newspaper clippings showing the historical images of the wall being built around the horseshoe

The Great Wall of Carolina

Remembering the Days: A UofSC Podcast – Episode 2

It's nearly seven feet tall, 3,000 feet long and is made of 160,000 bricks. And it's older than half of the buildings on the University of South Carolina's historic Horseshoe. It's the campus wall, a structure that never succeeded in its original purpose — keeping mischievous 19th century students on campus. But during one tumultuous night in 1865, the wall very likely saved the campus from a fire that consumed one-third of the surrounding city.



“The Great Wall of Carolina”

I’m walking down Greene Street, next to the University of South Carolina campus, and I’ve got a riddle for you — I want you to guess what I’m looking at.

Here are some hints. It’s the most overlooked structure on campus; it’s older than half of the buildings on the Horseshoe and — OK, here’s the giveaway — it’s nearly seven feet tall and 3,000 feet long.

Yep, it’s the campus wall, all 160,000 bricks of it.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, where we amble across the Horseshoe and take a stroll down more than 200 years of memory lane at the University of South Carolina.

Today we’re talking about — let’s call it the Great Wall of Carolina. It’s a story that involves thousands of bricks, a catastrophic fire and a lot of mischievous students. And it was because of those students that trustees began advocating for a wall around South Carolina College — the precursor of today’s university — as early as 1807, just two years after the campus opened. Trustees thought that walling the students in would put an end to their drinking at nearby taverns like Billy Maybin’s hotel and Brigg’s Tavern. Those were some of the popular watering holes back then — sort of the 19th century version of Five Points.

It took a long while for the wall to get built — construction finally began in 1835 and it was completed in 1836.

West: And so the decision was made to try to force the young men to stay on the campus. The faculty’s duties included trying to catch students when they were sneaking back on campus at night and the faculty were not pleased that it was included in their duties. So when the wall was constructed they actually wanted it to be pretty formidable in order to keep the students from sneaking off campus. So it was originally seven feet tall, solid brick all the way around the quadrangle, and only one entrance on the Sumter Street side. That was it. All these pedestrian and vehicle pathways we’re used to now, they did not exist in the original wall.

That’s Elizabeth West, the university archivist. She says that even with just that single opening in the wall, the plan to keep students confined to campus was a massive fail.

West: The wall was a failure in its original intent of preventing students from leaving campus. It was seven feet tall and quite thick with just a single entrance but these young men simply found ways to help each other climb over the wall and then continue their pursuits in Columbia taverns and eating establishments and visiting family, things like that, so, it was a failure in that sense.

When you look at the wall now, it’s obvious that a lot has changed over time. For starters, it has dozens of openings for pedestrians and vehicles and one part of the wall is completely gone.

West: I have called it the most altered and abused structure on campus because it has been opened and closed and opened again and lowered and raised and lowered again. Vehicles have bumped into it.

The wall encloses the equivalent of about 12 city blocks of the university’s original campus, and it was changed significantly in the 1880s. That’s when the section along Sumter Street was lowered and topped with wrought iron railing. In the late 1890s, the single gate on Sumter Street was replaced by two separate gates. That changed the shape of the main pathway inside from a large oval that looked like a racetrack to an upside-down U or a Horseshoe shape — and now you know how that part of campus came to be known as the Horseshoe.

About 10 years ago a public history class at the university taught by professor Robert Wyeneth began studying the history of enslaved people at South Carolina College, and they learned that the campus wall was composed of brick that were hand-made by enslaved artisans. 

Some of those brick came from clay deposits beside the Congaree River here in Columbia and some came from Charleston. All of those handmade brick were painstakingly laid by enslaved brick masons. There’s a lot more to be said about the university’s history with enslaved people — if you’re interested, check out the episode entitled “Looking for Jack. 

The students in that history class also conducted a survey of the wall, which showed that parts of it were falling apart. That led to a massive renovation over a two-year period that involved using a special type of mortar that allows those old, handmade brick to shrink and expand without cracking or splitting.

Before the renovation began, the students found a brick with indentations left behind by human fingers, probably the result of someone handling the clay before it was fired in the kiln. That special brick is now in the collections at McKissick Museum on the Horseshoe.

When I heard about it, I just had to go see it. 

Ciccimurri: What we have here are two bricks that were from the original wall that was around the Horseshoe.

That’s Christian Ciccimurri, the collections curator for McKissick.

Ciccimurri: The corners are kind of knocked off but you can very easily see there is definitely four fingerprints right in the edge, the short edge, of the brick …

An original brick from the campus wall … I found myself wanting to place my fingers in the exact spot where someone — probably a slave — had left their finger prints nearly 200 years ago. Apparently, everyone who sees this brick has the same reaction.

Christian actually mentioned two bricks. One of them is from the wall and the other is from some renovations at the South Caroliniana Library. If you go to McKissick Museum and ask nicely, they’ll probably let you see them. 

So, one more thing about the Great Wall of Carolina. I know Elizabeth said the wall was a failure at doing what it was originally intended to do — keeping the students on campus.

But the wall actually saved the campus in 1865 when Gen. Sherman’s troops torched Columbia near the end of the Civil War. 

West: The wall actually rendered its finest service to the university during the burning of Columbia in 1865 when about one-third of the city of Columbia burned during that night, the night of Feb. 17th, 18th.

West: We have an eyewitness account describing that the flames swept up to the very walls of the campus. So we know that without that wall there, again, still a very solid wall without all the entrances we have in it now, it really helped protect the campus. We could have lost all or some of the original buildings on the campus if the wall had not been constructed so it was very fortunate.

So, apart from the fact that it saved the campus from destruction in 1865, why should we even care about this wall? As Elizabeth says, most people tend to walk by walls without really seeing them or thinking about them.

I asked Emily Jones, the university’s landscape architect who oversaw the recent renovation of the wall. She says even if you don’t consciously notice it, the wall nevertheless affects your experience of campus.

Jones: It really defines space and even though it’s just a simple brick wall it really gives the core of campus an identity and you know when you’re stepping through a portal whether one of the more elaborate gates or just an opening in the wall, you’re stepping on to campus. And with our location here in the middle of a capital city in the middle of an urban grid, it really gives the core campus an identity. 

I also think it enriches our daily experience of the campus. Older building, large trees, the patina of older materials just enriches your daily experience of the urban campus.

I agree with Emily. The history of the original campus is intertwined with the history of  the wall itself. It’s the story of 19th century ne’er-do-well students jumping over it; of enslaved masons making each brick by hand; and of the 7-foot-tall barrier of brick stopping a massive blaze in its tracks.

Let’s give the Great Wall of Carolina its due.

That’s all for now. See you next time on Remembering the Days, a production of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina. 

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