Born in Bremen, Germany, in 1934, Klatte emigrated to the United States in 1851 at the age of 17, settling in Charleston. He appears to have gone to work in the whiskey trade early in his career. Within a decade of his arrival, he was a partner in a local liquor outlet called “Lilienthal & Klatte.” This enterprise was located on East Bay Street, right next to a slavery market. Charleston was a hotbed of Southern secessionist activity and the young German seemed drawn to it In 1855, fully five years before the Civil War, he joined a local paramilitary outfit that had been organized by other German immigrants. It became known as the German Artillery, Company B. He was commissioned with the rank of junior second lieutenant.
Despite having gained a position of relative affluence but owning no slaves, Klatte immediately went on active duty with his company on December 20, 1860, the day South Carolina voted to secede from the Federal Union. An illustration from that period shows Charleston as it prepared for war with marching units prominent on its streets. The firing on Fort Sumpter off Charleston that precipitated the Civil War followed soon after in April 1861. A letter Klatte wrote on April 13 betrayed his excitement about events: “Yesterday morning at 4:30 they began fighting at Fort Sumpter...the United States flag was not raised again....Somewhat after 2:00 Sumpter surrendered unconditionally to the southern Confederacy, and soldiers from the same government will take over soon, and the bells are playing...victory.”
Klatte and his unit were among those Confederate forces that physically took over the fort. Subsequently he was sent to Hilton Head where he was in the garrison at Fort Walker for the battle of Port Royal in November 1861, one of the earliest amphibious operations of the war. Combined U.S. Navy and Army forces attempted to seize Port Royal Sound, cut off Atlantic trade and establish a “beachhead” on Southern soil. Fort Walker was one of two bastions on opposite sides of the entrance. The attacking force concentrated their fire on Fort Walker where Klatte and his comrades manned the guns. An illustration by a contemporary artist provides a view of the battle from the Confederate heights. In the end the Yankee fire power proved to be too strong and a retreat was ordered. According to one account, Lt. Hermann Klatte was the last officer to leave the field, cannonading the Yankees until the last moment.
In the aftermath of the Port Royal defeat Klatte’s German artillery was employed protecting South Carolina assets, primarily defending the state’s coastal defenses. When those were evacuated in February1865 as Confederate resistance crumbled, Klatte now a full lieutenant, because of attrition among senior officers, was in command of a full artillery battalion. He tried to join other Confederate forces, was deterred by Gen. Sherman’s march into South Carolina, and surrendered at Greensboro at the close of the war. Ending his service ranked as a captain, his heroism subsequently was hailed by several contemporary Southern commentators.
Before surrendering to the Yankees, Hermann already had surrendered his heart to Julia F. Kalb, marrying her in Charleston in January 1865. Julia was 8 years younger. They would have two children, Dorothea, born in 1870 and Charles born in 1874. Meanwhile Klatte was reestablishing himself in the Charleston liquor trade. With his brother John he opened “Hermann Klatte & Bro” as wholesale dealers in foreign and domestic liquors and wines. He also advertised sales of mineral water, “segars,” tobacco and both foreign and domestic beers. His address was 185 East Bay Street, not far from his business address with Lilienthal. Now a largely a district of attractive homes at that time, as shown here, the neighborhood was a hodge podge of both commercial and residential uses.
Among Klatte’s liquor offerings was “Old Hickory” whiskey. On a bill dated May 1882 he recorded the sale of a full barrel of the brand for a whopping $92.75, almost $1,400 in today’s dollar. This whiskey was the rectified product of James Walsh & Company of Cincinnati who sold it nationwide. The brand name had definite marketing appeal in South Carolina because Old Hickory, nickname of former President and General Andrew Jackson, had always been a protector of Southern traditions including slavery. Shown here are two shot glasses that would have been provided to Klatte by the distiller to give away to favored customers.
Klatte’s military and business success also brought him recognition as a community leader in Charleston. For eighteen years he was one of the alms house commissioners, serving successively as secretary and treasurer, vice chairman and ultimately chairman of the board. He was a director of the Germania Savings Bank and of the People’s National Bank, and was secretary for thirty years of the Carolina Mutual Fire Insurance Company.
No insurance existed, however, against the forces of Prohibition in South Carolina. Those zealots cared not for Klatte’s outstanding war record, his business prowess or his community service. Their only concern was that he and others sold liquor. Prohibition forces began knocking strongly at the door in South Carolina. One “dry” bill in 1889 only narrowly failed in the South Carolina House and a second in 1890 passed there only to be defeated in the State Senate. South Carolina stood on the threshold of banning alcohol completely. The governor, Benjamin Tillman, hatched a scheme that went halfway toward that goal: all liquor dealerships and saloons in South Carolina would close but whiskey, wine and beer would still be available everywhere through a state dispensary system. (See my post on Tillman, November 2013).
Just before Christmas in 1892, compliant legislators voted to establish the scheme, in part because some recognized the significant revenues (and possible opportunities for graft) it would generate when the only liquor that could be legally sold in South Carolina had to be purchased through a government bureaucracy. The monopoly was all-encompassing. Wholesale and retail sales of alcohol were controlled by a state board that at the outset consisted of Tillman, his attorney general and the state controller. The state that Klatte had fought hard to protect had in virtually a moment -- and almost two decades before National Prohibition -- put him out of the whiskey business. Directories show that Klatte struggled on with tobacco and nonalcoholic products for several years and then, at age 61, folded his business.
Klatte did not disappear from public life. His photograph that opens this article was taken in 1903 when, looking jaunty in a bowler hat, he attended opening of the Charleston centered South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition, a regional trade show. Shown here, the fair was plagued by financial and organizational problems. Klatte might have had an investment interest in the Exposition.
Hermann Klatte’s later years were spent in retirement with wife and family. At age 82 in December 1916, he died and is buried in Bethany Cemetery in Charleston. Beside him lies his wife, Julia, who joined him there in 1924.
We are left to wonder if this German immigrant, so eager to fight for South Carolina and the Confederacy, ever regretted defending a state and its people that not long after were so eager to strip him of his livelihood as a liquor dealer.