If one stood today at the northeast corner of East Broughton and Habersham streets, there would be no clue that a fine house once stood there. Yet in 1824 across Habersham from the now restored Berrien House stood the imposing home of Gazaway Lamar, one of Savannah’s most successful businessmen with offices here and on Wall Street and father of Charles Lamar, who would become involved in one of the most nefarious actions prior to the start of the Civil War, the illegal voyage of the slave ship, Wanderer.
Charles was born in 1824 into a distinguished family. His cousin, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar was the second President of the Republic of Texas. Another cousin was a U. S. Senator and Supreme Court Judge. His aunt was the wife of the U. S. Treasury Secretary, Howell Cobb. When he was baptized, Charles was held in the arms of none other than the Marquis de Lafayette. Indeed his full name would be Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar.
When he was 14, he would heroically and narrowly survive a watery death when a boiler exploded on the steamer Pulaski, in which his father had part ownership. Of the 135 people on board, 74 were lost, including Charles’s mother and five siblings, while 34 survived during the ship’s maiden voyage from Savannah to Baltimore. It was thought Charles Lamar was destined for greatness. But instead, Charles’s destiny would be guided by the monetary gains he sought in slave trading.
After the Pulaski tragedy, Gazaway moved to Arlington, Virginia and a year later married again, and in 1841 moved his family to Brooklyn New York. In the summer of the same year, Charles enrolled at the University of Virginia, but was back in Savannah by fall and had entered into a partnership with his cousin, opening a rather general-type grocery store and commission business.
He also undertook the managing of his father’s businesses in Savannah, although he was against his father’s move and his father’s business dealings with northern operators. The same year, he married Caroline Nicol, daughter of John C. Nicol, judge of the U. S. District Court of Georgia. They moved into the house at 44 East Broughton. Charles cut quite an imposing figure around Savannah, riding his horse Black Cloud. He was now a director of both the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad, and the Savannah Bank of Commerce. He owned a plantation and oversaw the Lamar warehouses and cotton presses.
In April 1852, these Lamar warehouses and cotton presses caught fire and were destroyed. In addition, prize horses stabled at the warehouses died, and cotton loaded on a ship near the fire was also lost. This would be a turning point for Lamar, now 28. He reported the loss to Gazaway, as well as the fact that he had not insured the businesses. It was clear that Charles did not have the business instincts of his father. He came mired in any number of dubious business ventures.
By 1853, his debts were mounting and his public demeanor was changing. He was arrested for assault and battery, and also arrested for battery with intent to murder. When he became involved in a scuffle with a business acquaintance, Henry DuBignon, who had attacked him with a knife, Charles pulled out a pistol and shot Henry in the eye. Over the years, he challenged the editor of the New York Times to a duel and would actually be involved in a duel with Commander Edgar Miller.
By 1857 Charles was broke and he was getting known in Savannah as a radical. He had, in fact, actually joined with a group of radicals called the “fire-eaters,” who believed in slavery and wanted to re-instate the now outlawed African slave trade and form a southern nation, if necessary. Charles saw slave trading as a way to rid himself of his overwhelming debt.
In 1857, he purchased the schooner E. A. Rawlins, and finally after a delay in getting the proper port release papers, the ship was allowed to set sail for the coast of Africa under a Captain Grant. The ship did put into port on the African coast, but Grant panicked at the last minute, set sail for another port, sold the ship’s provisions and pocketed $1,800 that belonged to Lamar and his partner Nelson Trowbridge. Undaunted, Charles tried again with the Rawlins and a Captain Gilly, who landed at a Portuguese port and not only tried to sell the provisions, but also the ship itself. Part of the crew rebelled, left Gilley on the island and sailed the Rawlins back to the U. S.
Charles knew that with his ever increasing debts he had to drastically remake his plans…and those plans would involve the Wanderer, the fastest ship of its kind. Built in 1857 in East Setauket, New York for John D. Johnson, a wealthy Louisiana sugar baron, it was 114 feet long with a shallow draw of 9 and ½ feet was luxuriously appointed and cost Johnson $25,000. It became the darling of the New York Yacht Club, once setting a record of 9 days and 15 hours from New Orleans to New York. In 1858 Charles Lamar visited New Orleans and saw the Wanderer for himself.
He formed a partnership with eight men and once again planned another African expedition. Johnson had sold the ship to a well-known South Carolinian, William Corrie. Corrie would act as captain of the ship and would enlist the aid of a northerner, John Egbert Farnum, a military man. On July 3, 1858 the Wanderer, now retrofitted as a slave ship, left Charleston Harbor for Africa. Ninety-two days later, on November 28, 1858 Corrie anchored the ship near Little Cumberland Island lighthouse where it would be guided on toward Jekyll Island.
According to Corrie, they had started with 487 Africans and there were about 407 when they landed. The slaves, of course, had to be dispersed quickly. Lamar saw to it that the Wanderer was moored on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. Any men involved in the enterprise quickly dispersed. However, the ship was confiscated and set for auction March 1859 on the steps of the Custom House at Bull and Bay Streets. Charles Lamar would actually end up buying the Wanderer for $4,000.
Nevertheless the trial, which was set to begin November, 1859, would be one that rocked not only the town of Savannah but also the country. It would be full of intrigue. Evidence for the prosecution mysteriously disappeared. Men with guns came to free those who were jailed. Lamar was said to be imprisoned, but he declared he was living well above his offices with townspeople bringing him food and drink. He had become a hero of sorts.
John Owens, a well-known criminal attorney and son of George Owens, who lived in the English Regency mansion on Oglethorpe Square, was the attorney for the defense. U. S. District Attorney Joseph Gamahl headed the prosecution with Henry Rootes Jackson appointed as Special Prosecutor. The first trial ended as a mistrial. In the second trial Hugh Davenport, son of Master Builder Isaiah Davenport, worked for the port and testified that he had examined the Wanderer and claimed it would handle 116 passengers comfortably. But if there were over 400 on the schooner, each person would have a spot 4 feet long and 12 inches wide. Owens gave a stirring 45 minute closing argument; Jackson’s closing argument went on for four and one half hours. Still the jury found all the men not guilty. In the end a local judge cited Charles Lamar and three of his partners on minor issues and they spent 30 days in jail and were fined $250.
But Charles Lamar continued to believe in slavery and the southern cause. He enlisted in the Confederate Army as a Colonel of the 25th Regiment, Georgia Cavalry and on April 16, 1865, was shot in the head and died…ironically…the last Confederate soldier to die in battle. Seeing Lamar’s body on the ground, a Union soldier unceremoniously reached down, stole his watch and rode off.
In another touch of irony, Charles Lamar died without a will and his wife would soon learn of the staggering amount of debts her husband left. Federal agents forced her and her five children from 44 East Broughton, and for a while she lived with relatives until she could get the house back. Slowly but surely Caroline Lamar paid back every debt owed by her husband. It seems she had better money instincts than her husband. And here’s yet another ironical twist …when the blacks, now free, who had been enslaved in the Broughton Street home heard of Caroline’s problems, they all returned to help her with the children and the house while she worked to pay off her husband’s debts.
What finally happened to the Wanderer? The Union forces took the ship over and it was decommissioned in 1865 and was lost off the Cuba coast in 1871. A replica of the ship can be seen today at the Ships of the Sea Museum on MLK Boulevard.
The Weeping Time
There is is another side story to add to this tale. At one time, Charles Lamar owned the Ted Broeck Racetrack just outside Savannah. In March, 1859 the largest auction of enslaved people prior to the Civil War was held at the race track. Approximately 436 enslaved people from Pierce Butler’s Darien plantation were auctioned to settle Butler’s debts… an auction that would net him over $300,000. During the two-day sale, it rained continuously. Because of the misery of the enslaved people, who were housed in the stables and separated from their families, it was referred to as The Weeping Time, for even, they said…the heavens wept.
Copyright - 2018