Besides being commercial entrepôts, South Carolina’s ports have had military and strategic value.
South Carolina is blessed with several deepwater harbors–Winyah Bay (Georgetown), Charleston harbor, and Port Royal Sound. As early as the sixteenth century, Spanish and French explorers sailed into Port Royal–“one of the finest natural harbors in the world”–and attempted settlements there before the English arrived. In 1670 the first English immigrants chose to settle at Charleston.
Besides harbors, scores of inlets and bays–Murrells Inlet, North Santee River Inlet, South Santee River Inlet, Bulls Bay, Stono Inlet, St. Helena Sound, Calibogue Sound, and others–cut the South Carolina coast. These outlets for the great rivers of South Carolina facilitated the development of an active coasting trade. South Carolina’s waterways were the principal transportation arteries of the new colony and directly influenced the location of early settlements.
Trade was the lifeblood of the fledgling colony, and Charleston began enjoying a brisk business in the early seventeenth century, receiving as many as eighty ships annually. By 1704 the city had two wharves. Thousands of pounds of deerskins and naval stores traveled to London in exchange for manufactured goods. In later years rice, indigo, and cotton were the cash crops that drew world trade to South Carolina’s ports.
The port of Charleston welcomed thousands of voluntary and involuntary immigrants. British, French, Swiss, and German immigrants entered South Carolina through the port of Charleston. Scholars have estimated that forty percent of the enslaved Africans imported into North America passed through the port of Charleston. The quarantine station on Sullivan’s Island was the “Ellis Island” of African Americans.
Besides being commercial entrep├┤ts, South Carolina’s ports have had military and strategic value. During the Revolutionary War, the port of Charleston was home to the South Carolina navy before the city fell to the British in 1780. It remained in British hands until 1782. During the War of 1812, the British blockaded Charleston, Port Royal, and other east-coast ports. In ensuing years the federal government worked to strengthen harbor defenses in the state. The firing on Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston harbor began the Civil War in April 1861. South Carolina seized Union ships in the harbor to form the nucleus of her navy. Later that year Union forces captured Port Royal harbor and transformed it into the primary supply station for the Federal naval blockade of the southern coast. The capture of Port Royal was a serious setback for the Confederacy. During the war, Charleston was a center for Southern blockade-runners and was also the home of at least three ironclads– Palmetto State, Chicora, and Charleston. In addition, Charleston harbor became the site of the first successful submarine attack, when on February 17, 1864, the CSS H. L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic. The Hunley then disappeared beneath the waves and was not raised until a century later. In 1901 the United States Naval Station relocated from Port Royal to Charleston. During World War II and the cold war, the Navy Yard brought an economic boom to the city, while its subsequent closing in the 1990s brought economic dislocation. Nevertheless, the commercial port in Charleston continued to thrive.
At the start of the twenty-first century, the South Carolina State Ports Authority operated, without state appropriations, three ports in the state: Charleston, Georgetown, and Port Royal. The modern port of Charleston, a container port, is South Carolina’s busiest, handling trade with 140 nations. Trade with northern Europe accounts for thirty-seven percent of Charleston’s trade. In dollar value of cargo, Charleston ranks sixth among United States customs districts. Charleston is the second-busiest container port on the east and gulf coasts and the fourth-busiest nationally. In 2001, 1,370,000 tons of cargo passed through the port of Georgetown, while Port Royal handled 162,000 tons. More than 2,500 ships and other vessels entered the Charleston, Georgetown, and Port Royal port terminals in 2001. From naval stores and deerskins, to indigo, rice, and cotton, and most recently to containers of fertilizer, cement, foodstuffs, and consumer goods, the trade through South Carolina’s ports mirrors the commercial vitality of the state’s economy.