Living with history under our feet
Pluff Mud Chronicles
In downtown Charleston, it’s quite easy to find history underfoot — after all, we’ve preserved an impressive number of our historic homes and buildings. As a result, we’re in the fortunate position of saying not “Near here was …” but rather “In this actual building …”
We’re blessed with the fact that little is left to the imagination. Very few places can lay claim to this remarkable reality … but there are a few.
I recently returned from a week at our small family farm outside Sharpsburg, Maryland — site of the bloodiest battle of the War Between the States. (For those from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Southerners call the battle the Battle of Sharpsburg. Northerners call it the Battle of Antietam.) The farm, named Woodley, boasts a farm house that is the oldest in Washington County … miraculously, the farm was never sold off throughout the decades and a lack of money prevented any real changes. It has been frozen in time since the 1850s.
My great, great, great grandfather, Dr. Thomas Maddox, was a surgeon living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, when he decided he wanted to be a gentleman farmer. He moved his family west and purchased Woodley around 1840, then added some rooms to the farmhouse (circa late 1700s) and installed the infrastructure needed to run a real farm.
Throughout the years, my brother Tom, my sister Saida and I have taken a number of historians on tours of the house and their stunned looks begin before stepping inside. “Do you understand what this doorknob and lock system are? This is unbelievable!”
The variety of items they gasp about are legion, which is especially interesting given we’ve always viewed the place as “just the farm.” Obviously we’ve learned a great deal: The plaster is so old it has horse hair mixed into it. The long, low bench in the entrance hall is actually a pew used by slaves attending church at nearby St. Mark’s Church. The furnishings in the bedrooms were owned by Dr. Maddox himself, all with the original finishes. The framed receipt in the hallway is an IOU, penned to document the items seized from the farm by the Union Army. Dr. Maddox’s wheelchair sits in a second story foyer and one historian remarked, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t want to even touch it.”
Our family has been visiting Woodley during the summer for untold decades, seeking a respite from Charleston’s heat. All of these amazing things we’ve learned have been, to us, “just part of the farm.”
Also “just part of the farm” is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which was co-founded Dr. Maddox, a man so deeply religious he once ordered the Maryland lieutenant governor off the premises for the heinous offense of using foul language. The property for St Mark’s was donated by Dr. Maddox and the pews, altar and interior infrastructure were all built using wood harvested by Woodley. It is, indeed, an awesome thing to sit in a pew built from wood you know for a fact your family once owned.
In early September 1862, everything changed for Dr. Maddox and his ongoing farm work. The Confederate army marched past the farm on Sharpsburg Pike — perhaps 150 yards from the house — observed with awe by my great-great-great aunt. A gentleman dressed impeccably in a gray uniform and sporting a white beard steered his horse beside her and asked for a mug of water. After drinking the water, the man thanked her and spurred his horse forward. One of the officers in his party leaned over and said, “Remember this day, young lady. You just did a favor for General Robert E. Lee.”
On September 17, dawn arrived with the roar of cannons, booming through the region and by the end of the first day the fighting produced 23,000 casualties and 3,650 dead. Thousands upon thousands of wounded men make quite an impact on a small town and Woodley was flooded with soldiers needing medical attention. The men arriving there were incredibly fortunate, as Dr. Maddox was a surgeon, not a basic sawbones. Wherever possible, he avoided amputation and saved the limbs of hundreds of men, from both North and South. In one of his journals he noted, “I had Confederates running in the front door and Yankees running out the back.”
Mostly, however, Woodley was a no-fire zone, as both sides had wounded men stacked in the house and every barn. Hundreds of men, of course, died from their wounds and an unknown number are buried around the house.
Charleston, it is said, is a living museum because it too frozen in time, as residents were “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.” It goes without saying, if you’re too poor to paint, you’re way too poor to tear buildings down and built anew, which is the natural progression in a city’s growth.
I’m pretty sure that’s what happened at our beloved farm and we’re all thankful for it.
I don’t think even Shelby Foote could have told this better, Prioleau. Thoughtful readers and friends always appreciate the history of a place connected to someone living. I remember well getting on my bicycle to see my friend Chisolm Frampton on King Street and arriving to find that he was watching two guys digging the privy, short for privacy, in his backyard. In this dig, they had a collection of bottles and broken glass, rusted nails and miscellaneous finds that have escaped my memory.
I remember thinking about what such discoveries must mean about the rest of Charleston and all the privy locations. Many years later, my father found the better part of a small china doll while digging in his vegetable garden. I never found anything particularly interesting but I always plunged expectantly into all digging projects back on New Street. I gained a greater interest in digs when I was a part of the Nature Trailers at The Charleston Museum.
We witnessed fossil finds and did our own poking around at times and always hoped for arrowheads or beads or bullets. As I mentioned in these pages a few years ago, C. Harrington Bissell, Sr. was a volunteer at the Old Exchange Building in the 1970s and his son, Harrington, and I would go visit and see what he was finding while excavating the dungeon. He would talk about various musket balls and pieces of pipe and on and on. Mr. Bissell, a gentleman with an unforgettable firm handshake, filled us with wonder and awe in the discovery process. All these seeds took root and shoots of interest in history grew, nurtured by reading and being a student under some great history teachers at Charleston Day School, beginning in the third grade with the late Dottie Rhett and her presentation of the state of South Carolina. Fast forward a few hundred books and lectures and I became a history major and remain engaged.
I kick into high gear when I am with passengers heading off for adventure in the countryside and I often keep maps and historic pamphlets in the truck to assist in the discovery process. My people settled on the Upper Ashley a good while ago, so I am particularly keen to explore that area. The Mills’ Atlas of 1820 confirms where many of us had taken root; too many places are now in developments, which haunts me like a Boo Hag until I find an experience in nature that makes one forget the tempests of this world. Such was the case recently when my wife and I recently left traffic-snarled Summerville and took an impromptu hike on the Live Oak Trail at the Richard Rosebrock Park near 165 and 61. It was a most manageable excursion. They have picnic tables under shelter, so you may have a bite before or after your walk. Remember that the Indian trading paths near the river are those that formed the basis of the King’s Highway that became Highway 61.
When you walk in these woodlands, you are in the shadows of centuries of tribal interactions that continued into colonial days. Before long, Francis Marion would be dashing amid these same swamps during some of his guerilla campaigns. I know several Warings rode as officers with Marion and nearly two and a half centuries later, I grin widely when I ponder these patriots, but am frustrated I don’t know more. I cannot help but build visions of what these places have seen; any visitor may do this and Dorchester County’s Rosebrock Park is the right venue. It is completely free and has plenty of parking. What is holding you back?
I know nearby hunting lands from nearly five decades of experience and am fascinated by the old canals and rice fields and the more recent deep ruts and ridges left by the phosphate mining days. These places hold many secrets and I know a few; they belong with the land and its stewards. Horrible things also happened here and we must never forget that. I remember well the huge ditches dug by enslaved hands; these speak another language when filled with tannic water that reflects Spanish moss and overhanging water vines. Historic walks and experiences should be open to the reality of history; we can also delight in how Mother Nature can bless the ground — life’s extras, as Bard Rutledge would say. I saw several bald eagles just the other day, each soaring ahead as the boss of the skies. Wildflowers and various lilies are there now and we see flowering dogwoods and azaleas in spring. Grand cypress trees hide from the chainsaw today as they once did from the ax; a rare towering short-leaf pine might show off as a mini-me sequoia and you will never forget it.
Our state has many special places where you may go beyond the English or French influence and see Spanish footprints of history or perhaps a pirate story as well, especially on our sea islands. When cool weather embraces us, try a canoe or kayak float and notice the profound quiet juxtaposed with the excitement of a particularly loud bird call; our piliated woodpeckers are a grand solo act to witness. Make memories while you can and be deliberate in your planning and reading preparations. I only know about these places because Henry Lowndes or my father took me as a boy; we need to pass on our appreciation of nature’s gifts. Ultimately, the beauty of these surroundings is the leader; it grabs you by the lapels and you are hopeless in the best way. Let our woods and waters nudge you forward to understanding why it is all there; it is an opportunity to be thankful.
If I had space, I’d tell more but there will be more space and more stories in the fifth month of the Charleston Mercury Newsletter, available only by subscription by going to our website. The wise participants will receive the feature “Crab Pot” — where the liveliest parts of a “Pluff Mud” bubble over to tantalize all. To make sure you don’t miss out on all the action, subscribe today to the digital Charleston Mercury Newsletter.
If you have a legend for us to uncover or a quirky historical point you wish for us to address, please send same to firstname.lastname@example.org.