a substantial figure in national politics, having played a key role in Grover Cleveland’s 1884 presidential election.  In the aftermath of the earthquake, Dawson’s prominent position among Charleston’s elite, his decisiveness, and his seemingly boundless self-confidence ensured a place for him at the center of events.  Appointed to Acting Mayor William Huger’s relief committee, Dawson worked tirelessly to address the city’s massive recovery problems.  Providing shelter, food, water, and medical aid was daunting enough, but such logistical problems were enormously exacerbated by a populace in the grip of hysteria.

As Williams and Hoffius report in vivid detail, large numbers of Charlestonians were convinced that the earthquake was just the opening act in a divine script for retribution against the city for its sins.  Many blacks, especially, greeted the disaster with a mixture of fear and religious jubilation.  Throngs gathered in the hastily erected tent cities to listen to preachers who prophesied the imminent advent of the Last Judgment.  In a mixed-race encampment at Marion Square, “in the eerie glow of . . . kerosene lamps, no less than a dozen camp meetings were organized, each occupying its own section of the park.”  Caught up in the apocalyptic fervor, the black crowds noisily sang, clapped, and swayed, irritating their white neighbors and provoking more than one potentially violent confrontation.  One black preacher exhorted his auditors to imagine the earthquake as a herald of Old Testament justice: “Didn’t you hear Gabriel’s horn blow?  Oh [sic], Gabriel, turn that horn to the land of Egypt on the miserable sinners and not on we!”  Forced to listen to such harangues night after night, it is not unlikely that white Charlestonians drew the obvious inference: They themselves were the “miserable sinners.”  Nor is it surprising that whites soon began to clamor for segregated accommodations.

Concerned that the needs of the black population were being slighted by an all-white relief committee, some black leaders, particularly the Rev. William H. Heard, organized what was, in effect, a separate relief committee, one that sought to divert private donations away from the acting mayor’s office and directly into the hands of those in the black community who were in a position to distribute relief more equitably.  This effort brought the “coalition of Colored Clergy” into direct conflict with Dawson, who bridled at the suggestion that the relief committee had favored whites.  And, in fact, the authors present very little evidence that blacks suffered disproportionately, while presenting Heard and his associates as principled crusaders against white injustice.  Moreover, the authors fail to note that Heard was not simply a concerned man of the cloth suddenly thrust into the limelight by the urgency of a natural disaster.  On the contrary, he had a history of political involvement.  At 22 he was, according to his 1928 autobiography, already chairman of the Republican Party in Elbert County, Georgia.  In 1876, after relocating to Abbeville County, South Carolina, he vied for a seat in the state legislature on the Republican ticket and won handily against a “Red Shirt” Democrat.  In 1880 he entered the ministry and claims that he “took no further interest in politics” until he was appointed consul general to Liberia in 1895.  Oddly, Heard seems to have forgotten his political organizing in Charleston and the regular column on political matters that he wrote for the New York Freeman during the 1880’s.  The authors do note his association with the Freeman but omit to point out that its biracial editor, Timothy Thomas Fortune, was a doctrinaire Marxist who had called, as recently as 1884, for massive confiscation of Southern property and its redistribution among the “masses.”  Given Heard’s political background and his dubious associations, it is at least odd that Williams and Hoffius do not probe more deeply into his activities during the aftermath of the earthquake.

Indeed, one of the chief problems of their book is that Williams and Hoffius seem wedded to a wearisome liberal-left compulsion to find evidence of “white supremacy” lurking around every corner.  Thus, in discussing the preparations for the erection of the Calhoun monument in Marion Square in 1887, the authors state, “While the nation prepared to dedicate the Statue of Liberty as a tribute to freedom and equality, Charleston stonemasons were laying the granite base for a massive shrine to white supremacy.”  In the first place, it is not at all clear that the Statue of Liberty had anything to do with “equality.”  More importantly, the authors erroneously assume that since Calhoun once defended slavery as a “positive good,” the erection of his monument could only be seen as a racist gesture.  In fact, the unveiling of the Calhoun monument was the occasion of an enormous display of reunion sentiment.  The event certainly highlighted the heroism of Confederate veterans, but the lengthy keynote speech delivered by Secretary of the Interior L.Q.C. Lamar (and never mentioned in Upheaval) dwelt almost exclusively upon Calhoun’s achievements as a political philosopher and statesman.  What South Carolinians most admired about Calhoun was not his defense of slavery but his defense of liberty, not the vacuous abstraction memorialized by the Statue of Liberty and wedded to a parasitic Leviathan empowered by absolute majorities, but a concept of liberty embedded in the equality and sovereignty of the states.  Here and elsewhere in their book, Williams and Hoffius deal with the racial tensions revealed in the aftermath of the 1886 earthquake in a manner completely divorced from the broader struggle for self-government waged by the Redeemers.  According to the cookie-cutter liberal narrative embraced here, Reconstruction and Radical Republican rule were altogether benign attempts to achieve economic and political justice for the oppressed.  The authors do not even entertain so much as the possibility that the egalitarian regime foisted upon Southern whites was not primarily about securing justice for blacks but about the extension of consolidated federal power over the last remaining redoubt of resistance to that power.  This is not to deny that the racism, in both the North and the South, during the Jim Crow era was often vicious and, from a Christian moral perspective, deplorable.  But the authors’ assumption that the 1880’s were a time when the walls of racial separation might have been torn down and a new regime of racial harmony erected instead is, by any standard of political realism, little more than wishful thinking.  Human nature is not infinitely malleable.

One more serious weakness in Upheaval in Charleston must be noted.  Although most of the book is devoted to an examination of the earthquake and its aftermath, two chapters at the end focus almost exclusively on the 1889 killing of Frank Dawson and the subsequent trial of the man accused of his murder, Dr. Thomas McDow.  The story of the miscreant McDow’s stalking of the Dawson family au pair Hélène Burdayron, and Dawson’s fatal attempt to defend her honor, has been told before.  True, Williams and Hoffius have dredged up a slew of fresh, and decidedly lurid, detail, but the problem is that Dawson’s killing and McDow’s trial have virtually nothing to do with the earthquake or its aftermath.  The authors make some attempt to paper over this difficulty by highlighting the racial tensions surrounding the trial.  (The chief witness for the defense and seven of the jurors were black.)  But in the end the reader is left scratching his head and wondering if the sensationalism of the final chapters was an attempt to provide Upheaval with a more substantial claim to originality than it merits.  After all, a perfectly serviceable history of the earthquake—Richard Côté’s City of Heroes—was published in 2006 and drew upon many of the same sources.  Curiously, Williams and Hoffius never even so much as footnote Côté’s book.


[Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow, by Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius (Athens: The University of Georgia Press) 392 pp., $29.95]