Portrait of Frederick William Wagener

Portrait of Frederick William Wagener

Frederick Wagener


Frederick W. Wagener emigrated from Bremerhaven in 1848 along with thousands from the so-called Forty-Eighters generation. He founded and operated a successful retail grocery business before the Civil War, and during the postwar period expanded his operations to include wholesale groceries, naval stores, and cotton.


The life of Frederick William Wagener (born October 29, 1832, in Bremerhaven, Free Hanseatic City of Bremen; died November 25, 1921, Charleston, SC) spanned Charleston’s transition from an Old-South slave economy to a New-South free labor economy in which conservative, old families clashed with liberal boosters over the city’s political, economic, and social direction. His life serves as a useful case study for the ways in which immigrant entrepreneurs navigated the tenuous political economy of Deep South port cities during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

F.W. Wagener emigrated from Bremerhaven in 1848 along with thousands of so-called Forty-Eighters that fled the failed revolutions in the German states that year. Most of the few thousand Germans that settled in Charleston during the late 1840s and 1850s occupied a middle tier on the racial and ethnic hierarchy. They brought a small amount of capital with them and invested money in independent groceries and workshops. Thus, German immigrants filled important niches as wholesalers, managers, shopkeepers, clerks, and skilled workers at a time when most white southerners did not respect these middling trades.

During the 1850s, white southerners dominated the socio-economic hierarchy of Charleston. White southern elites sought to control the so-called “Dutch corner shops” founded by recent German immigrants that appeared around the community. In the back rooms of these shops German shopkeepers sold liquor to slaves, often in exchange for items that slaves purloined from their masters. The police enforced several municipal ordinances that outlawed such practices, and the courts imposed large fines and lengthy prison sentences on offenders.

It does not appear, however, that F.W. owned a “Dutch corner shop.” Instead, he operated a legitimate and successful retail grocery business before the Civil War, and during the postwar period expanded his operations to include wholesale groceries, naval stores, and cotton. In calling for the expansion of trade beyond the confines of Charleston, Wagener embodied the New-South vision at a time when most native-born, white Charlestonians were attempting to hold onto the pre-industrial ways of the Old South. Unfortunately, economic success did not necessarily translate into social acceptance as native-born Charlestonians refused to allow Wagener to break into the upper rungs of the city’s generations-old, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant establishment, but he remained an important figure in Charleston’s small German community throughout his long life.

German Charlestonians

Historians of the South and German immigration to the United States have tended to ignore the Charleston Germans. First, the total number of Germans that settled in Charleston (probably no more than five thousand) was small compared to the five million that settled elsewhere in the United States during the nineteenth century, mostly in New York, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois.[1] Second, unlike in other southern cities like Baltimore, Richmond, and New Orleans, successful German Charlestonians never became part of the urban establishment because it proved virtually impenetrable by non-native Charlestonians. Therefore, they are largely missing from the traditional histories of the second-half of the nineteenth century written by southern historians.[2] The two most classic works of German-American history pay little or no heed to the Charleston Germans. LaVern Rippley offered an anecdotal recognition that Charleston organized one of the first Teutonenbund and that “small colonies” of Germans existed in southern port cities of Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.[3] Only one South Carolina German, F. W. Wagener, was mentioned in historian Albert Bernhardt Faust’s The German Element in the United States:

F.W. Wagener, a prominent citizen of Charleston, South Carolina, a representative of the best German element in that locality, [commanded]… four hundred men, raised in Charleston. The regiment in question included three German companies of artillery which did good local service. In 1889 the survivors of the regiment erected a monument to their fallen comrades. After the war General Wagener was elected mayor of Charleston by popular vote, and was one of Charleston’s leading citizens.[4]

Faust had, in fact, confused F.W. Wagener with his brother General John A. Wagener who had organized the German Volunteers during the Civil War.[5]

Although historians have largely ignored the German community in Charleston, their influence in the city and the South is undeniable. In his classic history of New South businessmen, Don H. Doyle determined, “Charleston’s German enclave nurtured many other models of success in the New South era.”[6] The Charleston city directories, tax rolls, and census records abound with German surnames. Most German immigrants in Charleston identified Hannover, Prussia, or Germany as their place of birth and relied on local kinship networks and ethnic societies for assistance once they arrived in the community. Several German societies existed, including the Turnverein, Freundschaftsbund,Schuetzen, Fusilier, German Ladies Society, and the German Friendly Society. Germans worshipped at Lutheran and Catholic Churches and Jewish synagogues. Published and manuscript federal census records reveal significant German immigrant populations in the pre-Civil War era. In 1850, 1,613 Germans called Charleston their home. The number increased to 1,908 in 1860. Assuredly the numbers would have been higher if not for the yellow fever epidemics of 1849, 1852, 1854, 1856, and 1858 that killed nearly five hundred Germans.[7] German deaths amounted to 23.6 percent of the total yellow fever deaths. Only the Irish experienced more deaths from the disease in Charleston. During the Civil War, immigration ceased and many Germans left the community. Some Germans settled in the city after the war, but the population declined to 1,845 in 1870 and more steeply to 1,536 in 1880. However, the classified sections of the Courier and the Daily News, the leading daily newspapers, remained full of German business advertisements, and the German language Deutsche Zeitung maintained a circulation of approximately three thousand subscribers during this period.

The Wagener Brothers

Frederick W. Wagener was born in the North Sea port of Bremerhaven on October 29, 1832, and immigrated to the United States in 1848 at age sixteen. Nothing is known about his family or childhood in Bremerhaven. He landed in New York City but quickly moved on to Charleston.[8] F.W. learned the grocery trade as a clerk.[9] By 1860, he had opened a successful retail grocery.[10] His oldest brother John A. Wagener was Charleston’s most influential German and widely recognized as the father of its German community. In business, J.A. enjoyed modest success as a grocer and insurance salesman. He had settled in Charleston more than twenty years earlier and had led the effort to bring Germans to the city in the early 1850s. In addition, he helped create at least eight German societies.[11] Assuredly, his civic activism on behalf of the German community not only opened doors for his brother, but it enabled F.W. Wagener to concentrate on business activities when he arrived in the city in the mid-1850s.

John A. Wagener rejected the stereotype of the apolitical German immigrant. J.A.’s unwavering support for southern conservative politics and social matters afforded him the opportunity to make business arrangements with white southerners that were critical to his long term success in the community. German Charlestonians were underrepresented as slaveholders among individuals that possessed the financial resources to own them, although some, like John A. Wagener, did have them. Records indicate that J.A. owned a single slave in 1860. F.W., on the other hand, did not have any, and some Germans in the community were even convicted for harboring fugitive slaves.

South Carolina’s succession from the Union in December 1860 following Abraham Lincoln’s election as president had a significant impact on J.A. and F.W. Wagener, as well as other Germans in Charleston. Four hundred Germans fought for the Confederacy and that elevated their social status in Charleston. J.A. Wagener helped raise German immigrant support for the Confederate Army, and served as a colonel in the First Regiment Artillery, South Carolina Militia. F.W. Wagener entered the Confederate Army as a lieutenant and served under his brother for four years and four months, mustering out as a captain of the German Artillery, Company A. F.W. took command of Fort Moultrie on December 27, 1860, and was serving as the commanding officer of Company A when it surrendered in North Carolina in the spring of 1865.[12] Many Charleston Germans, however, did not support secession or enlist in the Confederate Army. Instead, some continued to operate their businesses and others left the city for different southern communities, returned to Germany, or relocated to the North.

The removal of the plantation aristocracy from power during Reconstruction not only broadened political access for African-Americans but also for German and Irish immigrants. In the postwar period, elite Germans commemorated their service in the German Volunteers and exaggerated their overall support for the Confederacy in an effort to achieve political ascendancy. The German travel writer Friedrick Ratzel determined that German Charlestonians “fought with a dedication that has assured them the lasting thanks of their fellow citizens.” Ratzel concluded the Germans were able to rebuild faster than native-born whites because they were underrepresented as slaveholders and did not have an ideological investment in the Confederacy.[13] “I have many times heard the Germans praised for being the first ones after the war to get to work energetically and in a short time to become economically established again,” Ratzel wrote.[14]

J.A. Wagener was one of the first Germans to capitalize on the political landscape transformed by Reconstruction. In 1867, he earned an appointment as immigration commissioner where he helped influence immigration policy in the city and South Carolina.[15] Germans also secured election to the city council in Charleston for the first time after the war. F.W., unlike his brother, tended to avoid politics. He never ran for political office, although he was asked several times to run as a candidate for mayor. It is entirely possible that F. W. did not want to risk his successful business in exchange for political activism. His service in the Confederate Army, combined with J.A.’s activism, meant he could count on the support of white southerners and Germans alike. In response to an 1875 municipal election, in which tensions between Germans and native-born whites led to disastrous election results for the German candidates running for alderman, F.W. Wagener, along with Charles H. Simonton and Colonel R. Barnwell Rhett, helped establish the Journal of Commerce, a daily newspaper that promoted the economic interests of the business community, both native-born and German.[16] Following the presidential election of 1876, Reconstruction ended, native-born whites began to assert greater political power, and German immigrants would never again achieve the same level of political influence as they had during the early 1870s.

German Shopkeepers

The Germans in Charleston were collectively more middle class than any other racial and ethnic group in the city. Most Germans were independent entrepreneurs or skilled tradesmen. There were several examples of wealthy Germans. At the same time, there were few German laborers or unskilled workers that would have competed with slaves and Irish laborers. Friedrich Ratzel referred to the Charleston Germans a “predominantly middle-class people, who have already succeeded or who are on the way to making their ’mark in life’; a few very rich, who ’represent’ the German community to the outside world, and very few one could call poor.”[17] Only one other German would rival F. W. Wagener’s business acumen in the postwar period. Francis J. Pelzer began business as a grocer and transitioned into the cotton business. Later he became part owner of the Atlantic Phosphate company, a successful fertilizer company. Unlike F. W., he was an active member of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and perhaps the only German to gain acceptance among the urban elite.[18]

Charleston’s economy had been declining throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Historian of the South Peter Coclanis determined, “The economy of the South Carolina low country collapsed in the nineteenth century.”[19] The cotton trade, and to a lesser extent rice, remained at the center of its economy. South Carolina rice production declined from seventy-five percent of total US production in 1839 to forty-three percent in 1879 and less than one percent in 1919.[20] Charleston developed some manufacturing and served some functions of a commercial center, but the city remained essentially a shipping point.[21] At a time when business in the city remained relatively stagnant, the demand for foodstuffs had increased tremendously with the increase in population. Thousands of refugees, most of them newly freed men and women from the countryside, flocked to the city after the war. Government officials, philanthropists, and northern entrepreneurs also arrived in great numbers. Federal troops stationed in the city required additional supplies, which meant new business for F.W. Wagener, who resumed his commercial activities in Charleston from square one upon returning from military service.

F. W. Wagener was a tireless manager and his grocery business flourished in the immediate postwar period. In the fall of 1865, a few months after the war ended, he started a wholesale grocery business, Wagener, Heath & Monsees, on the northwest corner of East Bay and Queen Streets. Wagener’s two partners came from varied backgrounds. Heath operated a grocery business in New York City and served as the primary investor in the Charleston firm while remaining in the North. It remains unclear what connection he had to Wagener or Monsees. And, although Heath provided the greatest financial backing, Wagener headed the firm in Charleston while Heath remained in the North. John Monsees, a twenty-seven year old native of Hannover, had operated a liquor store with a stock of about $600 (approximately $8,500 in 2011$) before the war and kept a bar on the corner of the main brothel for sailors in the city. By the time he joined the partnership with Wagener, however, he had quit the liquor business.[22] Wagener, Heath & Monsees enjoyed a good start even though Charleston’s economy remained disorganized and undersupplied. As a wholesaler, Wagener and his partners were responsible for supplying hundreds of small retail grocers in Charleston and its hinterlands that, in turn, fed the masses. The wholesale grocery business proved highly profitable and he rapidly expanded his firm into the largest wholesale grocery distributor in the city. It was common practice for wholesalers to conduct a cash only trade, but it appears Wagener may have extended credit liberally at a time when few others did. That allowed him to expand his business while others merely remained stable.

In February 1866, an informant for R.G. Dun & Company, the credit reporting agency, offered the following entry on Wagener, Heath, & Monsees: “Not much means are said to be industrious young men of families to be supported out of profits business some rents high. Competition large should not recommend large credit.” By November 1867, the partners were doing a fair business and enjoyed moderate credit of 500 to 800 dollars (approximately $7,800-$12,500 in 2011$). In 1868, Heath withdrew from the firm and the remaining partners renamed it Wagener and Monsees. The Dun agent noted, “Monsees and Wagener are two industrious Germans of first rate standing, are industrious and will make money.” By November 1868, they had enjoyed considerable success and were worth twenty to twenty five thousand dollars (approximately $326,000-$408,000 in 2011$). The business continued to expand during the next couple of years.[23] By 1870, Wagener and Monsees were running their wholesale grocery and commission business on the corner of East Bay & Queen Streets, the heart of the dry goods district located just a block from the wharves.[24] In August 1870, the Dun agent determined the men were doing a “good business” even though general economic activity in the city was “dull.” He considered them “hardworking and industrious” and they had good credit and standing. The business was worth fifteen to twenty thousand dollars (approximately $267,000-$356,000 in 2011$).[25]

Wagener bought out his remaining partner at the onset of the economic panic of 1873. In July, Wagener paid Monsees one hundred and thirty thousand dollars (approximately $2.5 million total in 2011$), including seven thousand dollars cash, for his share of the firm.[26] Wagener promised to pay the balance in four years. The Dun agent wrote, “Have made considerable money and claim to have now independent of the amount due M[onsees] over 150 [thousand dollars], doing a very large business stand well and regarded safe for all engagements. The settlement with M[onsees] was made by a referee.”[27]

Frederick Wagener established a new firm in partnership with his nephew George that he named F. W. Wagener & Co.[28] George, one of J.A.’s two sons, was born in 1846 and had only recently entered the workforce. In 1870, he was working as a clerk.[29] In December 1873, the Dun agent considered them a “Safe reliable firm doing good business and very energetic industrious men and have met their obligations well during the panic, are perfectly safe.” In December 1874, they were “doing one of the largest business in their line, very industrious.” In April 1875, Wagener & Co. remained a “safe reliable house in excellent standing, doing a large and prosperous business and must be making money, are active pushing men, attend closely to their business and are hardworking.” The firm was estimated worth 150 thousand dollars (approximately $3.2 million in 2011$).[30]

By 1880, Wagener & Co. was the leading wholesale grocery in Charleston. They had also expanded into naval stores —including tar, pitch, and turpentine — and cotton. In June 1880, F. W. Wagener opened their books to the Dun agent. The company had an inventory worth $142,245.98 (approximately $3.2 million 2011$) and a cash balance of $6,491.90. They had billed clients for $7,895.39. Their open accounts totaled $333, 698.03 (approximately $7.6 million 2011$). The firm owned $10,847.66 in real estate. Individually, Wagener & Co. owned $75,000 (approximately $1.7 million in 2011$) in real estate. Their net worth was valued at $415,944.37 (approximately $9.4 million in 2011$). Wagener used the profit from the previous year to pay for a new building that cost $70,000 (approximately $1.6 million in 2011$). He owned the store, a house, and a farm worth a total of $19,000. By 1887, Wagener’s net worth was $450,000 (approximately $11 million in 2011$).[31]

Wagener assisted his friends and family members in their business pursuits. He partnered with his nephew George and would later hire another nephew Julius D. Koster and his son Frederick W. Wagener Jr. He helped his sister, L. Wagener, when she was widowed. She had married Joseph Mehrtens, a German shoemaker, before the Civil War. When he died in 1868, Wagener helped her continue the business, gradually transforming the business into a millinery store. The Dun agent considered her “a very industrious hardworking woman” worthy of “moderate credit.” By 1871, her sister L. Von Hadelin had joined the business, which was renamed L. Mehrtens and Company. In 1873, the Dun agent considered the women “very industrious and attentive business doing well and making money regarded as honest and prompt credit good for what they will buy.” He estimated their worth at five thousand dollars (approx. $94,000 in 2010$). In January 1874, the women were “doing a fair business and making good support, worthy ladies, pay promptly and have good credit.” In May 1874 they “moved into a fine store and are doing a snug safe business, good credit for reasonable amounts.” In December 1874, they were considered “hardworking” and “industrious” women.[32]

Despite his tremendous economic success, Wagener was unable to acquire the same level of influence within local government and business circles that native-born, white Charlestonians enjoyed. Wagener did not become a member of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce until 1883. During the 1880s, he did not hold a single position on any of the city’s boards of directors.[33] Historian Don H. Doyle wrote, “Despite his major efforts on behalf of Charleston’s exposition, among many other contributions, Wagener, like most of this city’s new men of wealth after the war, remained a nearly invisible man in the annals of the city’s history.”[34] Charleston, Doyle noted, “had ambitious and successful individual entrepreneurs, but efforts at community enterprise failed repeatedly after the war. Many in Charleston seemed bent on preserving the remnants of the Old South and were slow to adapt to the ‘new order of things.’ Capital and entrepreneurial talent drifted away from Charleston, and as ambitious men left, or in many instances remained outside the social elite, conservative ways became more firmly entrenched and efforts at community enterprise suffered repeated and demoralizing failures.”[35] Native-born, white elites appeared disinterested in Wagener’s business acumen. “In postwar Charleston… some men of wealth and accomplishment emerged despite the stagnation around them,” Doyle wrote, “but their influence within the business community was, until the early twentieth century at least, muted by the presence of an older corps of merchants, usually cotton factors, whose local prestige rested on a family’s name and its accomplishments in the remote past.”[36]

In 1880, Wagener purchased a lot on the southwest corner of East Bay and Queen Streets near the Charleston wharves and built a new dry goods store, warehouse, and office building that served as a symbol of his economic success. [37] In September 1880, a group of German and native-born business leaders met to celebrate the completion of the building, popularly known as the Wagener Building. The editor of the News and Courier wrote: “The history of the firm F. W. Wagener & Co. is a cheering illustration of what may be accomplished in business in Charleston by industry, integrity, enterprise and liberal ideas.”[38] On the night of the celebration, the building was brilliantly illuminated with Chinese lanterns and oil lamps. The editor of the News and Courier called it “the largest building in Charleston or the South for business purposes, and one that will compare favorably in size and appearance with any grocery establishment in the North or West.” Leading businessmen, lawyers and architects attended the opening party on the second floor of the building. Wagener offered a champagne toast in which he thanked his guests and the people of Charleston. John H. Devereux, the architect and contractor, introduced Captain S. Y. Tupper, the president of the Chamber of Commerce. Tupper determined the Wagener building “not only adds to the beauty and adornment of our city, but is an evidence of her growing prosperity. It is an evidence of what the will, the energy and patriotism of one man can accomplish. It is such men that build up great cities and give character, importance and confidence to a community.” “May it be as enduring as the pyramids to encourage our youth in the same paths of honesty, industry and perseverance that has characterized the life of Capt. Wagener,” Tupper concluded.[39]

F. W. Wagener was a humble man who had maintained a private life and avoided political office during his years in Charleston. In his speech on the night of the Wagener Building’s grand opening in 1880, Wagener admitted that he had enjoyed greater business success than he had anticipated when he had arrived in Charleston a quarter-century earlier, but he believed that he had benefited from an excellent supporting cast. Wagener recognized that Charleston had experienced little economic growth since the Civil War, and that internal competition within the city was intense. For that reason, he promoted the expansion of trade beyond the city’s limits and advocated extending credit in the process.

Wagener’s speech was met with applause. Leading Charlestonians, in turn, presented speeches in recognition of Wagener’s success. At the moment that acting Mayor Follin began his speech, the members of the German Artillery and the German Fire Company marched into the hall to the sounds of Dixie. The Germany Artillery, under command of Lieutenant James Simons, marched around the hall and the company presented sabers to Wagener, after which Lieutenant Simons delivered a congratulatory address in German. Some of the men had served under Wagener during the Civil War. Simons recalled that Wagener had rebuilt his fortunes from the economic destruction of the war. German Charlestonians “had watched his success with interest, and felt a share of pride in his achievements.” Capt. J. H. Stemmerman, of the German Fire Company, gave a short address congratulating Wagener on behalf of his company. Those in attendance gave three cheers for Wagener. Acting Mayor Follin thanked Wagener for promoting the interests of Charleston and beautifying the city with the new building. Major Augustine T. Smythe gave a short congratulatory speech. Then Alderman Ufferhardt gave an important speech that summarized the German immigrant experience in Charleston:

For near forty years their industry, enterprise, perseverance and consequent success has been the solicitude as well as the pride of your humble servant…Our German adopted citizen knows his business and minds his own business. He builds or buys a house, and pays for it; or he hires one and pays the rent the first thing. He or his family eat no meal and wear no clothes until they are paid for. He is the foremost at the tax offices and does not rest until he has his tax receipts in his pocket…Our German citizens, honest and true, faithful and patriotic, may they maintain forever that honorable position they have attained, socially, morally and politically, under the leadership of good and true men from the Fatherland, the honored dead as well as those still working and rising.

Major Alexander Melchers, the editor of the Deutsche Zeitung, and several other leading German businessmen also gave speeches that evening. The event closed with the singing of “Die Wacht am Rhein”. The editor of the News and Courier believed it was important that Wagener had decided to invest some of his fortune into a “building fully adequate to the demands of their business, an ornament to the city, and in size, facilities and architectural beauty commensurate without ideas of the importance and dignity of Charleston.” The editor agreed with Wagener’s promotion of cooperation between Charleston’s businessmen in expanding trade beyond the city, and he hoped that it would lead to more business activity.[40]

The Deutsche Zeitung announced the construction of the new building in its September 27 issue. Alexander Melchers remarked it was “the largest, most comprehensive” store in the South and a “huge monument, for all time the so-dear Wagener name immortalized.” Further, F. W. Wagener & Company was “one of the most German of the numerous and rapidly growing body of German trading companies existing here in the city.” Melchers continued, “Who among the readers of the newspaper is not acquainted with the history of this wonderfully rapid growing business, and has not observed [it] with keen interest.”[41] The editor also noted that F.W. was the brother of the “prematurely deceased deified by his countrymen, of all without distinction as to nationality highly respected, General Wagener.” The construction of the building was not without controversy. In February 1881, the renowned Charleston architect, John H. Devereux, sued Wagener in the Court of Common Pleas for non-payment. The architect won the case and received a judgment for full payment.[42]

In the 1880s, Wagener purchased a country inn in Summerville, South Carolina, that he turned into a successful resort for wealthy tourists. Town and Country, a leading lifestyle magazine of the era, featured the Pine Forest Inn in a story on southern resorts. The “leading resort hotel” of Summerville was located twenty-two miles from Charleston. Wagener offered bowling, lawn tennis, trap shooting, billiards, and shuffleboard. The inn served fresh fish, oysters, and vegetables from Charleston, and had its own Jersey cows. The water was supplied from a deep artesian well on the premises. During the Spanish-American War, the resort hosted an encampment of troops from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The artesian well supplied water for the soldiers.[43] Wagener grew tea in the gardens and produced two hundred to five hundred pounds per acre. A room cost five dollars per day.[44] Wagener was the proprietor of the inn and he spent the majority of his weekends there during the tourist season. He took the time to get to know his hotel guests. Wagener had a reputation for taking special care of distinguished guests. In spring of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there while visiting the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition (hereafter Charleston Exposition). Wagener also managed the presidential banquet at the Charleston Hotel. In January 1909, Wagener held a dinner for President-elect William Howard Taft.[45]

Wagener was a tireless worker and he continued to toil in his office on East Bay Street well into his eighties. At the same time, he continued to manage the Pine Forest Inn at Summerville. He owned and operated the Inn for twenty years. Wagener was involved in the development of the Isle of Palms, the Royal Planing Mills, and the Planters’ Phosphate and Fertilizer Company.[46] He also installed and operated a horse track at the Charleston Exposition. He had a personal interest in horses, and he drove his favorite horse around town until he fell ill. He remained mentally sharp until the time of his death.[47]

Securing Social Status: The South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition

The 1902 South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition was one of Wagener’s greatest accomplishments. The Atlanta Constitution called Wagener “one of the most public spirited citizens of the south” and recognized that the “chief promoters of the exposition enterprise at Charleston are Germans.” [48] Wagener gave ten thousand dollars (approx. $270,000 in 2010$) to help organize the stock company to put on the exposition and served as its president.[49] Stockholders in the Exposition issued $150,000 (approx. $4 million in 2010$) in bonds at five percent interest. Wagener bought $20,000 of bonds, but no one else did. Everyone anticipated a loss because national interest remained low and the costs of producing the exhibit exceeded initial expectations.[50] The city council passed an ordinance to purchase Wagener’s Farm on Grove Street as the site of the Charleston Exposition. On January 29, 1901, Wagener agreed to sell the farm and buildings, which occupied 48.6 acres, for $25,000.[51]

In the spring of 1902, the directors of the Charleston Exposition organized a German week at the fair from May 21 to May 28. The exposition invited all of the German societies in the United States to participate in shooting, singing, and athletic competitions. May 22 was named Wagener Day at the exposition and a general holiday was declared in Charleston. Stores were closed and all business was suspended. The courts, schools, and colleges were also closed. The city intended to pay tribute to Wagener’s business acumen and success. More visitors attended the Exposition on Wagener Day than on any other day of the Exposition. At the Wagener Day celebration, the Honorable William H. Brawley, Judge of the U.S. District Court noted, “We all feel that however much others have done to make this Exposition a success, they could not have succeeded without Capt. Wagener, who has not only devoted to it his money and credit, but has given to it unsparingly his time and labor and business ability.”[52] It was the greatest celebration in the honor of one man in Charleston’s history. The exposition company had experienced financial difficulties from the start. Yet the people remained thankful for his efforts. Charleston received unprecedented national attention. Hotels, boarding houses, and railroads profited. Men, women, and children earned wages from additional employment.[53]

The editor of the News and Courier reflected the New South rhetoric in his coverage of Wagener Day. He called the Exposition “a turning point in the affairs and ways of the community both to the community itself and to the outside world. From it will date the movement which we may well believe has fairly begun, that will carry the city forward and upward to the place which it is entitled to occupy and hold among the most progressive and prosperous cities of the nation. And for all that movement means for all that it promised for all that it has so largely accomplished already for all it shall surely accomplish hereafter for our city and our State and section, as well they are mainly indebted to the public spirit, generosity, zeal and energy of one man, Capt. Wagener, the president of the Exposition Company.” The day had been reserved in “special public recognition of his great services, and his fellow citizens should observe it in testimony of their appreciation of what he has accomplished.” The editor anticipated thousands of visitors from outside the city, and the railroads offered discount fares. He accurately predicted Wagener Day would achieve the greatest attendance of any day. The editor declared, “It is a tribute which Capt. Wagener deserves from us, every one. He has done more for the city than any other man has ever done. Let the whole story be told in a way that everyone can understand. He made the Exposition possible. He made it what it is. He has kept it open for months. The rest of us have given our good wishes and presence and interest and admiration and hopes. He has given his money without which it must have failed and closed its doors and has given it unhesitatingly and freely. He has borne a heavy burden. We owe him our thanks, surely. We owe him all honor for the great work he has done so bravely and so well. We can pay so much of our debt, at least, and we would pay it in full measure. Today, Wagener Day is devoted to his honor and to our own honor in rightly honoring him! Let us make it memorable on both accounts!” The planners included a parade, horse races, a tournament, a battle reenactment.[54]

The persistent financial difficulties, however, threatened the continuation of the exposition and kept many people from making the trip.[55] Gate receipts never exceeded expenses and the city council did not have more money to invest in the fair. In Aril 1902, it became clear that the Exposition was not paying its expenses and lawsuits plagued the Exposition Company into May.[56] Charleston’s boosters claimed the exposition was a tremendous accomplishment, but it never rivaled the success of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that took place in 1893.


On the morning of November 25, 1921, after a weeklong illness, F.W. Wagener died in his house at the corner of Broad and Orange Streets.[57] He had celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday less than a month earlier. His wife had died long ago, but he was survived by an extended family of nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.[58] Leading Germans, second-generation German-Americans, and white Charlestonians were listed among the honorary pall bearers at the funeral. Many of the men had served as board members at the South Carolina Exposition or cooperated with Wagener in various business ventures.[59]

Frederick W. Wagener typified the German immigrant in Charleston. He and thousands of other German immigrants made Charleston their home in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Like a number of other German men, F.W. Wagener made a living during his early years in Charleston by serving a middle-tier market that native-born, white Charlestonians largely ignored. He opened a small grocery business that catered to African Americans, both slave and free. Other Germans in the community worked as skilled craftsmen, managers, or wholesalers. It was these middling men and women that helped improve the reputation of the German community in Charleston. During the Civil War, F.W. Wagener and hundreds of other Germans answered the call to serve in the Confederate Army, which promoted their assimilation into southern society. The election of F.W. Wagener’s older brother John A. Wagener as mayor in 1871 was not without controversy, but the fact that thousands of white Charlestonians voted for him suggests the Germans had become accepted as southerners by the Reconstruction Era.

While F.W. Wagener remained an outsider within Charleston’s elite, native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant establishment during much of his life, in the years leading up to his death he continued to stand at the center of a rapidly declining German immigrant population in the community. Few German immigrants settled in Charleston in the late nineteenth century and most second-generation German-Americans self-identified as white southerners rather than Germans. Some of these second-generation Germans continued to participate in German organization in the region, yet they were decidedly more southern in their social and political behavior than their parent’s generation.

Frederick W. Wagener’s contribution to Charleston’s economic development was profound and indisputable. Wagener arrived at the height of German immigration to Charleston. He began his business career as a retail grocer like so many other Germans. Upon returning to Charleston in 1865 after his service in the Confederate Army, he partnered with other Germans to form a wholesale grocery establishment that grew into a significant business in the community. White southerners identified F.W. with his older brother, John, and that assuredly helped him with non-German business contacts in the city and beyond. Few entrepreneurs enjoyed similar success in Charleston during the late nineteenth century.


[1] Kathleen Neils Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860: Accommodation and Community in a Frontier City (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976); Walter D. Kamphoefner, The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri (Princeton University Press, 1987); Stanley Nadel, Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in New York City, 1845-80 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); David A. Gerber, The Making of an American Pluralism: Buffalo, New York, 1825-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Russell A. Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2004); Hartmut Keil and John B. Jentz, German Workers in Industrial Chicago, 1850-1910: A Comparative Perspective (DeKalb, Ill: Northern Illinois University Press, 1983).

[2] Frederick Cople Jaher, The Urban Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Charleston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982).

[3] LaVern Rippley, The German-Americans (Boston: Twayne, 1976), 45, 132.

[4] Albert Bernhardt Faust, The German Element in the United States with Special Reference to its Political, Moral, Social, and Educational Influence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1909), 565-566.

[5] Lonn, 119.

[6] Don Harrison Doyle, New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 127.

[7] See Jeffery Strickland, “Nativists and Strangers: Yellow Fever and Immigrant Mortality in Charleston, South Carolina, 1849-1858”, presented at “Death, 'tis a melancholy day’: Dying, Mourning, and Memory in the American South,” North Carolina State University, 1 April 2011.

[8] Certificate of Death, Number 17108; News and Courier, 26 November 1921.

[9] Federal Manuscript Census 1850. The census indicates F.W. was an eighteen-year-old clerk.

[10] The 1860 Federal Manuscript Census indicates F.W. was a grocer.

[11] Michael Everette Bell, “Regional Identity in the Antebellum South: How German Immigrants Became 'Good' Charlestonians,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 100.1 (January 1999), 18.

[12] News and Courier, 26 November 1921; National Park Service, U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865. One of the most important social clubs that J.A. Wagener headed was the German Artillery, a rifle club that primarily served a social purpose. Ella Lonn, Foreigners in the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 4. Historians of the Civil War tend to mention the German Charlestonians’ contribution to the Confederacy as best depicted in the work of Ella Lonn.

[13] Friedrich Ratzel and Stewart A. Stehlin, Sketches of Urban and Cultural Life in North America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 162. German immigrants remained politically inconsequential until the post-Civil War era in Charleston, especially when compared to their political influence elsewhere in the North and Midwest. Germans were naturalized in South Carolina during the antebellum period but the state’s property qualifications for voting limited political participation. Fringe political movements such as the nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party also enjoyed considerable popularity in Charleston during the party’s heyday in the mid-1850s. The conservative, pro-slavery Democratic Party was the only mainstream political option available to German-American voters in Charleston during the prewar decade.

[14] Ratzel, 161.

[15] South Carolina, South Carolina: A Home for the Industrious Immigrant. Suppl. no. 1 (Charleston, SC: Joseph Walker's, 1867). In 1868, German immigrants were among an influential group of Democrats that endorsed the nominations of only white candidates during the municipal election. They failed miserably as the Republicans dominated the election — as the party did throughout the South. In 1871, German elites pushed for the nomination of John A. Wagener for the mayoralty. Initially white southerners objected but the Germans were highly organized and the nomination held. Wagener was the first non-native southerner elected mayor in Charleston. In 1873, Germans threatened to throw their support to the Republican Party if Wagener was not again nominated to the Democratic ticket. White southerners lamented but Wagener lost the election. In 1875, tensions between Germans and native born whites led to disastrous results in the municipal election. Not a single German was elected alderman reversing a trend that had witnessed at least one German on city council throughout the postwar period. Germans, and some white Charlestonians, feared their economic interests might suffer without political representation.

[16] News and Courier, 26 November 1921.

[17] Ratzel, 161

[18] Doyle, 127.

[19] Peter A. Coclanis, The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 111.

[20] Coclanis, 142.

[21] Ibid., 148.

[22] All 2011 financial figures based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011. R. G. Dun, Baker Library, Harvard University, Volume 7, 435.

[23] South Carolina, Vol. 7, p.470, R.G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[24] Charleston City Directory, 1870.

[25] South Carolina, Vol. 7, p.579, R.G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[26] News and Courier, 24 September 1880.

[27] South Carolina, Vol. 6, p.313, R.G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[28] News and Courier, 24 September 1880.

[29] 1850 Federal Manuscript Census, 1870 Federal Manuscript Census.

[30] South Carolina, Vol. 6, p.313, R.G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[31] South Carolina, Vol. 6, p.11, R.G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School. In 1880, they were owed $17,711.05 for their cotton business. Their total debits were estimated at $597,890.01 (approx. $13.2 million 2010$). They owed $149,497.21 for merchandise, including bills payable of $32,448.43 for a total of $181,945.64. In 1887, the business was earning profits of $40,000 per six months on sales above $750,000. The cotton business was also successful. The company received 30,000 bales of cotton each year and earned $30,000.

[32] South Carolina, Vol. 7, p.378, R.G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[33] Doyle, 128.

[34] Ibid., 128.

[35] Ibid., xv.

[36] Ibid., 117.

[37] City Directory, 1880.

[38] News and Courier, 24 September 1880.

[39] Ibid.

[40] News and Courier, 25 September 1880.

[41] Deutsche Zeitung, 27 September 1880.

[42] The American Architect and Building News, 6 May 1882.

[43] News and Courier, 26 November 1921.

[44] Town and Country, 9 December 1905.

[45] Atlanta Constitution, 24 January 1909.

[46] Ibid.

[47] News and Courier, 26 November 1921.

[48] Atlanta Constitution, 25 April 1902.

[49] Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, 53 (1902), 510; Atlanta Constitution, 4 April 1900.

[50] City of Charleston, Year Book, 1902, (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co, 1903)146, 148.

[51] Year Book, 1902, 264-265.

[52] Year Book 1902,166.

[53] Year Book, 1902, 169.

[54] News and Courier, 22 May 1902.

[55] Year Book, 1902, 153.

[56] Year Book, 1902, 152.

[57] News and Courier, 26 November 1921.

[58] Ibid. F.W. likely married after the war but the census records never captured any details about his wife.

[59] News and Courier, 27 November 1921.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Frederick Wagener
  • Coverage 1832-1921
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018