Return of The Leverett Letters: a New Marker and a Battle for Local Memory

When this blog last left Old Sheldon Church, The Leverett Letters (2000) quietly overturned the myth that Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops burned Prince William’s Parish Church. No one really noticed. In July of 2000, an investigative report into the preservation risk posed by semis and dump trucks passing the ruins opened and closed by evoking images of “the torches of both British and Northern invaders.” Neither the author nor his “coalition of architects and historians” challenged the interpretation of Union troops’ involvement.[1] The following month, The State reminded readers of the church’s “fiery end” when “Sherman’s army laid waste to” it. However, writer R. Kevin Dietrich provided a clue as why Beaufort’s freed population may have dismantled the church during the first years of Reconstruction. Site manager Elizabeth Campbell emphasized that Sheldon Church was a center of religious and political importance for plantation residents. Elite whites worshipped there, a point reinforced by Mary Leverett in my second Sheldon blog, but so did the men, women and children they owned.[2] Freedmen and women knew of the valuable materials inside. Perhaps they even yearned to build their own institutions with parts of the old system that had oppressed them and been destroyed.

From the gates facing Old Sheldon Church, at sunset, July 7, 2014 (photo by author)

From the gates facing Old Sheldon Church, at sunset, July 7, 2014 (photo by author)

Fluff piece writers remained oblivious to Sherman’s innocence as did local scholars, at least initially.[3] In 2005, Beaufort Gazette journalist Geoff Ziezulewicz tackled the difficult question of Sherman’s March in a piece written less than two years after the event that inspired me to apply for the Institute for African American Research fellowship that is funding my research in Beaufort. Circa 2003, in a plan endorsed by the preeminent Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner, the National Park Service (NPS) considered uniting six historic locations around Beaufort into a Reconstruction focused site; however, the lobbying and letter writing campaign of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and perhaps budgetary concerns in the early years of the second Gulf War succeeded in derailing the effort to study the sites rich in black history.[4] The park failed, but the newfound interest and controversy surrounding it may have inspired a bus tour of both Sherman’s trail from Beaufort to Columbia and important Reconstruction era sites. Conducted by University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) in March 2005 and hosted by USCB history professor Dr. Larry Rowland and Parris Island Museum director Dr. Stephen Wise, the tour included Old Sheldon. Wise, demonstrating some modification of the Sherman narrative, insisted no historical evidence supported that the general ordered the blaze. But Wise still believed someone under Sherman’s command was responsible. Rowland stressed the strategic importance of Sherman’s decisions and the bitterness of both Union troops, suffering high death tolls, as well as white Southerners, facing defeat.

Ziezulewicz also interviewed Michael Givens, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who questioned whether the tours should be offered. Givens claimed “most people in the South” view Sherman as a terrorist, a “demon” and “devil” who “came down specifically to destroy the common people.” Givens also blamed Sherman for curtailing the South’s “economic equilibrium” until the 1980s. Despite his insistence that Sherman was seared into the Southern mind as an evil terrorist, Givens professed Sherman’s March, the Civil War’s equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his eyes, was less known in history books because, the victor, the United States, wrote them. Perhaps Givens had never heard of the Dunning School. (Bad historian joke. Readers unfamiliar with the term please click the link to a recent book review related to this group.)

Grave of William Fuller (photo by author)

Grave of William Fuller (photo by author)

Grave of Henry Fuller (photo by author)

Grave of Henry Fuller (photo by author)

 

Two gravestones at Old Sheldon serve as a physical reminder of the hold Confederate memory maintains on history and along this desolate stretch of highway between Yemessee and Beaufort.

 

 

 

 

The argument of a descendant of seventy-five Confederate soldiers proves a stunning reminder too. Even Rowland acknowledged how the burning of Columbia loomed large in local memory. And Ziezulewicz’s own conclusion drew on the SCV narrative:

“More than a century after the fires died in Columbia and Sherman’s troops returned North, the pain of Sherman’s March still lingers for some in the Lowcountry and throughout the Palmetto State, even though the vengeful wrath that Sherman’s forces unleashed on the Palmetto State has faded into history.” [5]

Is Sherman so damned in public memory that the myth will always be more powerful than the truth?

In the last decade, Sherman’s responsibility continued to prevail, even in articles with a historical focus.[6] One young couple decided to marry at Sheldon because it survived “fiery trials.”[7] In 2012, Charleston physician Edward M. Gilbreth penned a detailed, romantic history of the church for the Charleston Post and Courier. He confessed Sheldon “bares its soul and yearns to reveal secrets.”[8] By the end of the year, Tracy Power, one of the editors of The Leverett Letters and the coordinator of the South Carolina Historical Marker Program, would be working diligently on a replacement for an inaccurate 1955 marker.

The Beaufort County Historical Society (BCHS) sponsored the marker under the direction of Ian Hill.[9] Hill and Power, joined by the previously mentioned bus tour scholars Steve Wise and Larry Rowland, debated language and exchanged numerous drafts. They negotiated various details about William Bull’s connection to the site.[10] Clearly now aware of the Leverett letters, Rowland and Wise confirmed they had uncovered other Sea Island plantations that had been recycled and reused.[11] Wise wanted stronger language exonerating federal troops and worried that “political correctness to neo-rebs may be creeping in.”[12] Power also stressed precise language, that “Loyalists” and “freedmen” should be used given the blame placed on the “British” and “Yankees.” He also anticipated that the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH), which oversaw the marker program, and BCHS would be labeled “revisionists” and accused of “rewriting history” at one of the state’s most popular historic sites.[13] He believed the correction “might upset a few (or more than a few!) folks” but thought the SCDAH and BCHS could defend the text with evidence.[14] Certainly it would not be an unreasonable expectation that the same opposing forces that had spoken out against a Reconstruction park and bus tours would challenge this marker too. Although he knew space was limited, Wise ideally wanted the phrase “an erroneous belief arose that the structure was burned by Federal troops when in [sic] was actually dismantled by Freedmen.”[15] For Power, a perfect marker would include a quote by Milton Leverett.[16] The writers ultimately decided to strike any mention of “evidence” from the marker, to address specifically local memory, and to state definitively that freedmen dismantled the church. As demonstrated below, the marker’s text evolved over a four day period in early December 2012.

“Tradition says that it was burned by Federal troops in 1865, but there is no reliable evidence to support that claim. The interior was dismantled by freedmen ca. 1865-1867.”[17]

“Though tradition says that the rebuilt church was burned again by Federal troops in 1865, there is no documentary evidence or physical evidence to support that claim. The interior was essentially dismantled by area freedmen ca. 1865-67.[18]

“Though it was assumed by many area residents in 1865, and has been widely believed since, that Federal troops burned the church during the last months of the Civil War, Sheldon was actually dismantled by freedmen ca. 1865-1867.”[19]

“It was assumed by many area residents in 1865 and has been widely believed since that Federal troops burned the church during the last months of the Civil War. It was actually, however, dismantled by freedmen ca. 1865-1867.”[20]

Close-up of back side of 2012-2013 marker (photo by author)

Close-up of back side of 2012-2013 marker (photo by author)

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History approved the marker on December 13, 2012. In early summer of 2014, just a little over a month before I visited the ruins and a year after the new marker’s erection, artist Charlotte Hutson Wrenn posted a blog about a painting she did of the grounds. Like other writers before her, she paid tribute to the origin and Revolutionary tales surrounding the site, including “flamboyant local Tory, Andrew Deveaux.” She closed with three simple sentences, “Rebuilt in 1826, the church was again burned by Sherman’s men in 1865. Its beauty remains evocative. It was my privilege to paint it.” The new marker mattered none to Wrenn, if she even noticed it or revisited the site at all.

 

[1] Rob Dewig, “Whole Lot of Shaking Goin’ on – Historians Worry Old Sheldon Church Might Crumble If Trucks Continue to Use Nearby Road,” Carolina Morning News, July 20, 2000, CMN edition.

[2] R. Kevin Dietrich, “Sheldon Church Target during Revolutionary, Civil Wars,” The State, August 14, 2000, Final edition, sec. Metro/Region, B1; Mary Maxcy Leverett, “Mary Maxcy Leverett to Her Son Edward, Aug. 26th 1858,” in The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868, ed. Frances Wallace Taylor, Catherine Taylor Matthews, and J. Tracy Power (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 72–73. See part two of my blog series on Old Sheldon Church for the reference Mary made about her new church being socially limited.

[3] Michael Gordon, “Lowcountry Pleases Eyes, Ears – But Don’t Ask about Smells Surrounding Steamy Charleston,” The Charlotte Observer, June 10, 2003, One-three edition, 1B.

[4] Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, 1st ed (New York: Knopf, 2005), 30; “National Support in Order for County Historical Effort,” Island Packet, March 3, 2003. “Wilson Owes District, Nation Support for Historical Projects,” Island Packet, March 4, 2005, sec. Editorial; Henry Eichel, “The Reconstruction Era: Pillage or Progress? Park-Sites Plan Languishes as Foes Spar over History,” The Charlotte Observer, March 27, 2004, One-Three edition, 1A; Bruce E. Baker, What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South, The American South Series (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 169.

[5] Geoff Ziezulewicz, “Sherman’s Infamous March in the Lowcountry,” The Beaufort Gazette, February 27, 2005, sec. Features.

[6] Lori Yount, “Sheldon Church: A Journey Back in Time,” The Beaufort Gazzette, June 11, 2006, sec. Local News; Wayne Washington, “Sheldon: Crumbling Old Church Ruins Still a Spiritual Sanctuary,” The State, July 23, 2007, Final edition, A1; Kyla Fraser, “Sheldon Church- Picturesque Ruins,” Times and Democrat, February 3, 2012, sec. Opinion/Day Tripping.

[7] Washington, “Sheldon,” A1.

[8] Edward M. Gilbreth, “Is Old Sheldon Church in Yemassee Best Left Alone?,” The Post and Courier, March 29, 2012, 7.

[9] South Carolina Historical Marker Program, “Old Sheldon Church Marker,” December 13, 2012, Side 1, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C. Hereafter marker program cited as SCHMP and archives cited SCDAH.

[10] “Country-Size Marker Draft Text As Revised 7 Dec 12, Version 1” (SCHMP, December 7, 2012), SCDAH.; “Country-Size Marker Draft Text As Revised 7 Dec 12, Version 2” (SCHMP, December 7, 2012), SCDAH..

[11] Tracy Power to Steve Wise, Ian Hill, and Lawrence Rowland, “RE: Question,” August 23, 2012, SCHMP, SCDAH

[12] Ian Hill to Tracy Power, “FW: SC Historical Marker for Prince William’s Parish Church (Sheldon Church), Beaufort, S.C.,” September 5, 2012, SCHMP, SCDAH.

[13] Power to Wise, Hill, and Rowland, “RE: Question”, SCHMP, SCDAH,

[14] Tracy Power to Ian Hill, “SC Historical Marker for Prince William’s Parish Church (Sheldon Church), Beaufort, S.C.,” December 3, 2012.

[15] Steve Wise to Tracy Power, “RE: SC Historical Marker for Prince William’s Parish Church (Sheldon Church), Beaufort, S.C.,” September 5, 2012, SCHMP, SCDAH

[16] Power to Wise, Hill, and Rowland, “RE: Question”, SCHMP, SCDAH.

[17] “Country-Size Marker Draft Text As Revised 3 Dec 12” (SCHMP, December 3, 2012), SCDAH..

[18] “Country-Size Marker Draft Text As Revised 5 Dec 12” (SCHMP, December 5, 2012), SCDAH..

[19] “Country-Size Marker Draft Text As Revised 6 Dec 12, Version 1” (SCHMP, December 6, 2012), SCDAH..

[20] “Country-Size Marker Draft Text As Revised 6 Dec 12, Version 2” (SCHMP, December 6, 2012), SCDAH..

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One thought on “Return of The Leverett Letters: a New Marker and a Battle for Local Memory

  1. Historical marker interpretation is always so fascinating. Especially when you run into a mentioning of Sherman. Reminds me a bit about the George Washington cane on the steps of the State House, though who knows if that myth will ever be proven one way or another. Your post does serve as a reminder of how even the best considerations or efforts of public historians can still go unnoticed. Doubtful there will ever be a fail safe way to express change in local memory, however, that is a challenge I am happy to accept. Always love reading through your postings about Sherman memory! I also really need to make it out to Beaufort one of these days.

    Liked by 1 person

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