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The dastardly murder of Charles Greenland McCay

By Peg Eastman



Charles Greenland McCay of Sugarloaf Plantation in Berkeley County was a larger-than-life character whose sensational murder is practically forgotten today. C.G., as he was known, was born in 1809, in St. Stephen Parish, the eldest son of Charles McCay.


Nobody knows for sure where or when the McCays arrived in Berkeley County. Charles McCoy’s (McCay) name first appeared in the 1810 Census, and in 1807, he received a 500-acre land grant. By 1825, he filed a tax return claiming ownership of 2,100 acres of land and four slaves. These holdings would have represented one or more working plantations. He died around 1831, and young C.G. was the executor of his will.


Of Scots-Irish lineage, the McCays were not socially accepted by their Huguenot planter neighbors who had established themselves as rice growers in the century before the McCays arrived on the scene. That might explain why, according to family tradition, in 1832, C.G. “stole” Frances Causey from her father and married her on horseback at Biggin Church.


Once married and in possession of an inheritance, young C.G. set out to acquire land. He bought mostly state land grants that were considered viable only for free-range grazing, including bottomlands in Hell Hole Swamp, swampland near the Santee River. and uplands that had not yet been developed for row crops.


C.G. was primarily a planter-herdsman whom Henry Toomer Morrison (1863-1953) wrote lived in the saddle and was one of the great “cowboys” in the area. The planter-herdsmen drove their cattle to the Charleston market as soon as they were fat enough to kill. Although he produced thousands of pounds of rice, C.G. relied heavily on herding, and by 1850, he owned 10,000 acres and livestock valued at over $10,000, an immense sum in those days. Using enslaved labor, he also produced rice, cotton, sweet potatoes, and “Indian” corn.


By 1860, C.G. owned 20,000 acres and $40,000-worth of livestock, more property than the well-established Dubose, Gourdine and Porcher families who lived nearby. He even owned a racehorse, the ultimate trophy of landed gentility. But in spite of his accumulated wealth, herdsmen-planters were considered socially inferior by the ante bellum planter aristocracy.


Before the war C.G. took part in local politics and in 1849 was appointed to a vigilance committee, whose job it was to “intercept and destroy publications from Northern abolitionists.” A canny businessman, C.G. realized war was bad for business and did not support secession.


Despite his apolitical stance, two of C.G.’s sons served in the Confederate Army, while he delivered considerable agricultural products, beef and hogs to the troops in and around Charleston.


C.G. was not about to lose his life’s work to Sherman’s avenging army of 60,000 strong when it crossed into South Carolina in January 1865. According to family tradition, C.G. rode to Conway, S.C., to swear allegiance to the United States and literally rode two horses to death in a mad dash back to Sugarloaf. Sherman’s forces were already preparing to burn his house when he arrived. He quickly jumped onto the porch of his doomed house and boldly confronted Sherman or one of his generals stating, “I am now a citizen of the United States, and you are here to protect me and my home.” Although his home was spared, family silver, jewelry and livestock were taken anyway.


Fortunately for C.G., his wealth was not wholly dependent upon slave labor. He again participated in local concerns and prior to the presidential election of 1876, helped organize the “colored Democrats” (Blacks who were not sympathetic to the Republican Reconstruction government.)


By 1879, the year of his death, he owned land estimated to be between 26,100 and 40,000 acres, spread out over as many as 17 plantations with picturesque names: Sugarloaf, Bull Head, DuPree, Ball, Fell Corner, Barnet Island, Greenland, Fidda, Hickory Ridge, Manigault and Poplar Grove. His cash crops included rice, cotton, wool, butter, and vegetables. He owned 3,000 head of cattle, of which 1,000 were dairy cattle.


On April Fool’s Day, 1879, while overseeing repairs to Palmer’s Bridge, seven miles north of McClellanville, S.C.; C.G. was felled with a single shotgun blast and robbed of a large payroll for workers. He had had premonitions of his death and had written his will less than two months before his murder.


A suspect was eventually charged, but he was an ordinary white man described as a “cracker.” A sympathetic newspaper reporter wrote that if the accused were indicted, he was to be defended by his Confederate commander, General B. H. Rutledge. There are no further known publications about a trial or conviction, despite compelling circumstantial evidence against the accused including owing money to the victim, altercations about his debt with the victim, and the presence of C.G.’s bloodstained knife and a large sum of cash in the accused’s house.


C.G. left a widow and six children who survived to adulthood. C.G. parceled out his holdings among his children. Thomas A. McCay inherited Sugarloaf. He lived a privileged life and died still owning 250 acres of land and cattle.


After the Panic of 1893, the family fortune began to disappear. It is strange to contemplate how C.G. and his father before him had the skill to acquire and to make things grow. It was their nature. His sons after him, and their sons, could only spend. Court records are ample evidence of the heirs’ continuing disputes over his property. They incurred debts and redeemed them by conveying away land. They sold land to pay taxes. They sold the timber and turpentine rights. C.G.’s vast holdings had disappeared by 1940. Family tradition has always maintained that the McCays owned most of what later became the Francis Marion National Forest.


Fortunately, some of C.G.’s indominable spirit and drive were inherited by some of his descendants. William Robert “Bobby” Kinard, graduated from The Citadel, and served in Vietnam. After graduating from the University of South Carolina School of Law, he served in the S. C. House 1976-1980, as chief municipal judge of North Charleston 1981-1988, and as prosecuting attorney for the city of Hanahan before becoming the second mayor of North Charleston from 1991 to 1994.


Lucius Mendel Rivers, who was born in Hell Hole Swamp, independently passed the S.C. Bar Examination after reading the law on his own and served in the S. C. House. In 1940, he won the highly contentious First District congressional race through the support of the rural counties and went on to serve in the U. S Congress until 1970. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he was able to bring thousands of military jobs to the Lowcountry in the decades following World War II, including establishment of the Charleston Air Force Base. This led to the well-worn joke that Charleston had “three rivers,” the Ashley, the Cooper, and the Mendel.


When Rivers died, 55 percent of the total Lowcountry payroll was found to be related to the military bases and civilian support industries. Amazingly, the military jet cargo airplane he championed over stiff opposition, the C5A Galaxy, is still flying, after 50 years. It can carry more, and both land and take-off faster, than any other large airplane in the world.


My appreciation to Tim McCay, Mendel Rivers, Jr., and Bob Stockton for contributing to this article.


A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill and The History Press, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.

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