If there was one southern state which set the pace in the national melt-down leading to the Civil War, it would have to be the Palmetto State. The South Carolina House of Representatives voted 169-0 for secession, and on December 20, 1860 they notified Washington that their state had officially left the Federal Union. This despite the fact that in the November general election, only 40% of the state’s electorate really appeared to favor this course. James Buchanan, the lame duck (and pro-slavery) President still occupied the White House, while Abraham Lincoln remained waiting in the wings in Illinois and silent on political issues as had been his practice since the election.
Less than three months later, on April 12th, 1861, it would be South Carolina militiamen who would fire on and capture Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, bringing about the open warfare many on both sides had hoped to avoid. Within another sixty days of that bombardment, the final four states would join South Carolina and her other six deep-south neighbors to form the Confederate States of America.
To begin to understand why this particular state came to be the “cradle of the Confederacy”, we have to go back to the earliest days of this country’s colonization. At a time when America was being settled by The London Company and other English-based enterprises, South Carolina was a colony of Barbadians, that is, a “Company of Adventurers” based in Barbados. The East Indies, by the late 1600s, was where “the action was”, with fortunes being made by Spaniards, Portuguese and some enterprising Englishmen. Sugar, tobacco and other crops filled the holds of ships heading to Europe; ships which would return with cargoes of more slaves for an already-crowded island of Hispaniola. It was a group of these West Indian investors who obtained a charter from King Charles to colonize what would become South Carolina, naming the area’s deep water port “Charles Town” in gratitude. It was their plan to establish a plantation-based colony growing tobacco, sugar, cotton and other lucrative crops based on the surplus of slaves from Haiti and newly-arrived black Africans.
The swampy climate of the lowland region was especially unkind to Europeans, with malaria felling them by the hundreds, at the same time black slaves seemed impervious to the same illness. (Plantation owners would not have known that West Africans possessed a “sickle cell” which gave them a natural immunity.) Once it was discovered that rice would thrive in this wet and humid climate, the whole complexion of tidewater culture underwent a significant transformation. The Spaniards – England’s arch enemies – pretty much controlled the world’s major sources of rice, a grain so esteemed and even precious, that Italians attempting to steal rice seeds from that Mediterranean country’s Po Valley could face the death sentence.
The consequent transition from sugar to rice production required a labor force familiar with the intricacies of a very different form of agriculture, and a new dependency on experienced Africans from Niger and Senegambia. In time, upper class whites largely became “non-resident” plantation owners, and educated and literate members of the slave population rose to be resident managers.
There developed in South Carolina a unique form of highly-localized government based on the plantation system, and a feudal-like relationship between classes of society. At the base of it all was the largest slave population in the New World, with blacks outnumbering whites two- to-one statewide, and as much as nine-to-one in the tidewater regions.
In 1820, an activist free slave with military experience named Denmark Vesey planned an insurrection of black slaves and poor whites in the Charleston area. (Prior to that time, at least seventeen slave uprisings had occurred throughout the south.) Although Vesey and his followers were eventually killed and the plot put down, it left Carolinians with a growing contempt for abolitionists of all stripes and a high state of protectionism when it came to the institution of slavery. In fact, 90% of all slaves to come to America passed through the auction blocks at Charleston.
Although only one great battle and its attendant skirmishes would actually be fought on South Carolina soil, the state would pay a high price in blood for its fierce fight for independence. It is believed that somewhere between 30% and 35% of its fighting age men and boys (18 – 45) died in the four year conflict. No other state paid so dearly or fought more determinedly.
A Parting note: The concept of secession was not something new in South Carolina. The key battle of Secessionville in the Charleston campaign in June, 1862 marked the location of a much earlier secession fight over plantation rights.
The First National Flag of the Confederate States of America shows seven white stars in a field of blue with two broad red bars separated by one of white. At the time of its design, South Carolina had been joined by Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – the so-called Deep South states. The Second National Flag would follow with eleven stars. This flag is the only CSA banner to be correctly known as “The Stars and Bars”. Photo & flag by Al Cooper
At the First Bull Run battle, soldiers from both sides were confused by the South’s “Stars and Bars” flag, because in the heat of the fighting it looked very like the “Stars and Stripes”. Thereafter, it was not ordinarily carried into combat although it remained the Confederacy’s official banner. In its place, the diagonal Scottish cross of the Battle Flag, in its several forms, was displayed. It became the most recognized – and presently controversial – symbol of the southern cause.