DECEMBER 10, 2010 10:59 a.m. (2)
Over the next five years, our nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of our Civil War.
Throughout the sesquicentennial, there will be many voices that will reflect on the meaning of these events for our community, our state, and our country.
Those living in Greenville 150 years ago were also engaged in deep reflection and conversation regarding the value of the state’s membership in the United States of America.
In early November 1860, news of Abraham Lincoln’s election trickled into Greenville from Columbia and ignited those who felt threatened by the election of a man many white southerners considered hostile to their way of life.
They feared a Republican administration because they feared the abolition of slavery and the cascading changes that would result from such a momentous change in southern society. The state legislature began to arrange for a secessionist convention to be held in December.
Dr. James C. Furman, president of Furman University, was one of the state’s leading voices among secessionists. In contrast, Benjamin Perry, a local attorney and longtime member of the state legislature, was an outspoken defender of the Unionist cause.
His good friends Joel Poinsett and Vardry McBee, a man commonly considered the father of Greenville, had long supported many of Perry’s views.
On Nov. 17, a crowd assembled at a public meeting at the Courthouse to listen to speeches offered by Furman, McBee and several others. Sensing the momentum that had been spread across the state and even Greenville, Perry did not participate, but instead observed the gathering from his law offices across the street.
An editorial in one local paper described Furman’s rousing speech as “one of the finest and most effective efforts at oratory to which they had ever listened.”
Several days later, Greenville’s Southern Enterprise included a passionate “Letter to the Citizens of the Greenville District,” authored by James C. Furman and three others. In anticipation of the election of delegates to the secession convention, the letter argued that although Abolitionists had assumed control of the federal government, their authority could only be exercised with the “submission” of the people.
The letter concluded, “Men of Greenville, will you submit?”
In early December, the men of Greenville chose not to “submit,” and elected five secessionists to represent the Greenville District at the state secession convention in Columbia.
Yet, the secessionist cause was not one that Greenvillians had always supported. Under Perry’s leadership, Greenville had long favored the preservation of the Union and was considered to be the Unionist stronghold of the state.
That sentiment remained strong, especially in the northernmost areas of Greenville County. Decades earlier, South Carolina statesman and states’ rights proponent John C. Calhoun allegedly lamented that the bright light of nullification would never shine in that dark corner of South Carolina.
In the early 1850s, editors of Greenville’s Southern Patriot presented secession as a Lowcountry movement, and even suggested that if a state could secede, then a district could too, and thus Greenville could leave the state of South Carolina to become part of North Carolina.
When districts throughout the state sent delegates to a state convention that considered secession in 1852, 86.4 percent of the votes coming out of Greenville supported Unionist candidates and cooperationist candidates who would consider secession only if other slaveholding states joined with South Carolina.
By the fall of 1860, however, opposition to disunion and even single-state disunion had waned, and the secessionists prevailed. Delegates from across the state convened at the Columbia Baptist Church (now First Baptist Church) in Columbia on Dec. 17, but fears of a smallpox outbreak and, perhaps, a calculated desire to hold the meetings in a city more hospitable to secession, prompted a move to Charleston. There, on Dec. 20, 1860, the secession convention unanimously voted to secede.
The representatives signed the Ordinance of Secession that evening. Over the next several days, newspapers informed readers around the state of the convention’s actions, and urged them to offer prayers of thanks on Christmas for the “blessing” of secession.
In the immediate aftermath, many South Carolinians were anxious to learn how other slaveholding states would react. Other states followed, however, and eventually united to become the Confederate Studies of America.
Fighting erupted off the coast of Charleston four months after South Carolina seceded, inaugurating a war that occupied the South and the nation for the next four years, with consequences that remain deeply threaded in our fabric today.
After South Carolina became the first state to nullify its membership in the Union of the United States, a reluctant Ben Perry wrote, “I have been trying for the last 30 years to save this state from the horrors of disunion. They are now all going to the devil and I will go with them.”
During the War, he served in the state legislature and as a Confederate States District Judge.
After the War ended, the nation began the work of reconstructing itself. The federal government selected Ben Perry to serve as provisional governor for South Carolina. Under his leadership in 1865, many of those delegates who had voted to secede from the Union in 1860 ironically gathered again at the Columbia Baptist Church.
This time, however, they gathered to repeal the Ordinance and recognize the abolition of slavery, thus initiating the long and contentious process of recovery and rebuilding.
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