The Destruction of Old Sheldon Church and Other Ravages of War

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From time to time an unsuspecting tourist visiting the ruins of the Old Sheldon Church will insist that they caught a glimpse of a spectral figure hovering among the scattered remains of the time-weathered gravestones. Some might scoff at such sightings, but the reports of the ghost are consistent. Witnesses describe what appears to be the ethereal figure of a young woman in a plain brown dress of the style commonly worn during the Colonial era. They say she is weeping beside a grave.

Regardless of how one feels about reports of the ghost of the weeping lady, I do not think anyone can stroll through the lonely grounds of the Old Sheldon Church without being strangely moved. And when you learn the tragic history of the church; how it was burned by pillaging armies, not once, but twice, you are struck by how stubbornly this noble edifice refused to succumb. Portions of majestic red-brick walls and columns still stand sturdily, albeit adorned with scattered parasitic ferns.

The ruins of the famous church are located in South Carolina’s Lowcountry on the outskirts of Beaufort County, in a section now known as Gardens Corner. The tranquil appearance of this oak-covered corridor belies its history of violent hostilities, beginning in 1715 in Pocotaligo, the principal settlement of the Yemassee Indians. The Yemassee reacted violently against what they perceived as unfair practices by fur traders, and set off several years of bloody wars with the Colonists. Ultimately, the Yemassee were defeated and driven across the Savannah River into Spanish Florida.

The Old Sheldon Church site and areas adjacent to it would become the scenes for later battles in both the Revolutionary War and the War Between the States. Accounts of the War Between the States are more commonly reported today than those of the Revolutionary War, but this has more to do with contemporary political agendas than the actual significance of the events themselves. Of these two historic periods, the American Revolution was more consequential. With it began the gradual erosion of the absolute authority of the great dynasties of European monarchies. Our Founders replaced rule by monarchy with a republic, and ordinary citizens gained a momentous voice in the affairs of state. Within a few years after American Colonists gained their independence, the French would eliminate their centuries-old monarchy.

The majority of Revolutionary War battles occurred in the state of South Carolina, and particularly intrigued author and historian, William Gilmore Simms, perhaps the state’s most celebrated man of letters. Simms portrayed the epic drama of the Revolutionary War skillfully and authoritatively in a variety of classic works, especially his biographies of patriots Nathaniel Greene, and Frances Marion. The epithet, “Swamp Fox”, was an apt description of Marion. After conducting surprise raids on the British, his militia band eluded reprisals by hiding in the Congaree Swamp.

Gilmore Simms biography of Francis Marion was one source that actor and director Mel Gibson consulted to fashion his character, Ben Martin, the protagonist of his film, The Patriot, which takes place during the Revolutionary War. This powerful film vividly dramatizes how the savagery of war dehumanizes its participants, often stripping away the thin veneer of civilization that prevents soldiers from committing atrocities against the lives and property of innocent civilians. Barbarous acts against Colonials by British Redcoats are not only described in the film’s dialogue, but vividly depicted in action scenes.

In one especially grisly segment, British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton sets fire to a church after locking the helpless congregation inside. This particular scene infuriated many Britons, who vigorously denied that such an act of cruelty could have been perpetrated by British soldiers. But whether the incident was factual or simply a matter of creative license on Gibson’s part does not negate the fact that manifold acts of brutality against civilians have been faithfully attributed to Colonel Tarleton and other British officers.

On one occasion, the widowed mother and mistress of the home where Colonel Tarleton’s troops were bivouacked, secretly learned that Tarleton had set a trap for Francis Marion. Tarleton’s plans were thwarted when the courageous widow sent one of her sons to warn Marion. Furious that his chance to capture the famous Swamp Fox had been sabotaged, Colonel Tarleton attacked the widow, lashing her with his whip as her children watched in horror. He then burned their house and barn with all their terrified livestock inside.

Throughout the War, Colonel Tarleton and other British officers took odious responsibility for torching private homes, destroying crops, slaughtering livestock, and allowing Colonial women to be raped by British soldiers. Innocent civilians were tortured and murdered. Colonial soldiers attempting to surrender were often shot. Even women who remained behind to nurse wounded soldiers were sometimes killed. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton also slaughtered numerous Colonial prisoners of war. For his legendary cruelty, Tarleton was given the nickname “Bloody Ban”.

Historical records indicate that many churches were burned during the Redcoat’s destructive forays through the Carolinas. Lt. Col Tarleton’s memoirs contain a reference to a Colonel Rawdon, stating: “When Rawdon left the settlement (the Waxhaws) the church had been burned because all Presbyterian churches are shops of sedition.” It is also documented that, apparently angered by the continuous success of Francis Marion’s raids, British Major James Wemyess proceeded on a seventy mile path of destruction through the Lowcountry, during which he “burned many Presbyterian churches.”

But it was not only Presbyterian churches that were incinerated. The British even applied the torches to many of the official churches of England that were located throughout the Anglican parishes of the South Carolina colony. Among the Anglican churches torched were St. John’s Berkeley, St. Bartholomew’s, Christ Church, St. George’s, St. Mark’s and Prince William. Some of these torched Anglican churches decayed and perished long ago. But those constructed of sturdier material, brick and tabby, valiantly withstood complete annihilation. The Anglican church of Prince William Parish was among the few that were rebuilt after the Redcoats burned them.

Prince William Parish was carved out of the parish of St. Helena in 1745, after wealthy planters began acquiring large tracts of land abandoned by the Yemassee. Rich, swampy soil along the Combahee, Coosawhatchie and Pocotaligo Rivers was ideally suited for rice plantations. The parish was named after William, Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, famous for his defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. The Prince William Parish Church was built in 1755 so that local parishioners would not have to make the arduous trek to the St. Helena Church in Beaufort. This horse-drawn carriage trip involved a long ferry boat ride, although there was no charge for ferrying on Sunday.

The church was situated on 50 acres of donated property between the lands of the Tomotley Barony and the manor of the Bull family, the family of aristocrats that provided most of the funds for the church’s construction. William Bull christened his Lowcountry estate “Sheldon Plantation” in honor of Sheldon Hall, his Warwickshire, England, ancestral home.

The red-brick ruins remaining, including the still-standing four Doric columns, allow one to visualize the neoclassical temple form of this place of worship. It is considered by many to be the first example of Greek Revival architecture in the New World. In concert with the ornate altar, it contains a baptismal fountain and burial vaults. The vault of William Bull I, a South Carolina lieutenant governor, is located beside the solitary altar. An equestrian statue of Prince William was located near the church’s residence. Colonials supposedly melted the statue in order to produce bullets to use against the British enemy. The churchyard is graced with ancient moss-covered oaks. Parishioners no doubt tethered their horses and carriages under these very trees during Sunday services.

It is not known who designed or built the Prince William Parish Church. One theory asserts that the church was constructed according to abandoned plans for St. Mary-le-Strand Church in London. Its design has also been attributed to a Scottish architect, Colin Campbell. Builders of the church also remain unnamed. Still, some claim that four “figure eight” marks outlined in the bricks were hieroglyphs identifying the craftsmen. Others insist that the figure eight is a Christian symbol. Jesus rose from the dead eight days after he entered Jerusalem. Another floating hypothesis is that the four mysterious markings represent God’s mercy, grace, wisdom, and love. Interestingly, a horizontal figure -eight is the time-honored symbol for infinity, usually interpreted to mean “without end.”

Curiosity also exists surrounding the location of the church; it is alone in the wilderness, remote from any town or community. One explanation for its isolated location is that the sanctuary was situated on that site to offset the influence of a congregation of Presbyterians, referred to as “dissenters”, whose house of worship was nearby on the banks of the Pocotaligo River. These Presbyterians were followers of Evangelist George Whitefield, whose passionate revivalist doctrines were perceived as a threat to the Church of England. British soldiers believed that Presbyterians as well as other Protestant groups espoused seditious views.

Prince William Parish Church was heralded by all who traveled to visit it. It was considered architecturally comparable to Charleston’s two most famous churches and considered finer by many. This was the opinion of a visiting missionary who wrote in 1766: “This is the second best church in the Province, and by many considered a more beautiful building than St. Phillip’s. It is more elegant than St. Michael’s, and it is beautifully pewed and ornamented.” But the church’s elegance and grandeur could not shield it from the merciless scourge of war.

In May of 1779, British troops under orders from General Augustine Prevost, burned not only the Prince William Parish Church, but also the Bull family estate on Sheldon Plantation. British Redcoats justified this assault on the church with the claim that Colonials used the facility to store gun powder and weapons. An extra annoyance for the British was the fact that much of the gun powder had been confiscated from British ships. But gun powder and weapons might have been seized without demolishing the place of worship. And there was no strategic justification for destroying the Bull family estate.

It has been suggested that the British may have spared the church if the statue of Prince William mounted on his horse still stood outside the entrance. But the detachment of troops that incinerated the structure was commanded by Major DeVeaux, a member of an old Beaufort family who had only recently become a loyalist, joining British forces. Although the DeVeaux family had enjoyed an amiable association with the Bull family, a feud developed between the two. As the church was so intimately associated with the Bull family, the equestrian statue of Prince William, an imposing bronze reminder of the Crown, might not have deterred Major DeVeaux from applying the torch.

Whether an act of Providence or merely happenstance, the walls of the church did not completely crumble, and much of the structure was left intact. Over the next three decades, Nature reclaimed the forsaken sanctuary and its graveyard. Even the interior of the structure filled with trees. But this particular house of God has an inexplicable tenacity to survive. So, in 1815, devout parishioners cleaned up the grounds and made the remains of the church serviceable. Trees inside the walls were cut down, and planks were placed over their hallowed stumps to create makeshift pews. Worship services were held in what must have been South Carolina’s first al fresco sanctuary.

Over the next few years, rice and other crops produced so much wealth that the church was rebuilt. The restoration was completed in 1826, and the name was changed to the Sheldon Church of Prince William Parish. Some years later, wealthy planters, primarily elite members of the Sheldon Church also constructed a second place of worship, the Prince William Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, the reborn church and the new place of worship were destined to receive the torch from still another marauding army.

War acts committed by the Redcoats, characterized as atrocities by American historians, were described quite differently, and certainly in a less objectionable fashion, in British accounts of the Revolutionary War. Colonel Tarleton was depicted as a hero, and renowned artist Sir Joshua Reynolds was commissioned to paint his portrait. Similarly, the behavior of Union troops in Southern states during final stages of the War Between the States is portrayed more sympathetically, even justified, by historians whose sympathies reside with the North. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’ s legendary ruthless treatment on non-combatants is not only exonerated by these same historians, but Sherman’s actions are chronicled in a manner that makes them seem virtuous. As a result of these versions of “history”, there are several commemorative monuments to the General outside of the South, such as the celebrated one in New York City.

Defenders of Sherman’s brutal military campaign against civilians in Georgia and the Carolinas usually maintain that Sherman was simply trying to bring an early ending to the carnage of the war, his “humanitarian” conclusion being that “the will of the South to make war” must be broken. But the destruction to private property as well as the unnecessary cruelty exacted against non-combatants, far exceeded what would have been necessary to demoralize the South. And, once more, fate placed the Sheldon Church in the path of a vindictive army, wreaking devastation as it relentlessly moved across the land.

In the middle of November of 1864, after immolating Atlanta, Sherman’s troops marched out of the city’s blackened ruins and headed toward Georgia’s coat. During this infamous “march to the sea”, shops and private homes were invaded and looted, not only by enlisted men, but also by officers. After everything of value was stolen from private homes and irreplaceable family portraits bayoneted, the torches were applied. Dwellings of the poor, black as well as white, were also shown no mercy. Barns and crops were annihilated, and livestock that was of no immediate value to Sherman’s army was slaughtered. Even civic buildings and educational facilities were not spared. In Louisville, all the deed books were taken from the county courthouse, dumped into a pile on the courthouse steps, and burned.

Defenseless black women were treated so abominably by Union troops that male slaves posted guards outside their cabins to protect their vulnerable women. But some slaves naively believed Sherman’s troops were their liberators, and much to the annoyance of Union officers, began following the marauding army. After crossing Ebenezer Creek on the outskirts of Rincon, Union soldiers callously removed the pontoon bridge, preventing slaves from crossing. Many of the confused followers: men, women and children and the elderly, foolishly attempted to swim across the water. Several drowned. Cries for help from the slaves, who thrashed frantically about in the water, were ignored by Union troops, who simply marched away. Similar incidents of malevolence occurred as the Federal army made its way to Georgia’s port city.

In early January of 1865, Sherman’s juggernaut began moving out of Savannah and headed for the coastal South Carolina city of Beaufort, which was already under the control of Union forces. St. Helena, Beaufort’s parish church, had been converted into a makeshift hospital for wounded Federal soldiers. The interior of the church had been stripped of all religious trappings, and marble tombstones were unearthed from graves in the old churchyard, to be used as operating tables.

From Beaufort, Sherman dispatched regiments northward toward Columbia; the manufacturing and supply center for South Carolina’s military effort. A right flank, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard, moved along the western part of the state.

One detachment of Howard’s troops, under the command of General John Logan, cautiously forged its way through and around the Lowcountry’s precarious salt marshes; it’s advance effectively slowed by fickle tide changes capable of abruptly inundating marshes with surging water. It was a vigilant march. The nervous watch for alligators and venomous snakes was occasionally relieved by a glimpse of a blue heron or a snowy egret. Finally, through the trees, General Logan’s weary soldiers spotted the red-brick walls of the Sheldon Church. We cannot know what the men’s feelings were upon discovering this solemn religious edifice in the midst of the wilderness. It should have evoked feelings of reverence. It certainly proffered a peaceful contrast to the harshness of its primeval surroundings.

But war dulls man’s finer sentiments. Church pews were gutted and chopped into firewood, and the hallowed sanctuary was used to stable Union horses. And, although the church was of no strategic benefit to the Confederate military effort, Union troops still set it ablaze before leaving the area on January 14th. Shortly thereafter, they burned the Prince William Episcopal Church. The nearby Tomotley Plantation home was ignited as well, but its magnificent alley of oaks managed to survive the flames.

As Federal forces proceeded through South Carolina, they plundered and burned every farm, home and plantation they encountered. Unlike the Georgia campaign, in South Carolina, entire towns were looted and reduced to ashes. The largest and best-known boarding school for young women in the state was also torched. William Gilmore Simm’s graceful plantation home, Woodlands, was incinerated after Union soldiers finished looting it. Simms’ renowned first editions that he collected over a forty-year period, were not considered booty worth stealing. Instead, the soldiers yanked these priceless books from their shelves and flung them into the raging fire. Simms’ entire collection of 10,700 volumes was consumed by flames.

As word of the oncoming piracy and devastation spread, families hid their prized possessions. Frustrated at not finding anything to burgle, Union soldiers resorted to threats and physical abuse of residents. Their anger was usually directed at slaves. A typical example occurred at The Oaks plantation, where soldiers manhandled an old slave named Frank and threatened him with death unless he revealed where his master’s valuables were concealed. The terrified slave’s insistence that he did not know the location of the supposed treasure finally caused enraged soldiers to put a rope around the old man’s neck and suspend him in mid-air. After three prolonged suspensions failed to change Frank’s story, the soldiers dropped his body to the ground and moved on. The old slave survived the ordeal, but was left with a painfully twisted neck.

Columbia, the Palmetto State’s capital city, was also set ablaze by Sherman’s unyielding troops. Members of Sherman’s army raided private homes before fires got out of control. Crystal and porcelain were smashed, statuary defaced, and expensive paintings, as well as family portraits, were slashed. Other family mementos were tossed into the flames. As was the case throughout General Sherman’s campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas, slaves and their families were often dealt with more harshly than white residents. In Columbia, their modest homes were stripped of their meager possessions, and their families, especially the women, were treated atrociously. Some slaves asked their masters to hide them, while others fled the city in fear, often secreting themselves in the Congaree Swamp, the same safe haven used by Francis Marion during the Revolutionary War, almost a century earlier.

One group of besotted soldiers was briefly deterred from mayhem by the sign of nuns being led from the Ursuline Convent by a priest holding a crucifix above his head. After the sisters were led to safety, flames consumed their sanctuary and the cross above the Convent crashed to the ground. In addition to the Ursuline Convent, churches and parsonages of other faiths were also burned, including Presbyterian,

Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist churches, and a synagogue. Saint Mary’s Catholic College, only eight years old at the time, was another victim of the conflagration.

As the morning sun rose over the smoking city, desperate citizens cautiously returned to their homes. Many found only blackened remains of solitary chimneys and smoldering piles of rubble. In one of the truly tragic evens in American history, over thirty-six square blocks of Columbia had been utterly incinerated.

The levels of destruction inflicted by Union troops, devastated the infrastructure, economy, and resources of the South to such an extent that it took nearly an entire century for Southern states to recover. Opportunistic politicians took advantage of the enfeebled condition of the broken region to seize yet more power for Washington. As the Revolutionary War allowed the Founders to create a republic, the War Between the States set in motion conditions that would essentially destroy the Founders’ vision of a republic based on limited government. The rights of states enumerated in the Tenth Amendment were eviscerated, and, over the years, the central government’s restrictions on the free will of citizens would far exceed the British monarchy’s restraints on subjects in 1776; restraints that prodded American colonies to courageously declare their independence.

Atlanta, Columbia and other fatalities of Sherman’s campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas have been rebuilt. But the Old Sheldon Church has not. Visitors today can view the ruins as Union troops left them in 1865. For many, visiting the ruins can be a melancholy experience. All that remains of a once flourishing house of worship is a burned-out shell; columns supporting nothing, and cadaverous walls that echo no prayers – a somber reminder of the ravages of war.

But the ruins of the Old Sheldon Church are also a powerful symbol of rebirth. This holy edifice rose from the ashes – twice. For parishioners of Beaufort’s St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, the Sheldon Church’s two astonishing revivals signify the Resurrection.

Each year, on the second Sunday after Easter, a solemn hour-long service is held on the grounds, celebrating the risen Christ. The service closes by honoring lives lost during the two wars that decimated the church. Worshipers maintain a reverent silence, while two trumpet players; one stationed beside the ruins, and the other at the south end of the property, offer a funereal rendition of “Taps”. After parishioners file out of the gates, the sacred grounds are again suffused with silence. Except for an occasional obscure sound, possibly gusts of wind sighing through the ruins. Or perhaps, the doleful moans of the ghost of the weeping lady.

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