The fort at Dorchester looms up from a bluff overlooking the Ashley River. It is the largest structure that still stands from the colonial village of Dorchester and the best-preserved fortification of its kind remaining in the United States.
In 1757 Great Britain and France were locked in a war for control of the North American continent. In January of that year South Carolina Governor William Henry Lyttelton warned the colonial legislature that all of South Carolina would be in jeopardy if Charleston, home of the colony's only powder magazine, were to fall to an attack. Lyttelton concluded that "it appear'd that the construction of another Powder Magazine, in some part of it near the Centre, was indispensably necessary."
The legislature responded by appropriating funds for a fortified powder magazine to be erected in the town of Dorchester. The commissioners charged with oversight of South Carolina's fortifications specified that the powder magazine would be built of brick. They quickly decided that the walls enclosing the magazine would be of another material, tabby. A concrete of lime, sand, and oyster shell, tabby-also called tappy-was a cheaper material than brick; unskilled laborers rather than trained bricklayers could be employed in its use. A foreman skilled in tabby construction was needed, though, to direct the work.
The commissioners of fortifications awarded the contract to oversee construction of the fort to local planter John Joor. They fired Joor a little over a month later, finding him "unacquainted with carrying on the Tappy Work at Dorchester in a proper manner." Work on the fort progressed from 1757 through 1760, with local slaves providing most of the labor. The tabby mixture was tamped into wooden molds called tabby boxes. The impressions left by these boxes are still visible in the walls of the fort.
While local materials were used in the construction of the fort, in design it was a simplified version of classic European fortification. The walls formed a rectangle around the magazine, with sections called half-bastions projecting from each corner. From these strong points, soldiers could direct deadly fire down the length of adjoining walls. The feared French invasion never materialized. Dorchester's fort and magazine, finished in 1760, apparently saw little use. In his will, a planter named John Skene gave "to the Commissioners of the Fortifications all my Great Guns for the Use of the Magazine and Fort at Dorchester reserving to the Officers for the time being of the St. George Troop of Horse the Liberty of Using them on any publick day, especially on his Majesties Birthday, and the 23 of April."
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With the coming of the Revolution, Dorchester was transformed into a military outpost and the fort was to be made capable of withstanding any sudden attack. Once again, the feared attack never came. But when British forces took Charleston in May of 1780, Dorchester became a British outpost. British and Loyalist troops were finally driven out of the town late in 1781 as an American force under Nathanael Greene advanced on the village.
After the war, the fort housed a tile yard, with the magazine converted into a kiln for firing clay roofing tiles. But like the rest of town, the fort was soon abandoned. Its history was forgotten. Some people assumed it had been built by the Spanish, and many asserted that it had been built to provide protection from Indians. Locals eventually gave it the name "Fort Dorchester," even though it never had an official name while it was in use.