District of Devils

One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction.” Taking off from this maxim of Eudora Welty’s, Orville Vernon Burton has chosen Edgefield County, on the western border of South Carolina, across the Savannah River from Augusta, as his place to comprehend. The comprehending is encyclopedic and promises to be unprecedented for exhaustiveness, for this is the first of several works planned on this one county. But there are more than three thousand counties in the United States, forty-six of them in South Carolina alone. Why single out Edgefield? And how can one county possibly justify all this attention?

A native of the county himself, Mr. Burton explains that it is “a community representative of southern life,” though not representative, he admits, in the sense of typical. It is not even typical of South Carolina. It is perhaps no more typical of South Carolina, historic firebrand of violent extremism, than that state is typical of the United States. It might even be said that Edgefield County is to South Carolina as that state is to the other states. It simply carried to extremes what was latent or prevalent elsewhere.

There was the strain of violence for which Edgefield was a byword even in the violent state of South Carolina. From Edgefield came Preston Brooks, who caned Charles Sumner to a bloody mess at his desk on the Senate floor to avenge an insult to his kinsman Senator Andrew Pickens Butler, also from Edgefield. Less well known to history and legend was Senator Butler’s grandfather, who was massacred in piecemeal amputations by Tories in the Revolution, and his father, who avenged the massacre after the war by lynching one of those who caused it. Sire and grandsire of Preston Brooks had comparable calamities and records of bloodthirstiness. Violence and vengeance were hereditary, going back and back and back, but according to Burton, “instead of disrupting, actually helped to define the boundaries of the community.” Community was, among other things, an arena for conflict. Vengeance was an intimate bond and murder a binding memory.

Passing through the district in 1816, Parson Weems, he of the cherry tree, wrote a pamphlet beginning “Old Edgefield again! Another murder in Edgefield!…For sure it must be Pandemonium itself, a very District of Devils.” The county led the state in murders, to be sure, but that was only one aspect of a culture of violence continuing for two centuries. The quarter of a century from 1760 to 1785 witnessed one civil war after another: the brutal Cherokee war, the mayhem of the Regulator–Moderator conflict; and that was followed by Whigs vs. Tories, a war characterized by another historian as “some of the most cruel and devastating civil strife that has ever beset an American community.” Later the strife between Nullificationists and Unionists was a runner-up for bitterness, and the Civil War had its inner as well as its outer conflicts. Postwar …

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