By Seabrook Wilkinson

If the eventual victors in the War were already thoroughly war-weary by the middle of 1864, how much more so were the defeated by the time the inevitable became official in the late spring of 1865. Even for one whose pacific task has been to write a column about the War for four years, fatigue has set in — if I cannot proclaim “I ain’ gon’ study war no more,” I am ready to take a sabbatical. Yet how much I have learned during these four years; I hope my readers will also feel they have profited from the experience of commemoration. We have met scores of utterly unfamiliar characters, fought battles almost entirely forgotten and discovered new things about figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest we assumed we knew well.

 

My most powerful impression from all that I have read and pondered during these four years is of the incredible courage and resiliency of the Southern people, military and civilian, black and white. If South Carolina wanted to rest, even to forget, in May 1865, there was to be no rest for the defeated. The skills of adapting and regrouping they had learned would soon be tested in a new and far more protracted struggle. It took thrice as long as the military conflict, but by the time Wade Hampton, one of Lee’s most dependable subordinates, was inaugurated governor of S.C. in 1877, the result of 1865 had been nullified if not altogether reversed. The old planter ascendancy of which Hampton was a part felt that they had achieved ascendancy again. We make much and rightly so, of the horrors of Reconstruction, but altogether more important was the deconstruction of Reconstruction that was occurring even as the occupiers appeared to be in complete control.

The images we see of S.C. in 1865 almost always seem to be of part of the “burnt district” of Charleston, the terrible swath of destruction wrought not directly by the War but by the Great Fire of 1861. It is true that the state’s two major cities had been devastated by fire and other effects of war, but many of her smaller cities and towns were intact. We never see a picture of Greenville or Pendleton in 1865, for they would look just as they had in 1860, as does not accord with the Armageddon narrative. We tend to forget that the third of the state northwest of the route Sherman took was physically untouched by the War and that much of the Lowcountry was in good repair as well, particularly Beaufort and the Sea Islands that were occupied so early in the War.

Much of the infrastructure had been destroyed, manufacturing was utterly devastated, but the great port of Charleston was largely operational and of course no longer under blockade. The banker Andrew Simonds, originally from Abbeville, transferred his operations to Charleston in 1865 not for the benefit of the sea breezes, but because he saw economic opportunity. Fields are harder than factories to destroy and S.C. was still primarily an agricultural society. New arrangements would have to be made to secure laborers to produce the crops, but the basic resources for an agricultural revival were in place. Of course some threw up their hands or went into a decline or retreated into the antebellum past, as in many of the wonderful stories of Sarah Barnwell Elliott, whose own immediate family saw greater opportunity elsewhere. She continued to rely on the Lowcountry for subject matter, but she spent most of her long life at Sewanee, where another South Carolinian, perhaps the only Confederate officer to have become an Episcopal saint, William Porcher DuBose, would soon take up a professorship and become one of the great American theologians.

The choice that faced the old planter class in the summer of 1865 is exemplified in a tale of two Middletons, Williams Middleton and his distant kinsman Joseph Middleton Wilkinson. The former, who had inherited Middleton Place in 1846, was of two minds. Part of him wanted to regroup and rebuild — he did make the gutted south flanker of the house at Middleton Place habitable in 1868 — but the other part wanted to get as far away as possible from the scene of bitter defeat. In a letter that used to be printed in the Middleton Place guide booklet, before notions of “correctness” about the War began to change at the time of the centenary, he spoke in the harshest terms of what had happened and urged his correspondent in the strongest language a gentleman might employ to quit the country. His only son Henry, 13 in May 1865, followed this advice — he went to Cambridge as an undergraduate and stayed in England for the rest of his life. Williams Middleton could not bear to leave what had been home to his family for two centuries. He remained in the Palmetto State, dying in Greenville in 1883. (Middleton Wilkinson died in Pickens in the following year; both spent their last days with daughters who lived in the Upcountry.)

Wilkinson brought his young family back from Pendleton, where his father-in-law had a summer home, to find much of his patrimony intact, the summer home at Adams Run and the main house at Summit as he left them and the family’s other plantations in St. Paul’s and St. Bartholomew’s in tolerable shape. Among the Wilkinson papers at the Caroliniana Library is a most eloquent one-page document, dated September 1865 and entitled “An Agreement between Joseph Middleton Wilkinson and Certain Persons.” The “certain persons” were former Summit slaves and this was an early sharecropping contract. If much had changed, much had not — same master, same hands, same fields, same crops, Sea Island cotton and rice.

In S.C. it was after the deluge that swept the Old South away that there was “marrying and giving in marriage.” Readers whose ancestors lived in the Lowcountry at the end of the War are likely to find in their family charts a surge in marriages for this year. I know from my own family and from those of my clients how common these 1865 marriages were. Every man who had not been killed was fodder for the altar. The baby boom after World War Two is an inescapable fact, but no one seems to have commented on the one in our state. — and presumably all across the late Confederacy — in 1865 and the five or so years following.

The surest way for a man to express faith in the future is to sire children to take charge of that future. When Middleton Wilkinson signed that sharecropping agreement in September 1865 his wife was pregnant for the sixth time — after three healthy girls and two boys who survived only briefly, they were hoping for a son who would live and he was hoping to accumulate an inheritance to leave to this son. Yes, the war was over, but as they awaited the birth of Maxwell Green Wilkinson this Lowcountry couple were already fighting the long and complex war to undo the war. If one door was shut forever at Appomattox, windows — and wombs — were opening all across a defeated nation that refused to die.

Seabrook Wilkinson is the author of many scholarly articles and papers as well as being a published poet and retired college professor living in Key West, Fla. His most recent book is a collection of poems called “A Resident Alien: Key West Poems”; to order a copy or learn more about this 2013 publication by Wilkinson, e-mail Seabrook at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or write to him at 508 Simonton Street, No. 4, Key West, FL 33040-6995 with address to which copy should be sent and inscription desired, if any. Cost including postage is $20.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.