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By Jim Byous
Beaufort, South Carolina is Southern, small and sophisticated…. it’s a view to dine for. The deck where we sit once jutted out over the water. Today the water is two-hundred feet away, separated from the restaurant by yards and yards of twentieth-century fill dirt. Since Gus, The Travel Dogg blogger is with us, we’re invited to the umbrella-covered tables in back of the eatery… and the best views.
The 1919 Beaufort Bank Building, now Panini’s On The Waterfront Restaurant, still has one of Beaufort, South Carolina’s best vantage points of the harbor. From our table, past the hoagies, Frogmore penne, and crab cake salad, the boats list lazily as the spring breeze flows in from the ocean to the east… sleep inducing. Tourists and locals rest in strategically-positioned porch-swings that deliver leisured views from Henry Chambers Waterfront Park.
The scent of the brackish water and marsh mud accent the aroma of clams and rigatoni that wait in front of me. Dog friendly and a gluten-free menu… I am in heaven. Usually they bring a doggy menu for the pups, but today they are out of the pup-centric treats. Gus doesn’t mind a few nibbles of people food.
The spot is fantastic… but the history of the town is even better. Beaufort was founded in 1711. James Oglethorpe and the original settlers of Savannah and Georgia had stopped here on their way to start the new colony in 1732. Though first settled by the English in 1670 , the southeastern corner of what is now the United States, was still a frontier. The reason for Oglethorpe’s visit was to create a new adjoining colony to prevent the Spanish from moving up the coast from Florida, a welcomed buffer for the Carolinians.
Previously, in 1566, the Spanish created the nearby town of Santa Elena and stayed for 21 years. Oglethorpe’s actions would act to nullify the Spanish claim to the area. Before the Spanish, in 1662, French explorer and Captain Jean Ribaut brought a group of Huguenots to the same spot, creating the first Protestant settlement in what is now the United States.
Ribaut left a few soldiers and sailed back to France to gather reinforcements. The left-behind troops went to work and built their own ship which took them back to France as well. Unfortunately, without a compass, they wandered their way eastward and resorted to cannibalism to finish out the trip. It was the first ship built in America to cross the Atlantic Ocean… eventually. The location of the town was found under a Parris Island Marine Base golf course. The Spanish had built their town over the ruins of the French, which is… I am told… par for the Spanish. A stroke of genius.
The site is a short trip down the waterway from Beaufort toward the ocean. Parris Island is a place where US Marines are proud to have been… and graduated… from. Basic training there has hardened thousands of Leathernecks, both in times of peace and in war since 1915. As a result, Marine Corp caps and bumper stickers are easily found along Beaufort’s Bay Street which serves as the main thoroughfare and attraction in the Historic District. On the other side of town is the Marine Corps Air Station. This is a Marine-centric town.
It’s always been a military town. The British had just finished barracks for soldiers in 1732 when Oglethorpe dropped in with his hundred-or-so settlers. The travelers were given the new facilities to stay in while Colonel William Bull accompanied Oglethorpe on a scouting expedition to establish Savannah. They joined their leader a few weeks later in 1733. Soldiers and Sailors occupied the location until the end of the American Revolution when they were asked, not too politely, to leave.
In 1861, during the American Civil War, the city was captured by Union troops who held it to the end. At that time the town was said to be void of white Southerners, leaving it to the black population before the Federal’s amphibious landing.
One rebel resident had been in the thick of fighting before. William Henry Cory had been born in Chapham England near London. Before emigrating to Beaufort he had survived the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade made famous by poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson who wrote,
“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward…,
and continues later,
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
In Cory’s new homeland he served as an officer in the Virginia Infantry in the Confederate Army. He is buried in the St. Helena Episcopal Churchyard. Beside his headstone are two flags. One is he Union Jack, the other is the Confederate Battle flag.
Today the town is a favorite of tourists from Hilton Head and Savannah. Art shops, restaurants and odds-and-ends stores line the main street. They hold some very good art, great food and interesting treasures that I can’t live without but can’t afford. There’s a rocking horse and pig that I have my eye on. They won’t fit in my Ford Focus… oh, well. I’ll have to pass. Ooohh! Ooohh! It’s an Irish shop. Irish tweed hats and shillelaghs. Do I need them…? No… but I gotta look.
We’ve also “gotta look” at the architecture. Especially the old styles. The Verdier House stands on the northwest corner of Bay and Scott Streets. The Federal-styled home was built in 1804 by a French Huguenot planter and businessman named John Mark Verdier. To me it looks to have a lot of Greek Revival features, but the former is listed in the guide books. It was the Union Army adjutant general’s headquarters during the occupation. Today it is a museum that displays the history of the town as well as household items of the era.
A few blocks to the north is The Arsenal that serves as the Beaufort History Museum. Built in 1798 it houses paintings, uniformed draped mannequins and docents eager to tell the stories of the area. On the east is the Old Point neighborhood where antebellum homes sit among moss-covered oaks beside narrow, walkable lanes. It’s worth the stroll.
If you like the South, sweet tea and old South charm, this is the place. Sit back on Panini’s deck, watch the boats bob on the river, and enjoy a cool Southern iced tea.
Y’all come back.
© J Byous Company 2018, All rights reserved