Jim Elliott and Joan Ann

Remembering/Re-living the Past

The Southeastern States, also known as the Old South, are sometimes regarded as history-obsessed, or even living in the past. The region does have a long, well-documented and fascinating history.

The people of the area are also well-rooted in the region. Until recently the rate of immigration from outside the region was quite low so the “Old Families” still make up a substantial proportion of the population. Heritage organizations such as the Sons (and Daughters) of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Colonial Dames seem to have no lack of postulants and to play a much bigger role in society than any similar organizations in Canada, or even of these same associations in other American regions.

I have spent the past fifteen or so winters here near Beaufort, South Carolina, a charming small city of about 12,000 people, but which serves as the county town of Beaufort County a fast-growing area (pop. about 175,000) which includes Hilton Head. Beaufort County’s population grew by almost forty percent in the decade between 1990 and 2000.

The City was spared most of the ravages of the US Civil War (referred to as the War Between the States down here {when not called “The War of Northern Aggression}) in that it was occupied right at the beginning of that conflict and served as an administrative, support and medical facility for union forces throughout the war. The hospital function is the explanation for the large National Cemetery, still in use where the Union dead from the Civil War are laid out by home state. The size of this cemetery where some 7,500 mainly Union Civil War dead are buried, and the fact that it is only one of three in South Carolina alone, bring home the terrible toll of this war. It is commonly used to divide local history into two halves; ante-bellum, and post.

Interest in local history thrives as the city’s tri-centenary in 2011 approaches. The commission preparing the tri-centennial celebrations was quite gratified when nearly 800 local residents (at $10 per head) showed up for the first of four scheduled weekly two hour lectures on local history last Friday. They were sorry that the auditorium booked held only 500 so nearly half the history buffs had to be turned away.

I was among the fortunate ones and greatly enjoyed the presentations of two historians who presented the region’s history from first Spanish and French explorations and settlements from 1514 to 1587, through the arrival of the English (and Scots) around 1670 to the end of the American Revolution. We learned of the crucial role this area played in the conflicts between French and Spanish, with the French involved being largely Huguenots, making the Spaniards hate them deeply, but facilitating their later assimilation into the English population after both French and Spanish had been displaced. We learned also of the complicated relations with the local aboriginal population which included peaceful periods of trade/exploitation, shifting alliances and occasional all out war. The Yemassee War during which the newly chartered settlement at Beaufort was destroyed although the inhabitants escaped by sea, lasted for thirteen years from 1715-1728 and nearly resulted in the total destruction of the South Carolina colony. We learned how the crops of livestock, rice and indigo succeeded one another in various parts of the region before being largely replaced by the famous Sea Island cotton after the American Revolution. We learned how African slaves were imported to man these plantations, bringing with them technologies in several areas including rice cultivation completely unknown to the European colonists. We learned about the industrial development of the area from the surprisingly large sixteenth century pottery kilns of the Spaniards to the colonial and post-colonial lumber and ship-building. The USS Constitution “Old Ironsides” was built from cypress and live oak timbers from the region.

Most importantly we learned of the crucial role the city and area played in military and political events throughout this extended period. Events in Beaufort are even mentioned, if obliquely in the US Declaration of Independence, since removing a colonial legislature to an out-of-the-way spot, listed as an abuse of Royal power, only happened when South Carolina’s assembly was removed from Charleston to Beaufort.

Unfortunately, because I was not able to commit to the whole series, now sold out, I will be unable to attend subsequent lectures which will bring this compelling history up to the present day, dealing with the run-up to the US Civil War (The Secession Resolution was drafted in a house still standing here.) the War itself, the Reconstruction era, the development of military bases in the area, (Parris Island is a major archaeological site from the French and Spanish periods as well as a current US Marine training base,) the fight for civil rights (many organizing meetings were held at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island) and the current growth in the retirement and resort areas.

Only two days later, on the Sunday, we were treated to quite another reminder of the area’s history when we drove a couple of hours north to experience the re-enactment of the Battle of Salkehatchie River, to use the “Northern” name. The Southern name is the Battle of Rivers Bridge. It seems that many Civil War battles were given different names by the two sides. The re-enactment attracted about three hundred spectators and about half that many re-enactors who had camped on the site the night before. It was held on ground adjoining the actual battle site (now a State Historic Park) on the week-end closest to the anniversary of the battle. The battle itself, not a Southern victory, occurred February 2-3 1865, within a few months of the war’s end, when some 1,200 Confederate troops held off about 5,000 Northerners for two days before being out-flanked by the superior numbers. The Union forces were part of Sherman’s army on its way from Savannah to Columbia, South Carolina.

The re-enactment was true to the historical facts, the re-enactors were really into their roles and a quite satisfactory amount of black powder was burnt in the two cannon deployed on the Southern side as well as the numerous reproduction muskets in use by both sides. Before the actual engagement the previous night’s camp-ground was surrounded by “sutlers’ tents” where reproduction pieces of uniform and kit, as well as souvenirs were available for purchase. The educational facet was rounded out by exhibitions of wool carding, spinning, weaving, sewing and other feminine skills. All in all it was an interesting and educational day. I hadn’t known the difference between woolen and worsted-spun thread before. This seems analogous to the difference between hawser-laid and cable-laid ropes.

Taken together, the two events provided an excellent insight into depth of regional feelings and the breadth of interest in local history, as well as demonstrating how these are fostered by voluntary organizations.

Tags: Jim Elliott