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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Chester County, South Carolina In The Final Year Of The War Between The States 1865

The War Between The States (American Civil War) 1861 - 1865

The Old English District of upstate South Carolina holds numerous sites of important historical significance related to American history, particularly those related to the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783) and the War Between the States (1861 - 1865). Many of them local incidents that had significant -- often times defining -- impacts on American history as a whole. Others are simply local tales that related to important aspects of Southern and American history. Many of those tales I plan to talk about here at Southern Fried Common Sense over the course of the year.

February 1865 - Sherman Marches North

On February 20, 1865, Union army forces under the command of US Major General William Tecumseh Sherman began advancing north through South Carolina from the fallen state capital of Columbia -- now half burned and destroyed.

There is significant debate among modern Civil War historians as to who actually burned Columbia.

In his official reports, Sherman placed the blame on Confederate Lieutenant General Wade Hampton III, who Sherman said ordered the burning of cotton in the streets and high winds that spread the fire to nearby buildings. This despite the fact that eyewitness testimony claims no cotton was left burning. 

Sherman would later recant this allegation and admit lying in his Memoirs (Vol. 11 pg. 287):

"In my official report of this conflagration I distinctly charged it to General Wade Hampton, and confess I did so pointedly to shake the faith of his people in him, for was in my opinion a braggart and professed to be the special champion of South Carolina."

It is possibly, of course, that Sherman lied in his memoirs. By the time he wrote them Reconstruction has ended and Hampton had indeed become the champion of South Carolina -- as well as its first post-Reconstruction governor. Sherman might well have allowed his bitterness over that fact to color his memory and exaggerate his tale.

The best proof over who really caused the destruction is the damning admission in 1867 of Major General Oliver O. Howard, then in command of the US 15th Corps of Sherman's army during the burning. During a chance meeting with former Confederate General Hampton in the office of Federal occupation Governor James Laurence Orr in Columbia, the two former combatants were introduced in the presence of many dignitaries. Hampton reportedly asked, "Before I take your hand General Howard, tell me who burnt Columbia?" General Howard would reply, "It is useless to deny that our troops burnt Columbia, for I saw them in the act." (See Edwin J. Scott, Random Recollections of a Long Life. Pg. 185; The Burning of Columbia, Charleston, SC, 1888, pg. 11.)

Now playing devil's advocate here, Sherman as a professional soldier probably contented himself with seeing that war material and railroad equipment vital to the dying Confederacy was destroyed, and simply did little to restrain the conduct of his men, leaving that job to his subordinates, many of whom likely choose to look the other way. Sherman himself gave no specific order to destroy and loot the surrendered city itself.

To the credit of some of Sherman's men, they did help fight the fires set to several buildings by their drunken comrades, including the University of South Carolina, largely sparing the college from the flames. Other Union soldiers however were credited with the destruction of a church, the old State Capitol building and breaking off the cane of a statue of George Washington that still stands today in front of the current State Capitol building (which today still bears six marks where Sherman's artillery barrage of the city struck the building as it was still under construction) among other various acts a day after the surrender of the city.

Regardless of how -- or whom -- specifically set the fires that gutted half of Columbia, there is no denying that even today the name William T. Sherman firmly stands besides other notorious names in South Carolina's history like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and "Bloody Ban" Tarleton.

There is also no denying that some of Sherman's men -- "Bummers" as opposed to foragers who were sent out to commandeer supplies from the countryside -- committed terrible acts of destruction, theft and murder during the Carolina Campaign in 1865.

Sherman was aware that his force was larger than anything the retreating Confederates and the local home guard forces could throw at him. In fact, Sherman's force of sixty-three thousand soldiers was at that point in time more than twice as large as General Robert E. Lee's own Army of Northern Virginia, which at that time was trapped in Petersburg, Virginia, by Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman's main opponent, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson had only enough men to slow down Sherman's advance.

Regardless, "Uncle Billy" (as his men affectionately called him) wanted to be careful. He was still deep in hostile territory hundreds of miles from supplies and any other Union forces, save for those in Charleston on the coast. He had to keep the Confederates from guessing his next objective, which would either be Raleigh, or Goldsboro, North Carolina.

To keep Johnson and the Confederate forces from concentrating their forces in the northeast part of the state, Sherman decided to "feint" (a military maneuver that fakes the army's true direction) directly north towards Charlotte, North Carolina.

My hometown of Chester, South Carolina (then known as Chesterville) lay in the direction of Sherman's feint.

His main force would go as far north as Winnsboro twenty-five miles to the South of Chester before turning northeast towards the old town of Camden. Sherman's main force did not come to Chester County, though some elements of his Union cavalry and the army's left flank would in late February and early March of 1865.

The Hanging Of Burrel Hemphill

In front of the Hopewell Reformed Presbyterian Church just to the northeast of the small town of Blackstock in the southern part of Chester County is a small stone monument dedicated to the memory of a slave named Burrel Hemphill. Burrel was the slave of Robert Hemphill, who owned twenty-two hundred acres near the church. Both Robert and Burrel were both members of Hopewell Church (founded and organized in 1787).

When the Yankees (Federals) arrived, the Hemphill family fled and Burrel was left in charge of the estate. Burrel buried the family silver in the woods, but was caught by Union soldiers upon his return. According to the eyewitness accounts of his grandson, who witnessed the incident, Hemphill refused to tell the Bummers where he'd hidden the valuables. The angry Yankee soldiers then dragged Burrel to a spot near the church and hanged him, then lowered him several times, then hanging him again, repeating their demand that he tell where the valuables were hidden. Burrel refused and eventually died from the torture. The Bummers would then use his hanging body for target practice.

Hopewell Reformed Presbyterian Church on Hopewell Church
Road (SC 12-36) near Blackstock, SC.
The Burrel Hemphill Marker in front of the church.

Chesterville in 1865 - A Hub Of Activity

In 1865, following the surrender and subsequent destruction of Columbia's railway yard, Chesterville was the southern-most point in the dying Confederacy that could be reached by train. A hub of activity, Chesterville in 1865 served as an arsenal and had four hospitals dedicated to the care of wounded soldiers coming in by train on almost a daily basis. Many died in the hospitals, or in transit from Columbia, and would be buried in nearby cemeteries -- notably Evergreen Cemetery a mile away from the station. 

In March and April of 1865, as the War was coming to its end, Chesterville became a beacon for refugees fleeing the Union Army. On April 13, 1865, Chesterville's Southern Railroad Station (located on Lancaster Street) would be the end of the line for the heavily guarded Confederate treasury train from Richmond.

On the train were boxes of gold and silver, which were loaded onto wagons and transported south. Of equal importance on the train were valuable government records, including both the original provisional and permanent Confederate Constitutions, and the Great Seal of the Confederacy. The Constitutions were recovered and kept safe by Mr. Felix Gregory DeFontaine, who later sold both of them to museums. The provisional constitution ended up in the Confederate Museum in Richmond, VA; the permanent constitution is now owned by the University of Georgia. 

Several important passengers who also arrived in the city on the train were Mrs. Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and their children, who were traveling south to join her husband in Georgia after the fall of Richmond. Also with the Davis children was Jim Limber, a young African-American boy adopted by the Confederate First Family.

Mrs. Varina Davis, First Lady of the
Confederate States of America.
The Davis children (1867).
Left to Right: Jeff Jr., Margaret (Maggie), Varina Anne (Winnie)
and William (Billy).
Young Jim Limber.

On main street in Chester today, near the Confederate Soldiers Monument erected in 1905, stand the Devega Building, then a hotel in 1865. It was there in April of that year that the famous civil war novelist Mary Boykin Chesnut and her husband Brigadier General James Chestnut Jr. rented a room in the hotel that existed there and entertained Mrs. Davis and her children. Mrs. Chesnut would also pen some of her famous novel A Diary From Dixie in that building. From the upper windows of the Devaga Building, Mrs. Chestnut could see the fires from the burning of Columbia over fifty miles away to the south.

The Devega Building as it stands today.
The Devega Building Marker.

Following their departure south in an ambulance, heavy rains would make the roads nearly impassable and bog down Mrs. Davis' wagon. The Confederate First Lady then carried her baby Winnie in her arms for six miles to Woodward Baptist Church (located at 1570 Ashford Road) where, according to some sources, Varina and her children slept the night on the church pews before departing toward Georgia the next morning to be reunited with President Davis. 

Woodward Baptist Church where Varina Davis and her
children spent the night sleeping on the church pews according
to the local folklore.
The Chester Cannons

In late February, 1865, Confederate General Wade Hampton came to Chesterville to make sure that what was left in the arsenal was out of Sherman's grasp. Hampton himself would order four - 10lb cannon tubes spiked and buried about a hundred yards from the railroad depot. Those cannons would remain buried for approximately 121 years before being discovered during construction of an addition to Chester's Cavalry Baptist Church in February of 1986. 

Cavalry Baptist Church in downtown Chester, SC.

The cannon tubes were identified as 10 lb. Confederate Parrott rifles, each weighing approximately 1150 pounds -- four of only 77 of its type and size produced by the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia during the period of November 18, 1861 to February 20, 1865.

These cannons would be carefully disarmed -- all four of them were loaded with live rounds and gunpowder -- and preserved, then restored. Two of the cannons would be mounted onto carriages and placed on display in Chester. One near the Confederate Soldiers Monument in the town square and the other in front of the Chester County Courthouse. The third would be displayed permanently in the civil war section of the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. 

Marker with details about the cannon and its ordinance.
First Confederate Parrott Rifle in Chester's town square near the Confederate Soldiers Monument.
Second Confederate Parrott Rifle in front of the Chester County Courthouse.

Third Confederate Parrott Rifle on display in the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

The final cannon, which would come to be known as the Chester Gun, was re-bored and sleeved to make it safe to fire -- the ONLY live firing 10 lb. Confederate-made cannon in the world. The Chester County Historical Society would then purchase a reproduction wooden carriage along with a wheeled limber. The cannon would be on renewable loan to the 6th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment re-enactors who used it in a number of local and national re-enactment and living history events. During the Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, the Chester Gun took part in many of the 150th anniversary re-enactments from Fort Sumter, Shiloh, and most recently Gettysburg in 2013, where it pleased re-enactors and spectators alike. 

Most recently, I saw the cannon again at the South Carolina Division Sons of Confederate Veterans 2014 Reunion in Florence, SC. along with several other interesting artifices.

The Chester Gun, the only live-firing Confederate-made civil war cannon in existence. Photo taken at the SC Division Sons of Confederate Veterans Reunion in March 2014.

A Union Soldier's Grave

I mentioned before and in a previous post that many of the Confederate wounded in hospitals and carried by train through Chesterville died in 1865 and were hastily buried in Chester's Evergreen Cemetery. A total of 53 graves are labeled Unknown CSA. One other was recently identified and given a grave marker by the Walker-Gaston Camp #86 Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2007. The only other known Confederate soldier, an 89 year old aged Confederate Veteran from Georgia who wanted to be buried with comrades, is buried in the same plot.  
Fifty-three Unknown Confederate Soldiers buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Chester, SC.
Pvt. William G. Parker, Co. G, Cobb's Legion Georgia Volunteers CSA. 

Pvt. Reuben T. Ashley, Co I, 19th SC Infantry CSA
recently identified and given a new marker by the Walker-Gaston Camp #86 SCV in 2007.

Also buried in the plot with these men is a 19 year-old Union soldier, Charles F. Emerson of the 15th Maine Volunteers, who joined the Union army at the age of 15. He died of "lung fever" (pneumonia) on March 14, 1866, while acting as part of the town's occupation force. It was often the practice of the Federal occupation to bury their dead with Confederate soldiers as a means of reminding the local populace of their "reunited" status. His large, well-inscribed headstone stands in stark contrast to the simple "Unknown" granite markers of his Confederate counterparts.

Regardless of why he was buried there, his grave is honored on US Memorial Day with a new US flag. The Unknown Confederates (and two known ones) buried with him are also honored with Confederate battle flags on their graves on Confederate Memorial Day -- something I have personally seen to every year since 1993.

Pvt. Charles F. Emerson, Co. G, 15th Maine Infantry USA.

That concludes some of the stories about my hometown and county during the final days of the American Civil War. In the coming couple months, I will post more interesting tales about the war in the upcountry of South Carolina during the final days of the war.

(Sources for this blog post may be found at: http://chesterschistory.org/index.html as well as the excellent and detailed reference book: Touring the Carolinas' Civil War Sites by Clint Johnson ISBN 0-89587-146-7. All photos were taken by this blogger, Mr. C. W. Roden.)


  1. Enjoyed reading this post. I am the new pastor at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Chester, and came to visit your site because I was seeking information on Mary Chesnut's residence during the closing months of the WBTS. Thank you, and feel free to stop by some Sunday at 11am for worship!

  2. My family came from Chester and I have long assumed that Sherman's bummers would have foraged in Chester. There is a lot of writing about Sherman's march though Georgia, it's a bit harder to learn about the destruction of Columbia and Winnsboro. My second great grand father left Chester for Mississippi after the civil war along with a many members of the Crosby, Davis and Coleman clans. I have wondered if the reason was Sherman and reconstruction or something more basic such as patrilineal inheritance and farmed out soil.

    Chester is on my list of places to visit someday and as I reach my 70th year I realize that reading about it my have to suffice. Thanks for posting.

    Steve Crosby, Washington State