The Conversation Club of Charleston

This essay was presented at the 2016 Abbeville Institute Summer School.  

When I was young I used to read a lot of books about archaeology—the study of ancient lost worlds and civilizations. I never got to study archaeology, but I became an archivist, and I suppose my job is a little like field archaeology—except that I work indoors, in air-conditioned comfort, and uncover the historical significance of papers and documents rather than artifacts and ruins.  My specific focus is of course South Carolina history, and when I read letters and other documents dating from the antebellum period, I can see a world of the past in which there was much good.

The gentleman I’m going to talk to you about today, Frederick Adolphus Porcher, came from this period, and much of his world now lies deep beneath the waters of a vast lake. The countryside in which he was born and raised and spent much of his life is at the bottom of one of the two large lakes created in the early 1940s by the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric Project. This project inundated a huge area, much of which was rich plantation land in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and part of his native parish, St. Johns Berkeley, is under Lake Moultrie. A scholar I know who has deep ancestral roots in this area is writing an extensive history about the plantations and settlements that were flooded over, and Doug Bostick has published a pictorial book about it called Sunken Plantations.

Like these sunken plantation lands, many of the truths of our history will lie hidden from view unless we find them, and make their value and importance known.

Back in April, when Dr. Livingston invited me to speak here at the summer school, it so happened that I was working on an article for the South Carolina Historical Magazine about a newly discovered manuscript found among the papers of Frederick Adolphus Porcher, who was a South Carolina historian, educator and author. Porcher is probably not very well known except to students of antebellum Southern intellectual history, but he was quite significant as a historian and an intellectual in Charleston, and so I thought he would be a good topic as we explore the intellectual vitality of the South in antebellum times, and a civilization that was destroyed by aggressive Northern sectionalism.

Among the most important books published about antebellum Southern intellectual history are several authored by an English academic at Cambridge, the late Michael O’Brien. He is probably most well-known for his two volume work entitled Conjectures of Order.  In this book and others, O’Brien shows how the antebellum South was in fact an intellectually vibrant culture—and not a narrow-minded cultural desert, as its detractors have characterized it.

To give you a little further description of O’Brien’s book, I’ll briefly quote from the comments on the cover, which state: “Placing the South into the larger tradition of American and European intellectual history while recovering the contributions of numerous influential thinkers and writers, O’Brien’s masterwork demonstrates the sophistication and complexity of Southern intellectual life before 1860.”

Frederick Adolphus Porcher, appears as a topic in in more than one of O’Brien’s books, including Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, and a collection of essays he edited called All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South. In the latter book, O’Brien includes an essay by Porcher about Modern Art that was published in the Southern Quarterly Review in 1852. This essay was a critique of a bigger-than-life statue of John C. Calhoun created by the celebrated sculptor Hiram Powers. It’s an interesting piece that deals in part with theories and schools of art. Porcher did not like Powers’ portrayal of Calhoun in a Roman toga and curls, giving his objections to what he termed “the bland imitation of antiquity,” urging the idea instead of historical truthfulness and faithfulness. To give you just a sample of his essay I want to read the following quotes:

“Mr. Powers … following in the wake of other artists, has chosen to be a humble imitator of antiquity, than to strike boldly for a work which would identify his name with his age—his country and his race. Mr. Calhoun is represented after the antique … We cannot conceive how the sculptor can be said to labour with more liberty, when he is obliged to clothe his subject like an ancient Roman, than when the truth of history requires that he shall be dressed like a Christian … [Powers] might have made Mr. Calhoun the type of the great man of the nineteenth century; he has preferred to invest him with conventional greatness … If the character, conduct and services of Mr. Calhoun deserved the meed of a statue, the garb in which he was accustomed daily to appear cannot be otherwise than respectable … [Calhoun] was a man who will probably live with posterity, because he lived with and for his contemporaries. His greatness was the reflection of the moral and intellectual excellence with which he was surrounded. In him they were embodied and concentrated …And such greatness is to be represented by adhering to historical truth … [The people of Charleston] asked for a statesman, and have received a Roman Senator. We asked for the citizen of the nineteenth century, and have received a specimen of the antique. We asked for our Calhoun, the Carolina planter, and have received an elaborated carved stone.”

In 2002, Porcher was also one of the principal subjects in a book by Charles J. Holden entitled Into the Maelstrom: Conservatives in Post-Civil War South Carolina, published by the University of South Carolina Press.  Holden defines Porcher as a conservative, which he certainly was, and his explores his thought on politics, society and economics. I don’t agree with some of his contentions, but the two chapters he devotes to Porcher are useful as an introduction to the kinds of subjects about which Porcher thought and wrote.  Notwithstanding his views on modern art, he believed in the importance of history and tradition, and a hierarchical society as opposed to an egalitarian one. Among other topics, Porcher wrote about education in South Carolina, women in 18th century France, ancient political institutions, sectional differences, the conflict of labor and capital, and Webster’s dictionary.

So who was Frederick Adolphus Porcher (1809-1888)?  As his last name might suggest, he was a descendant of early Huguenot emigrants to South Carolina. He was born on a plantation in the parish of St. John’s Berkeley, which is part of present day Berkeley County, a Lowcountry inland area contiguous to Charleston County, through which the Cooper River flows. Porcher was educated at schools in Charleston and Vermont, and graduated from Yale at the age of nineteen. For a while he was a plantation owner like his father, and though he had great interest in scientific agriculture, he did not do well as a planter. He served terms in the South Carolina legislature, and in 1848, he became the professor of History and Belles-lettres at the College of Charleston. He wrote and published numerous essays dealing with local history and other subjects, many of which were published in Russell’s Magazine and other noteworthy Southern periodicals. In 1855, he became one of the founding members of the South Carolina Historical Society, and served as its president for many years.  He was also very active in the Charleston Library Society.

Around 1848, Porcher was, as he described it, “elected a member of the Conversation Club, or ‘The Club,’ as it was fondly called by its members.” In his book Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, Michael O’Brien gave this brief history of the Club:

In Charleston in about 1807 was founded the Literary and Philosophical Society of South Carolina, modeled on the American Philosophical Society and its numerous 18th century companions. It lasted until about 1836, when it seems to have lapsed. Of its proceedings there is little evidence, except that it varied between public lectures and papers given in private. Some of these were to find their way into the pages of the Southern Review, some into pamphlets, while others remained unpublished. It was revived informally by Mitchell King in about 1842 and survived until the Civil War, during which time it was known as the “Conversation Club” or the “Charleston Literary Club” or, more simply, “the club.”

   Now there was, in the 1850s, another group of mostly literary men who met at John Russell’s bookstore on King Street in Charleston. Probably the most famous frequenter of this group was William Gilmore Simms. Other members included James L. Petigru, Basil L. Gildersleeve, Henry Timrod, William J. Grayson, William Henry Trescot and Paul Hamilton Hayne. The monthly periodical called Russell’s Magazine, founded by Simms, grew out of these meetings. Frederick Porcher was known to visit this group from time to time, and the two groups shared a few other members, but Porcher was more often found at the meetings of the Conversation Club, which he wrote about at length in his memoirs.

This is how Porcher described the Conversation Club:

This was an association of gentlemen who met weekly at each other’s houses for the purpose of conversation upon some subject furnished by the master of the house. This subject was announced at the preceding meeting, and the host opened the Club by expressing his views in writing or otherwise. A member appointed by him acted as the moderator, and … the members were called upon in order and allowed time to give their views.  After a paper of about two hours the Club adjourned to the dining room, where an elegant but not expensive supper was provided.

In Porcher’s memoirs, which were published posthumously in the South Carolina Historical Magazine, he gives descriptions and opinions about many of the Club’s members. These are some of the men he mentioned as members circa 1850:

Mitchell King, an attorney with literary tastes

Patrick Lynch, the Catholic bishop of Charleston

Daniel Ravenel, a banker and College of Charleston trustee

Charles Fraser, an artist

Dr. Samuel Gilman, a Unitarian minister (He was a Northerner, whom Porcher described as a “free thinker” who believed in human perfectibility.)

Rev. John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and naturalist, collaborator with Audubon, originally from NY; and a strong proponent of the unity of the races

Dr. James Moultrie, physician and medical professor

Rev. Thomas Smyth, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister and bibliophile

Dr. Thomas Prioleau, physician and medical professor

John James Carter, a bookseller, and a native of New Jersey

George S. Bryan, a lawyer

James H. Taylor, a merchant, and a native of Connecticut

William James Rivers, historian and professor

Nathaniel Russell Middleton, president of the College of Charleston

Rev. W. C. Tustin, a Baptist minister and agent of a Baptist newspaper

Etc.

So in both groups, the Conversation Club as well as the Russell’s bookstore group, we find a rather diverse set of men in terms of profession, religion and politics.  James L. Petigru, for instance, was a well-known Unionist, while many other members of the Russell’s bookstore group were secessionists.

Porcher does not give a great deal of information about the specific topics that were discussed at the meetings of the Conversation Club, but he does mention a few.  One topic was art, another Plato, and another, which was probably occasioned by a visit from Louis Agassiz of Harvard University, was the origin of the human races.  Agassiz, one of the most famous scientists in the world at the time, theorized that the races came from separate origins (that is, separate creations) and were endowed with unequal attributes; this theory was known as polygenism, or polygenesis.  At least two members of the Conversation Club, the Rev. John Bachman and Rev. Thomas Smyth, probably gave Agassiz some lively debate on this subject. These clergymen were strong proponents of a single creation as described in Genesis, and the unity of the human race as descendants of Adam and Eve. Bachman and Smyth both published books in 1850 upholding the unity of the races.

Frederick Porcher liked Dr. Smyth but felt that the clergyman was not so learned as he believed himself to be, and had a too superficial knowledge of many subjects. Porcher wrote the following about Smyth:

When [Charleston] was exhausted by the discussion of the unity of the races, Dr. Smyth took the side of unity and undertook to convert Agassiz, who opposed the unity doctrine on physiological and anatomical principles. Feeling the necessity of some knowledge of this subject in order to meet the great naturalist in that field, he actually went to the dissecting room of the [Medical] College one day to witness the operations of the pupils … and fancied himself now able to compete with Agassiz on his own ground. [These] were little follies [of his] at which we used to amuse ourselves, but they did not weaken the kind regard [we had] for the amiable [Dr. Smyth].

I mentioned that Dr. Samuel Gilman of Massachusetts, a free thinking Unitarian minister, was also a member of the Club. Porcher described Gilman in this way:

I think he was more or less a convert to every new extravagance that from time to time disturbed the New England mind … He believed in the perfectability of humanity. There was no limit, in his opinion, to the development of both the moral and the intellectual powers, and he had certain undefined notions that by properly cultivating the physical character of the race [it] could be so improved that we would even surpass the purity and excellence of our original parents.

In his book Conjectures of Order, Michael O’Brien devotes many pages to the Conversation Club, and begins by pointing out that there were many such groups in America during the 19th century. In Boston, for example, in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson and friends founded the “Transcendental Club” to “discuss the ramifications of their philosophy.” Through extensive research, O’Brien was able to put together a list of the topics that were discussed at the Charleston Conversation Club. “Topics were various,” O’Brien wrote, “political, moral, economic, and historical. Porcher observed that the club avoided religion and politics, though judging from what is known of their topics, by this he seems to have meant partisanship and sectarianism.” Among the many topics enumerated by O’Brien were: phrenology, slavery, scientific agriculture, the sources of South Carolina history, immigration, the education of slaves, John Randolph, the history of the Southern states, Milton, women’s rights, specific literary works such as Grayson’s The Hireling and the Slave, secession, and the commerce of Charleston.

After describing a number of men who took part in the Conversation Club, Porcher closed his post-war memoir about the group in this way:

These names embrace most of those who during ten years were either all the time or part of it members of the Club. Of course there was no obligation to attend and sometimes we would not have more than five or six members, while at others I have seen more than forty persons present. We almost always had visitors, either residents of the city or strangers. When Mr. Agassiz was here, he was as regular in his attendance as any member. The same may be said of the Rev. Orville Dewey. Few visitors of distinction ever visited the city who were not made free of the entry of the Club and if we had strangers who honored us with their presence, we would sometimes have others whom we were ashamed to entertain. It was an excellent social institution and I believe none of its members fail to remember it with affectionate regard. The war broke it up. Since the restoration of peace, the shattered fortunes of the surviving members has not permitted them to indulge in even the small extravagance which a Club supper would occasion, and the Club lives now only in the memories of its members a pleasant thing to remember and an amiable feature in the social history of Charleston.

The papers of Frederick Adolphus Porcher are found in two main repositories: the South Carolina Historical Society, and the Special Collections of the College of Charleston.  In his papers at the former, a researcher recently came across a manuscript which, until now, had been overlooked, and of course never published. It was part of an essay Porcher penned in 1868. Like some of his published writings, it concerns the social and cultural life of the planters of St. John’s Berkeley Parish, but it also deals with the subject of slavery and describes wartime events of the 1860s in that part of the Lowcountry.

Porcher had defended the “peculiar institution” in writings published before the war, but apparently in the late 1850s, he had begun to hear, as he described it, “in the distance the tocsin which was sounding the death of slavery.” During the war, when the survival of the Confederacy was looking doubtful, Porcher advocated arming the slaves in its defense and promising them freedom for their military service. He wrote to his old friend Judah P. Benjamin, then the Confederate Secretary of State, urging him to implement this policy as soon as possible, and broadly outlining a “plan of emancipation” guided by white men for “the change from slavery to freedom.”

Although his section on the institution of slavery in this unpublished essay is in some degree a defense, it is primarily an analysis, and he weighs and examines its failings and benefits in the economic and social spheres as one “intimately acquainted with it.” After describing some of the ill effects of slavery on commerce, progress and general prosperity, he views the institution under its “moral aspect,” allowing that it is immoral “to subject a man to the absolute control of another,” but then arguing “it is not slavery alone which confers absolute power. It is the attribute of wealth under every form of society.” Porcher admits “that the annals of slavery would if brought to light, reveal a long and fearful record of crime, brutal violence and unbridled licentiousness,” but also points out that “when these crimes are found among slave holders, they are charged directly against the system; when they are found elsewhere they are ascribed to the inherent sinfulness of humanity.” In other words, as he states later on, “these crimes are not peculiar to slavery.” Enslaved persons are subject to the same evils as any other class of humans, not because they are slaves, but because they are human beings. Porcher maintains that “humanity and not brutality was the rule of the planters’ conduct,” though this may not have been due so much to virtue as to self-interest, which operated as a check against “the abuse of absolute power.”

Porcher devotes a few paragraphs to Harriet Beecher Stowe and a dismissive critique of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Key which she subsequently published “containing a record of fearful crimes committed by slave holders.”  This key, Porcher contends, contained nothing new; no one denied that slave holders had committed crimes, and had Mrs. Stowe “pushed her inquiries a little further” she would have discovered that the slave holders she condemned had already been condemned by their neighbours, having been “put to the ban of society at their homes for the very crimes she gloats over in her key.” Porcher then goes on to argue that anyone who is in the power of another person is, in effect, a slave, stating: “If men must be mutually dependent upon each other, it matters little to the weak whether the name of his condition is freedom or slavery; for his freedom is but a name.”

He goes into other aspects of the institution of slavery and concludes his lengthy remarks on the topic by declaring “I have lived in Slave States and in free states—and I have never known a society which entertained a higher tone of honour, a more deeply rooted moral and religious principle … than were to be found in the society of slaveholders who form the subject of this sketch.”

This defense of his own culture leads into a narration of wartime events in St. John’s Berkeley Parish and neighboring areas, but before I give you details about that, I want to touch on Porcher’s life in Charleston during the war.

His correspondence at the South Carolina Historical Society includes letters which shed some light on his activities during the war years. His family left Charleston to reside in Laurens, South Carolina, but like most of the college faculty, he remained in the city and continued his duties as a professor, even though the student body was much reduced in numbers—eventually to only a handful. When the war began he was about 52 years old.

His letters to his wife are full of news of the war in Charleston and elsewhere, and offer a few details about the part that Porcher was playing in the war effort by serving in the militia. He was a member of Company E, 1st Charleston Reserves, under the command of Captain Henry D. Lesesne. It is unclear from his letters exactly when he joined this unit or how long he served in it, but the Charleston Reserves were called upon to guard the city after the great fire in December 1861 and were later placed on provost duty in the city. In the summer of 1862 they were garrisoned at the Charleston Arsenal and also “guarded the city’s communications and jail.” The college campus was for the most part out of normal range of the Federal artillery which began bombarding the city in August 1863, but many parts of the city were under continual threat after that, so his service in the Charleston Reserves was not without some danger.

The war brought many personal sorrows to Porcher.  He lost a number of friends and relations serving in the Confederate Army, and in 1862, while his wife and daughters were living in Laurens, his youngest daughter became ill and passed away on July 15.  She was only about eight years old. His two sons survived the war but both passed away within a little over a year after its end, undoubtedly from causes related to hardships of their military service. Porcher’s eldest, Edward Gough Porcher, served in the army as a surgeon, spending the last two years of the war on duty with the 32nd Georgia Infantry Regiment. He died at Abbeville, South Carolina, in October 1865. In his memoirs, Porcher marked his eldest son’s death with this poignant lament: “He lived twenty six years, and died, leaving me in the midst of a struggle for the daily bread of my family.” In 1862, Edward’s young brother Frederick George Porcher enlisted at age 18 at the 2nd Military District of South Carolina and spent most of his service in his home state. He was debilitated by wounds or illness and passed away in June 1866. His name is among those appearing on the tablet at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Charleston memorializing members who died in Confederate service.

Porcher prefaces his narrative about wartime events in St. John’s Berkeley Parish and neighboring areas with an assertion that it was the superior character of Southerners which had excited the hatred of the Northern people—a hatred that ultimately caused the North to initiate and wage a war characterized by extreme—even genocidal—brutality. “They felt that in the great moral power of truthfulness and devotion to principle we were their superiors—hence they hated us. They forced us into war,” Porcher asserts, and then he recounts how some of the brutality of that war was carried out in his part of South Carolina, beginning with events that transpired at a place called Otranto Plantation in February 1865.

Some two months before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, General William T. Sherman’s army was moving through South Carolina. In mid-February 1865, Confederate forces evacuated Charleston, and the city and surrounding countryside were left defenseless.  Occupying Federal forces conducted raids in the surrounding areas. Troops led by generals Edward E. Potter and Alfred S. Hartwell operated in St. James Goose Creek Parish and neighboring parishes in Berkeley County.

On February 22, a detachment from General Potter’s command, which included United States Colored Troops as well as white soldiers, arrived at Otranto Plantation, the home of Porcher’s cousin Philip Johnstone Porcher, whose wife Louise was the sister of James Louis Petigru. Frederick A. Porcher quotes at length from a dramatic letter written by his niece Marion Johnstone Porcher Ford describing the terror and plight of the defenseless women there, and the wanton destruction of their food and livestock. Marion wrote of the invaders:

The first comer Lieut. R. was very insolent. He smirked, sneered and jeered. His first question was, ‘Where’s the man of the house?’ We answered, ‘He is not here.’ He then said, ‘In the rebel army I suppose.’ We answered nothing…He seemed unwilling to leave and said, ‘I suppose you have never seen black troops.  You will soon have that pleasure as they are coming up now.’ Mamma answered, ‘I am accustomed to negroes and never have feared them. Negroes have always behaved well to me.’ We now saw [them] advancing up the avenue…they were headed by a little officer (white) Lieut. J., a youth of 21 or thereabouts, who seemed in fierce excitement. He screamed to mamma, ‘Madam, I have come to liberate your people.’ Mamma replied, ‘I hope you will be kind to them. They are accustomed to consideration.’  This seemed to infuriate the little man, who shrieked, ‘That is a strange thing for a Southern woman to say to an officer of black troops.’

“All our stock, horses and mules were driven off, our cattle, sheep and hogs were killed; the barns and smoke-house were broken open, and all their contents scattered, and all our vehicles of every kind, tools and implements were broken in pieces and thrown into the creek or burned.

It was awful to hear the screams of cattle and hogs as they were chased and bayoneted, and the scatter and terror of the sheep was terrible to see…Mamma said to Lieut J., who was looking with apparent pleasure at the scene of destruction, ‘If you deprive us of all means of subsistence we will starve.’ He turned and said, ‘You are now suffering for what you have done.’ Then, turning to the house servants who had gathered round us, he called Quash and said, ‘Uncle follow me.’ Quash said, ‘Yes, massa,’ at which the little man exclaimed, ‘For God’s sake don’t call me massa.’ He then summoned Fannie, Amy and Rachel, the house maids, and said ‘That woman (meaning mamma) is very wicked. I know she has hid things, you must show me where they are. The rebel man has gone to the wars but he has left a damned rebel of a woman, and I want her head. Now show me everything.’ The maids protested that they knew of nothing concealed and that ‘miss’ was not wicked…While this was transpiring upstairs Annie…and I were alone on the piazza facing a great crowd that surrounded the house and filled the whole yard and lawn. Indeed the scene of confusion was terrific…We saw an indiscriminate crowd of black and white with pointed bayonets come rushing towards the house evidently with the intention of entering.

Fortunately for the Porcher family at this point, General Potter arrived and temporarily used their house as his headquarters.

Porcher continued his sketch of wartime events describing the fate of the village of Pineville, the cruel treatment of elderly planters, and the destructive and menacing actions of the freedmen, whom he believed had been goaded into violence by the enemy army. “Arms and ammunition had been freely distributed among the negroes,” Porcher wrote, and then asserted that the arms were meant to be used against the defenseless white residents, since, during February and most of March 1865, there was “not at that time a Confederate soldier within the limits of Charleston District—scarcely a man capable of bearing arms.” Porcher believed that the Union military and government authorities were hoping that the freedmen would massacre the whites, in fact, he began this section about the war by stating: “I have to show how the people of this district were made to suffer by those agents of the radical power who vainly tried by every hellish device to involve the whole white population of the South in one indiscriminate massacre.”

Earlier in the war, in a letter dated July 30, 1862, Porcher had written to his wife: “Appearances in the Yankee army indicate that the war is rapidly becoming on their side a war of extermination. In fact the Herald indicates that after the war there will be splendid fields in Tennessee and elsewhere inviting emigrants from Europe. These fields can become vacant only through the extermination of the present occupants.”

Porcher was referring to an article he had read likely in the New York Herald newspaper, but such sentiments, atrocious and barbaric as they were, had been expressed in other publications and venues throughout the war.  As early as May 24, 1861, an editorial in the Daily Herald, a newspaper in Newburyport, Massachusetts, stated: “If it were necessary, we could clear off the thousand millions of square miles [of the South] so that not a city or cultivated field would remain; we could exterminate nine millions of white people and re-settle—re-people the lands.” [Howard Cecil Perkins, ed. Northern Editorials on Secession (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1942) 2: 839.]

The unpublished essay by Porcher from which I’ve been quoting was meant to be a second chapter to his work entitled the “Upper Beat of St. John’s, Berkeley,” which was published posthumously in 1906 in a journal called the Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina. Years after his death his daughters prepared the manuscript for publication, but chose to leave out this second chapter, which will soon be published. I have wondered if they omitted it because of the bitter and indignant sentiments their father expressed in it, but I don’t know for sure. After seeing his country subjugated, and his state and a way of life devastated by Sherman’s troops and other Federal forces, he was certainly entitled to bitterness and indignation.

In January 1865, the month before Sherman’s invasion of South Carolina, Porcher visited his home parish of St. John’s Berkeley, and wrote the following:

In January 1865 I visited this parish. Though all the planters had contributed liberally their wealth and their lives to the support of the war, abundance smiled everywhere, and he, who had left the beleaguered city, almost forgot when he got to St. John’s that war was desolating the fairest portions of the land. If he went to church, he missed the forms of the young men, and perhaps he experienced in the homes of the people a lack of some superfluous luxury of foreign growth, which he had been accustomed to find, but everywhere were order, abundance and content; and one could not but feel, that if the other portions of the Confederacy were but half as well provided, we might brave the brunt of war for years … [Now, after the war] … powerful agencies are at work, to operate a complete change in the character and condition of the people; a revolution has passed over us; the prosperity of the country has been destroyed, and the effects of party misrule are paralyzing industry. No one can imagine what will be the condition of things ten years hence.  In February [1865] the Confederate Army left all its strongholds on the coast, and crossed the Santee River. Before the month was ended, [there] ensued scenes of devastation, of outrage, and of barbarism, which were enacted by the party of great moral ideas, upon defenceless women and aged men, who, trusting that the war was conducted on principles of civilization, remained at their homes.

The war, of course, was not “conducted on principles of civilization” by the Northern army, especially in South Carolina. The orders issued by General William T. Sherman concerning the destruction of civilian property were seldom obeyed by his troops. “On paper only unoccupied houses were allowed to be destroyed, but these orders were often violated.”  One of Sherman’s officers, Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, observed at the time: “Orders to respect houses and private property not necessary for subsistence of the army were not greatly heeded. Indeed, not heeded at all.” Before houses were burned, Sherman’s soldiers would usually loot them of all valuables that could be carried off.

  After the war, Porcher struggled like so many other Southerners to provide for himself and his family. In his memoirs he noted that the war broke up the Conversation Club in Charleston, but he did continue to write and teach, and in 1875, he was principally responsible for the revival of the South Carolina Historical Society, serving as its president until his death in 1888.  He worked on his memoirs, which were published after his death, but also had other writings published in his lifetime, including an article in DeBow’s Review in 1870 entitled the “Physical Characteristics and Resources of South Carolina,” as well as a history of Reconstruction in South Carolina which appeared in the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1884 and 1885.

Men like Frederick Adolphus Porcher were representative of an honorable and intellectually vibrant culture.  To me it is tragic to think of the potential of all the Southern men who perished in the ruthless and unnecessary war that wiped out his civilization.   I’d like to close my talk today by leaving you with a quote by Porcher which was cited in a tribute paid to him by the Historical Society shortly after his death and published in their papers in 1889. It read:

His elevation of mind and thought will best appear from his own noble words, which apply perfectly to himself, and with which this imperfect tribute may appropriately conclude. “He who from the restless activity of his own thought endeavors to pierce into the obscurity which envelopes human wisdom, is the friend, not the enemy of his race. If there is anything on earth which is absolutely good, it must be truth. Emanating as our spirits do from the Source of all truth, surely every process which preserves our souls from error, which disturbs and dispels the cloud that hovers about our intellectual vision, must lead us forward, nearer to the Author of our being, and bringing us nearer to Him, must infuse into our souls a more perfect sentiment of happiness. The truth is to free our souls from bondage. Surely then he who earnestly seeks after her must be considered friendly to the best interests of humanity.”

About Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes, an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, is the author of nine non-fiction books including South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, The Immortal 600, A Confederate Englishman, Confederate South Carolina, Days of Destruction, and A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina. Her works of historical fiction include Honor in the Dust and The Immortals. Her latest non-fiction book, An Everlasting Circle: Letters of the Haskell Family of Abbeville, South Carolina, 1861-1865, includes the correspondence of seven brothers who served in the Confederate Army with great distinction. More from Karen Stokes

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