This is a copy of the speech I gave this past 4th of July on the front of the Old Exchange Building. I worked as Operations Assistant at this historic site from 2009-2015, and although no longer part of the staff, hope to continue to give a history of this historic day in Charleston.
On May 12, 1780 Charleston was captured and occupied. The patriot defenders had put up a gallant defense, enduring the longest siege of the American Revolution. Shortly after the capture, patrols swept through the city, arresting those deemed as threats to the crown.
On their list was Johnathan Milner, a gunsmith with known patriot sympathies. In the early morning, before the family had risen, the British came to his household. Soldiers pounded on the front door, demanded that it be opened and Johnathan Milner come forth. Pressing business had carried him elsewhere; only his four daughters and son were present.
The soldiers barged into the house, brandishing muskets and bayonets. They ordered the terrified children to tell them the location of their father. Enraged by their silence, one of the soldiers angrily thrust his bayonet at Milner’s young son. His sister, fourteen year old Martha came to his defense. She stepped in front of her little brother to shield him, throwing her arms around him. She took the wound intended for him; the bayonet cut her deep over her eye.
The British left to continue their search for her father, but Martha would carry the scar above her eye for the rest of her life. Soldiers did eventually find and arrest Jonathan Milner and imprisoned him in the cellar dungeon beneath the Exchange Building.
The dungeon held fellow patriots and the citizens of Charleston who had become political prisoners. Former British soldiers jailed for their crimes and the criminals of the town were also held together in this common space. About sixty people were packed into a spot that could comfortably hold twenty. Illnesses were rampant in this damp, over crowed dungeon. According to one account, the prisoners were given “…water and food scarce enough for a child.”
Aware of these conditions, the teenaged Martha came in the face of the enemy to check on her father. She was able to converse with him through iron bars over the windows. Hidden in her pockets, she brought from home, as much boiled rice as she could carry. When the jailer’s attention was elsewhere she would hand her father the rice through the bars. No doubt this precious food helped to keep him alive during his captivity.
Sadly, the Milner’s story is not unique. There are others like it to be found, some here in this dungeon. Others prisoners were kept on the verge of starvation, in rags, aboard the British prison ships floating in the harbor. Despite this horrific suffering most of these men never turned, they never switched allegiance, even when offered a chance at clothing, food and a guarantee that they would fight for the King in some remote part of the world, away from the judgment of their countrymen.
For people like the Milner’s their cause is what sustained them; gave them strength to endure these unimaginable hardships. Look through the speeches, letters and diaries of those patriots from the Revolutionary period and you will find one word, and thought, echoed over and over again- LIBERTY. The Declaration of Independence is the summation of this pursuit of liberty.
Four years before the Milner Family began its’ ordeal, back before the fall of Charleston, the Declaration arrived to this bustling port. It was on Friday August 2, 1776 when a courier brought the unsigned copy into Charleston.
On the following Monday, August 5th, the presence of this document was formally announced. President John Rutledge of South Carolina summoned the regiment of the town. At 12 o’clock they were paraded, muskets shouldered, marching in step down Broad Street. Where the columns of soldiers came to a halt is not definitely stated, but tradition places it at the intersection of Broad and Meeting. In all probability it was where the County Courthouse sits today, but in 1776 Charleston was the capitol, and this building served as the Statehouse.
President Rutledge, accompanied by Major General Lee went to the head of the regiment. In formal procession followed Brigadiers Howe and Armstrong, members of the Privy Council, Legislative Council, Members of the House & Officers of the Army.
Thus gathered, the Declaration was first read publicly in Charleston. Who read it is also not noted, but it is thought President Rutledge would have performed this ceremonial duty. This gathering proceeded to the steps of the Exchange, where we are now gathered, and the Declaration read a second time.
Just 5 years old at the time, the New Exchange Building and Customs House was the commercial, cultural and political center of Charleston. Hundreds of people stood shoulder to shoulder on the same space you now occupy, straining to hear the words of the Declaration. This may have been the second place in Charleston where the Declaration was read, but it would be for many the very first time that they would hear these words, words powerful enough to define the great conflict they were engaged in.
When the reading concluded, huzzas and cheers split the air. Cannons boomed in salute from Granville’s Bastions and from Broughton’s Bastions placed near what we call the Battery today. Later that evening the Declaration was copied and printed, and read to the other Patriot forces encamped nearby. Troops on Fort Johnson stationed on James Island, and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island would hear the Declaration on the 6th of August. On another occasion Major Barnard Elliott read the Declaration at the Liberty Tree near present day Calhoun and East Bay.
Reflecting on Monday the 5th, William Tennent III, who served as the minister of the Independent or Congregational Church in Charleston, remarked in his diary “This seems to be designed as a most important epoch in the history of South Carolina & from this day it is no longer to be considered as a colony but as a state.”
Four years later in 1780, the British captured Charleston and the spot where liberty was once proclaimed so proudly was now a dungeon.
Although imprisoned, the Patriots did not forget the promise of the Declaration. Nor did their families, who suffered in their absence. The thoughts and sentiments of that historic document remained with them in their darkest hours. They would see it through, no matter the sacrifice and use it build the greatest nation on earth.
You are about to hear the words that inspired our ancestors to face down a King, a tyrant backed by the most powerful military force in the world. Scar above her eye, rice in her pockets, Martha Milner embodied the strength that allowed the revolutionaries, against all odds, to seize liberty. This freedom was not just a blessing for themselves, it comes up through the ages, to us their living descendants.
I am honored to be up with these men and women- veterans, descendants of the Revolutionaries, and keepers of our history, as we once again present the Declaration of Independence to Charleston.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.