Recycled or Torched: Prince William’s Parish Church a.k.a. Sheldon Church

Welcomed by a tunnel of moss covered oaks, my hybrid and I quietly wound our way down Highway 21 towards Beaufort. A sign announced a historical marker located a half mile down the road. I had no big plans for the launch of my trip sponsored by the Institute for African American Research until the next morning nor had I plotted any potential destinations on my route into town. I could make out little as I passed the site on my left, but I found myself slowing down and looking for a place to pull off the road. I had no idea whether I had included this spot on my list of historical sites in the Beaufort region with connections to the Reconstruction era, but the changing terrain of South Carolina along my journey had aroused an excitement to begin my research.

Still, it was the light that made me turn around.

My photographer husband calls it magic hour, one of the two hours in the day where the natural light produced by the sun rising and setting does all the work and makes almost any image beautiful. Even I could not botch documenting this historic setting. I pulled up my list of about three dozen sites. Jackpot. Ruins. The history goddesses smiled as they brought me to Prince William’s Parish Church on July 7, 2014 and presented me with a Reconstruction era conundrum.

Sheldon Church from the gate. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor.

Sheldon Church, from back.  Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor.

Sheldon Church, from back. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor.

According to the 1970 National Register Nomination, Prince William’s Parish Church, constructed ca. 1751-1757, constituted the first “conscious” attempt to replicate a Greek temple in America.[1] It became known as Sheldon Church, a reference to Sheldon Hall, the Carolina plantation and an ancestral English estate of one of most important parish families, the Bull’s. Built into the wall near Gov. William Bull’s pew, the Bull family coat of arms also reminded churchgoers of the family’s influence.[2]  Despite the connection to South Carolina’s founding fathers, the church’s affiliation with the South’s most hated enemies fuels the historical memory about the ruins.

Historical Marker Front. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Historical Marker Front. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Historical Marker Back.  Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Historical Marker Back. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

The roadside historical marker notes that Loyalists first burned the church during the American Revolution as part of Gen. Augustine Prevost’s 1779 raid. The marker concludes: “It was assumed by many area residents in 1865 and has been widely believed since that Federal troops burned Sheldon Church during the last months of the Civil War. It was actually dismantled by local freedmen ca. 1865-1867.

 

 

Clearly this marker intended to overturn commonly held assumptions about the destruction of this church at the end of the Civil War. Had the marker succeeded? Furthermore, why had freedmen dismantled the church? I imagined free people constructing their first homes and places of worship, perhaps even reconstructing buildings riddled by cannons and bullets. Maybe the church served as a reminder of slaveholders who had worshiped there, inciting its plundering. Regardless, I wished for more than one sentence about these freed people.

Initially, I struggled to find any connection between freedmen and the church. Evidence of how pervasive the belief was that Union forces were responsible for burning the grounds abound both at the site and in the digital record online. I suspected many accounts were written after the marker was erected. Now I wondered if blaming Union troops in local memory was fostered by something other than hatred of “Yankee Rule” and a widespread misconception that Sherman burned everything in his path.  Could knowledge that freed men and women successfully altered the environment and antebellum institutions for their own post-slavery experiment warrant perpetuating a myth about the South’s most reviled villain, General William Tecumseh Sherman?

A 1917 study of gravestone inscriptions at the ruins briefly mentioned both Gen. Prevost and “the invading army under Sherman.”[3] In 1937, the Columbia Committee South Carolina Society of Colonial Dames of America placed a stone tablet on the ruins of the church. Part of a larger preservation movement driven by women, this commemoration occurred just four years after the women of Columbia’s American Legion Auxiliary opened the teenage home of Woodrow Wilson to the public, the site that I work for today and which inspired my dissertation. The tablet placed the church’s construction ca. 1745-1755, slightly earlier than the 1969 survey from the register nomination, but the role of the British and the Federal Army in the burning remained uncontested.

Stone Tablet, 1937.  Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Stone Tablet, 1937. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Close-up Pillars with 1937 tablet in background.  Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor.

Close-up Pillars with 1937 tablet in background. Photo by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 1970 register nomination specifically named Sherman’s 15th Corp under John Logan responsible and dated the fire to January 14, 1865.[4] As a result, the webpage for National Register Properties in South Carolina maintained by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History replicates that interpretation today. Last, I went to Wikipedia. To my surprise I found a pithy entry for Old Sheldon Church Ruins, that at the time of this publication, presents one of the more well-rounded discussions of Sheldon’s destruction available online. The entry includes the interpretation that Sherman burned the church exactly as Prevost had done on his march from Georgia to South Carolina eighty-six years prior; however, the end of the entry also describes an “alternative view” supported by The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868. Miton Leverett’s letter from February 3, 1866 revealed, “Sheldon Church not burn’t. Just torn up in the inside, but can be repaired.” Locals gutted the inside to recycle materials to repair “homes burnt by Sherman’s army.” Whose homes, Wikipedia does not say.

My next step will be to pick up a copy of the The Leverett Letters to confirm the source and contact the South Carolina Historical Marker Program. I hope the marker and the Wikipedia citation are only the beginning of this story.

Part 2 will trace the memory of Sheldon Church in the press in the twenty-first century.

 

 

[1] Dollie McGrath, “Sheldon Church Ruins (Prince William’s Parish Church), National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form” (South Carolina Department of Archives and History, August 5, 1970), 3, http://www.nationalregister.sc.gov/beaufort/S10817707005/S10817707005.pdf.

[2] Ibid., 2–3.

[3] “The Inscriptions on the Gravestones at Sheldon Church,” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 18, no. 4 (October 1, 1917): 180.

[4] McGrath, “Sheldon Church Ruins,” 3.

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One thought on “Recycled or Torched: Prince William’s Parish Church a.k.a. Sheldon Church

  1. Pingback: The Sherman Myth Strikes Back: The Leverett Family Letters and Old Sheldon Church | Reconstructing Reconstruction

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