Drayton Hall: A Lowcountry Survivor and Window Into Lowcountry South Carolina History

I never expected to be moved by a mansion, but that’s exactly what happened when I visited Drayton Hall in Charleston, SC. I’m not all that interested in architecture and I don’t exactly hold the southern plantation elites in high esteem, but I was moved by this mansion that was built in the middle of the 18th Century somehow survived the American Revolution and the Civil War without being burned to the ground. In fact, it’s the only plantation house along the Ashley River to survive both wars intact (although its flanker buildings were lost to natural disasters after the Civil War). What moved me was the thought of all of the History that Drayton Hall was witness to, from the development of South Carolina as British Colony through the American Revolution to become one of the founding states of the United States to the Civil War as one of the states which broke the country apart. Following the Civil War, it witnessed the transition of the South’s economy and very being when slavery was abolished. Drayton Hall was never upgraded with running water or utilities and it’s preserved as it was. You could actually say it’s being preserved, as right now there is preservation work going on inside the mansion. Now a national historic landmark, Drayton Hall is a great place to learn about the Colonial and Antebellum history of Lowcountry South Carolina.

Drayton Hall house as seen from across the plantation’s reflecting pond

Since this was my first time visiting Drayton Hall I booked the guided tour of the house instead of the self-guided audio tour and I’m glad I did. The guide on my tour, Victoria, is a History major studying to to pursue Public History and was very knowledgeable and friendly; I learned a lot as we toured the basement and first floor of the mansion. A couple of the other guests on the tour I took were engineers and it was interesting to listen to what they observed on the tour as well. After the house tour, I toured the rest of the grounds including a Caretaker’s House from the plantation’s post-Civil War era. It was a beautiful mild early Spring day with the Azaleas blooming, so it was perfect day for wandering the grounds and learning about the plantation’s place in Lowcountry History.

Drayton Hall’s Visitors Center is where you begin your visit and it houses a museum and gift shop. Outside the Visitors Center is a lovely garden that you walk through to the Education Center, where you can watch a short film about the plantation. The slide show below shows the visitors and education centers along with the garden inbetween.

I won’t try to describe the architecture of the Drayton Hall house because that’s just not my wheelhouse. It is, however, a very impressive structure. It was built somewhere between 1738 and 1752 by John Drayton, Sr. after he purchased the property to establish a rice and indigo planation. Eventually Drayton would own 76,000 acres between the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia’s Golden Isles; Drayton Hall would have served as a sort of headquarters of Drayton’s business empire and a symbol of his status. In addition to the two story house with an above ground basement that exists today, the house had two flanker buildings that connected to the main house by covered walkways; they were destroyed by hurricane and earthquake in the late 1800s, but you can still see where they were today. Currently, the basement of the house and most of the first floor are open, the second floor and the twin staircases are closed due to ongoing preservation work.

The Drayton family was an influential family. In addition to Drayton’s business empire, he also served as a judge and a member of the His Majesty’s Privy Council from 1761 to 1775. John Drayton Sr. died from a seizure while evacuating the plantation after the British arrived there in 1779. His sons were all Patriots, including William Henry Drayton, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress and signed the Articles of Confederation. His second son, Charles Drayton (more about him later), a medical doctor, would inherit Drayton Hall and serve as a Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. William’s son John Drayton Jr., would be a Governor of South Carolina and a federal judge. As the Civil War came, the Drayton family because supporters of the Confederate cause; three Drayton brothers co-owned Drayton Hall at the time and two of them fought in the Confederate Army while the third, a doctor, contracted with the Confederate government to treat slaves who were constructing earthworks.

Drayton Hall was occupied by both the British and the Americans during the American Revolution. British Generals Clinton and Cornwallis used it as headquarters when it was occupied by the British and while under American occupation it was used as a headquarters by General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.

The basement, as seen in the slideshow above, was the kitchen and home to the house slaves. You enter the basement through a door between the front of the house’s twin staircases. It’s interesting that the kitchen was in the main house as in other plantation houses I’ve visited, the kitchens have been in separate buildings to protect the main house from fire. Between the windows and the whitewash, it’s pretty well lit, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like in the basement during the Lowcountry Summers with that huge fireplace going to cook meals. It’s worth mentioning here, that the guided tour and some of the exhibits make it clear that the plantation wouldn’t have existed without the slave labor that it was built and operated on. While most slave cabins haven’t survived to today because of their poor construction, at least the basement of Drayton Hall serves to illustrate the dichotomy between the upper class plantation owners and the slaves their economy depended upon.

John Drayton’s second son Charles inherited Drayton Hall and it is because of him that some of the history of the plantation’s slaves is known. Charles Drayton kept a detailed diary that made brief mention of slaves, particularly ones that were skilled artisans and craftsmen. Some of the slaves were mentioned more frequently than others in his diary and it’s those entries that enable modern day Drayton Hall, as an historic site, to tell some of the slaves’ stories.

On the first floor of the house, it’s easy to tell how ornate it would have been during its time. The mansion is not restored, it’s preserved so the paint and plaster work is worn, but it allows you to see how the house was when it was last occupied. There is some wonderfully ornate woodwork in Drayton Hall, including some beautiful carved mahogany in one of the rooms. There is also some beautifully ornate plaster work on the ceilings.

It is believed that Drayton Hall survived the Civil War because one of the brothers that owned it at the time, Dr. John Drayton, may have been using it for smallpox quarantine. At any rate, the property was flagged as a smallpox quarantine and that may be why the Union Army didn’t burn it like they did other area plantation houses. There are two other historic structures on the property, the Privy (outhouse) and a Caretaker’s House, as seen in the slideshow below.

The Privy can be seen as a bridge between the pre-Civil War Drayton Hall and the post-Civil War Drayton Hall. Before the Civil War, it was an outhouse, albeit a well built one with a fireplace to keep the users warm in the winter. After the Civil War, the Draytons were unable to adjust to not being able to control free labor as they did slave labor and left the country. They left Drayton Hall in the hands of an agent and the plantation was used for phosphate mining. During the phosphate mining era, the Privy became an office used by the mining operation.

The Caretaker’s House serves as a window into the post-Civil War Drayton Hall. It was built around 1870 to house caretakers who would look after Drayton Hall during its Phosphate mining period in the absence of the Drayton Family. The Caretaker’s House is now home to exhibits that tell the story of the freed slaves who became tenant workers at the phosphate mine and helped keep up and maintain Drayton Hall. While it may not be as large and grand as the Plantation House, the Caretaker’s House tells an equally important story. While they may not have been judges, governors, or founding fathers, it was the slaves and freed slaves as tenant workers upon whom the southern economy depended. Places like Drayton Hall simply wouldn’t have existed without them. It’s just as important to tell their story as it to tell the Drayton family’s story and I’m glad Drayton Hall is trying to do that.

After visiting the Caretaker’s House, I took the walking tour around the plantation grounds. The first photo in the slideshow above is the view from the path to the Ashley River looking back toward Drayton Hall. The second photo is of an element of the grounds called a Ha-Ha; it was a ditch which concealed a fence that kept grazing animals out of the Drayton Hall gardens. As you looked out from the house, the fence would essentially be invisible, to prevent it from ruining the view of the gardens. The third and fourth photos are the Ashley River running past the Drayton Hall. The fifth and sixth photos are of the azaleas and trees around Drayton Hall in bloom. The seventh photo is of a live oak tree on the grounds that is older than the plantation. The final photo is one of the grounds’ ornamental ponds; previous owners of the property used them to grow rice, but under the Drayton’s ownership they became ornamental and were also used for fishing.

I should have visited Drayton Hall a long time ago, but I’m glad I finally did. It’s amazing that the house survived both the American Revolution and the Civil War; owned by a Patriot family, it could have burned by the British and owned by a Confederate family in the birth state of the Confederacy, it stood a high likelihood of being burned by the Union Army. Thankfully it survived and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is used to tell the story of not just the Drayton family but the slaves and freed slaves who built Drayton Hall, worked in its fields and gardens, mined phosphate from its grounds, and maintained it so that it remains today. Don’t visit Drayton Hall just to see an historic Plantation House, visit it to learn more about the history of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

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