Area Residents Answered State's Call in Civil War | Olde English District

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Area Residents Answered State's Call in Civil War

Published: Sunday, Apr. 10, 2011 / Updated: Sunday, Apr. 10, 2011 07:58 AM

By Don Worthington - dworthington@heraldonline.com

YORK COUNTY --  

Hardin and Sims carried flags of valor and of truce

In March of 1861, Mary Boykin Chesnut left the snow that covered the grounds of Mulberry, her Camden District plantation, for the gaiety of Charleston.

She found the city consumed in what, today, would be the atmosphere leading up to a Super Bowl or Final Four. There were teas to attend, dinner parties to host, even boat tours of the Charleston harbor.

The talk, regardless of the location, was not if, but when the South would go to war. Even her pillow talk with her husband, James, was likely of war. James, a former U.S. Senator, was Confederate President Jefferson Davis' embassy to Maj. Robert Anderson, the federal commander of Fort Sumter. James had tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the standoff.

Chesnut recorded her thoughts in a diary - published after her death as "A Diary from Dixie."

"April 12 (1861)... I do not pretend to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael's bells, chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before."

She then went to the rooftop to watch the bombardment, which started 150 years ago this week.

Four years later, Mary Chesnut found herself again with panoramic view, but in much difference circumstance. Homeless and penniless, she lived in a third-floor room in a house in Chester. To the south, the burning of Columbia had stained the sky black. Confederate troops straggled through the town. She complained to an officer. They were marching, she said, the wrong way - retreating.

"March 27 (1865) ...there they go, the gay and gallant few, doomed; the last gathering of the flower of Southern pride, to be killed or worse, prison."

Her views from Chester highlight the role local people played during the Civil War. Thousands of local men marched off to fight for their state and the nation they wanted to form. They suffered, died in battle, and came home to rebuild.

One played a key role in the war's end.

King Cotton

Just three days after the final shots on Fort Sumter, the "gay and gallant" of Rock Hill - the Whyte Guards - assembled at the train depot, waiting for a southbound train to take them to war and a speedy victory.

Rock Hill was but a speck then, 100 people scattered around the rail depot. Yorkville - now York - was the site of the district's court house. It was also the unofficial economic capital of the region. Cotton was king in South Carolina, and the York District had become the second largest producer in the upper Piedmont.

The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 had made growing cotton economically viable.

So farmers planted cotton. They sold cotton to brokers in Charleston, and with their proceeds, sent their children to school. They also bought more slaves to plant more cotton. By 1860, 43 percent of white males in South Carolina owned slaves, according to Dr. Eddie Lee, a Winthrop University history professor.

People came to Yorkville for court, for commerce and for conversation. Even without the instant communications of the Internet, residents knew of the estranged North-South relationship, Lee said. Of Scots-Irish decent, they were politically and socially independent, "and a quarrelsome group," Lee said.

So when the call came, they enlisted for South Carolina.

As in most conflicts, some were caught up in the romanticism of war.

For some, it was a matter of family and honor. Their grandfathers had fought in the war for independence. They had heard their stories. They wanted their own to tell.

And for some, it was a matter of economics.

"To some people it was about property - slaves," Lee said. "That is a harsh assessment, but an accurate one."

So they went to war, armed "with the full faith that the war was OK and God was on their side," Lee said.

More than 3,000 from the York District enlisted in various units.

They would go on to fight in every major battle of the war: in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and the excursions into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

They fought in places that before the war were virtually unknown local crossroads, or where bridges crossed creeks.

Today, the names are known to those with even the most casual interest in history - Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox.

Of the 3,000 who served, between 800 and 1,000 died, according to various estimates. The York District had the highest per-capita death rate in the state, according to Michael Scoggins, historian at the McClevey Center in York. Overall, an estimated 12,000 sons of South Carolina died in the war.

For the York District, many died in one single battle: the July 30, 1864, engagement known as the Battle of the Crater. Confederates were trying to protect the capital of Richmond, Va. Outside Petersburg, there were long lines of troop trenches. Yankee soldiers tunneled underneath the trenches and lit more than four tons of explosives. More than 350 Confederate soldiers - most of them from South Carolina - died in the fight, many in the initial blast. More than 1,200 were wounded.

The attack was audacious and deadly. This time, the Confederates held.

Planters and soldiers

Obidiah Hardin and Robert Moorman Sims were cut from the same cloth. Both were family men. Both were planters, Hardin in the Chester district, Sims in the Lancaster district. Both owned slaves, and both were successful. According to 1860 census records, Sims' 21 slaves and land holdings were worth $52,000 - $1.2 million in today's dollars.

In war, they both rose to the rank of captain. Each carried a flag into battle. Hardin grabbed a fallen flag and pushed forward to his death. Sims carried a simple flag forward so that no more would die.

Had Paulina Hardin had her way, her husband would have never gone off to war. They had five children, ages 3 to 9, to raise.

But Obidiah Hardin saw abolitionists in his dreams, "marching down through our country," coming to free his slaves. "Had I not joined the Army, I was in a heap of trouble about it," he wrote in letter to his wife.

A captain in the Chester Guards, he was part of the 6th S.C. Infantry. The 6th arrived at Manassas, Va., too late for the war's first major land battle. December of 1861 found the regiment searching for shoes and other winter supplies near the Dranesville Tavern in Fairfax County, Va., not too distant from Washington, D.C. Hardin had recently written home that he and his tent mates had only eight thin blankets among them, not enough to keep them warm.

On Dec. 20, Union and Confederate forces clashed near the tavern. A soldier carrying the Confederate flag was wounded and fell. Hardin looked for volunteers, knowing the next standard bearer faced the same fate. He picked up the blood-stained flag and advanced.

He was met with a hail of Mini‚ balls and hit.

As armaments go, the Civil War Mini‚ ball was a deadly killer. Its diameter was about the size of a dime. In the hands of an even minimally skilled soldier with the proper rifle, the ball had an effective range between 200 and 250 yards. It could penetrate 11 inches into a block of yellow pine.

When it hit humans, a Mini‚ ball shattered bones and disfigured faces. Doctors, with a primitive knowledge of infections, often resorted to amputations to try to save those hit.

Hardin was carried from the battlefield and taken to a Richmond hospital. On Jan. 1, 1862, one year after South Carolina's secession, he died. He was 33.

Hardin's body was returned to Chester and buried in the Brushy Forks cemetery.

Final days

Robert Moorman Sims, a graduate of The Citadel, presumably knew about making war. Like many from this area, he fought from the beginning to the end of the Civil War. He was severely wounded at the battle of Antietam.

Near the end of the war he served on the staff of Gen. James Longstreet, from Edgefield County in South Carolina. The Confederate army was retreating westward from Richmond, hounded each step of the way by Union forces under the command of Ulysses Grant.

The Confederate commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, stopped his forces near the Appomattox Court House. His subordinates urged him to surrender. He was almost surrounded.

"For Lee, it was surrender or be slaughtered," said Patrick Schroeder, historian at Appomattox Court House, the Civil War site operated by the National Park Service.

Lee was unwilling to surrender, saying his army had "too many bold men to think of laying down our arms," according to Longstreet's memoirs which offer a detailed account of the final days of the war. A surrender offer would be seen as a sign of weakness, he said, prompting Grant to ask
for an unconditional surrender. "A proposal to which I will never listen."

But Lee did listen and met with Grant. "...There is nothing left me, but to go and see General Grant," Lee said. "I would rather die a thousand deaths."

While Lee waited to meet with Grant, Longstreet sent a message to Gen. John B. Gordon that "if the latter thought proper," he should send a flag of truce to Union Gen. Philip Sheridan to suspend hostilities while Grant and Lee talked.

Gordon asked Sims to take the flag, and "begged him not to let our men see the flag start," according to Gen. E.P. Alexander's accounts. Sim's baggage consisted of a towel and a toothbrush, wrote Alexander.

Sims might not have embraced the duty he was given. "He saw it as humiliation to carry a truce flag," Schroeder said.

He improvised a flag of truce, using the white towel with a red border he had purchased in Richmond.

He rode to the front where the Confederates faced the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

"At a maddening gait, a single horseman dashed up the lane toward the lines," one Pennsylvania soldier wrote later. "As he rode, he swung violently above his head an oblong object white in color. As he drew nearer a red border was plainly seen around its edges.

"It was in fact a towel improvised into a flag of truce."

It was the first flag of truce raised at Appomattox. Others followed, but this one "stopped the fighting," Schroeder said.

Sims, in a letter to the members of the 118th Pennsylvania written 20 years after the war, said: "I did not exhibit the flag until near your lines, consequently was fired upon until I got to or very near your people... "

He was escorted into the lines and met Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who asked, "Who are you and what do you wish?"

"I replied, 'I am of Gen. Longstreet's staff, but am the bearer of a message from Gen. Gordon to Gen. Sheridan, asking for a suspension of hostilities until Gen. Lee can be heard from, who has gone to meet Gen. Grant ...'

"Gen. Custer replied, 'We will listen to no terms but that of unconditional surrender. We are behind your army now and it is at our mercy."

Sims brought the message back to the Confederate lines. An officer borrowed the towel and it was later given to Custer. He later gave it to his wife, Elizabeth. (She would later cut the towel into sections, giving pieces to friends of her husband. One of the largest pieces is at Appomattox, Schroeder said.)

According to Longstreet's memoirs, Sims brought Custer to him at a fast gallop with "General Custer's flaxen locks flowing over his shoulder." Dismounting, Custer demanded unconditional surrender.

Longstreet wrote that Custer was "reminded that I was not the commander of the army, that he was within the lines of the enemy without authority," and that his manner was "disrespect to General Grant as well as myself."

"He then became more moderate, saying it would be a pity to have more blood upon that field," Longstreet wrote. "Then I suggested the truce be respected...."

On April 12, the Army of Northern Virginia, 28,356 men strong, "marched to the field of Appomattox Court-House," Longstreet wrote. "By divisions and parts of divisions deployed into line, stacked their arms, folded their colors and walked empty-handed to their distant blighted homes."

In a way it was reminiscent of an earlier surrender on the Virginia coast 83 years earlier when the soldiers of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis stacked their arms at Yorktown. Lee's father, Light Horse Harry Lee, was at that surrender, noting that Cornwallis snubbed George Washington by sending a surrogate to surrender. Lee's son, Robert, did not make that error at Appomattox.

The surrender in Yorktown helped birth a nation. At Appomattox, a nation started to heal.

Post war

Among those who made the long march home was Capt. S.M. White of the 6th S.C. Infantry. He stopped and visited Paulina Hardin, presenting her with an account of the regiment's actions, including the battle of Dranesville where her husband and his brother Thomas, died. They were
among the 18 South Carolinians killed in what U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron called at the time, "one of the bright spots that give assurance of the success of coming events."

The receipt of the regiment's account closed Paulina's grieving, said Lee, the Winthrop history professor who also is York's mayor. She later married John McAfee.

After the war, James and Mary Chesnut struggled, beset by debt and the loss of plantation lands. He became a lawyer and active in Democratic politics, working to rid South Carolina of the influences of "carpetbagger" politicians, those who came from the north to - in the mind of Chesnut and others - loot and plunder a defeated South. They died within a year of each other, James in 1885, and Mary in 1886.

Sims returned to Lancaster. According to the 1870 Census his net worth was $11,000 - $190,000 in today's dollars. At the time, he was still significantly wealthy. Many of his fellow soldiers had returned home to find their property in ruins with few prospects but poverty.

Sims represented Lancaster in the state Senate from 1868 to 1870. He became Rock Hill's intendant or mayor in 1873 and a member of the York County board of equalization from 1875-1878. He attended First Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, was a trustee at the Yorkville
Female Academy, and later principal at the Rock Hill Male Academy.

In 1877, Sims was named South Carolina Secretary of State and served for three terms. President Grover Cleveland appointed him inspector for the Charleston Customs House in 1885. He died Feb. 10, 1869, and is buried in Columbia.

About this series

Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter, the start of the Civil War.

In this article, drawn from contemporary news accounts, diaries and interviews with historians, The Herald looks at how war affected the residents of the York, Chester and Lancaster districts.

Future stores in this series will include a look at slave life in the York District and the final days of the war, when shots of anger were fired locally and the Confederate government met a final time.