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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 Reconstruction turned into a civil war with a strategy of violence, direct or threatened, to overturn government by the legal majority. That strategy became known as “the Straightout, the Shotgun, or the Edgefield policy,” for its place of origin.

When “peace” broke out at intervals it was enlivened by “affairs of honor,” duels with pistols according to the Code. South Carolina was the last state to outlaw dueling. The law did not stop it, however, and no duelist in the state was ever convicted of murder. While Edgefield had more than its share of duels and duelists, they were fought among the elite and by no means accounted for the greater part of the slaughter. Nearly three quarters of the murder victims in the 1840s and 1850s, as Burton informs us, “were killed by means other than guns, including knives, rocks, clubs, axes, poison, a sharpened stick, a horse’s skull, a metal-bound Bible, and the ‘tip of a umbrellar.”’ Such were hardly the approved weapons of chivalric combat, and most of the violence was of a cruder, nastier, and more brutish type than the Code allowed. But if the duel was the prerogative of class, the demands of honor were not. Combatants in the successive wars came from all ranks of society. “The rich and the poor fought, were injured, and died together.” And all for honor, or so their memorials said.

Burton is on surer ground for justifying his extended study of Edgefield in claiming that it is “one of the most historically significant local communities in America.” In fact it teems with historical significance. This hotbed of nullification and secession and “redemption” was where things started, burst out of control, climaxed, exploded, collapsed in disaster, and were later reborn. Charleston had certain claims of its own to such distinctions, but the Charleston News and Courier readily admitted that its upcountry rival Edgefield had “harder riders, bolder hunters, more enterprising and masterly politicians,” as well as “more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers, daredevils, than any county of South Carolina, if not of any rural county in America.”

A few examples from the long roster of Edgefield notables support Charleston’s concession. Two of them led Texan defenders of the Alamo; Calhoun’s protégé George McDuffie was an Edgefieldian, as was his son-in-law Thomas G. Clemson, and Calhoun himself brooded over the borders of the county. James H. Hammond, who proclaimed “cotton is king,” came from there and so did Lewis T. Wigfall, firebrand of secession. The pioneer textile industrialist William Gregg founded the first southern cotton mills there, and his postbellum Edgefield disciple, Daniel Augustus Tompkins, spread them widely. Martin W. Gary of Edgefield founded the Red Shirts who overthrew Reconstruction and placed aristocrat Wade Hampton in control, and the one-eyed Edgefieldian “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman came along soon to overthrow him with his gospel of racism and a phony brand of populism. Senator Strom Thurmond of Edgefield carries on the tradition today. From the other side of the race barrier in Edgefield came Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Marian Wright Edelman, King’s disciple.

Politics, wars, chivalry, and celebrities are quite incidental to Orville Burton’s subject, which is family and community. They provide relevant background, however, and so will a bit of demography. The minority race in Edgefield county was white and was outnumbered eventually two to one by blacks. Both multiplied like mad at about the same rate. At the time of the Civil War the population was 24,000 slaves, 15,653 whites, and 173 free blacks. All lived a rural life. The larger towns were rural villages like the hamlets of Hamburg and Edgefield. The latter and larger was known as Edgefield Court House or just “the Court House,” and boasted a total population of 518, excluding slaves, in 1860. Burton’s study is concerned with family and community of both whites and blacks, free and slave, and concentrates on the period from about 1850 to the early 1900s.

First the dominant antebellum white elite. They were generally first-generation aristocrats, leavened by a few old Tidewater families who had moved upcountry during the first great cotton boom. By 1860 the county led the state in the number of bales produced and ranked near the top in large plantations and slave holdings. The patriciate clans of elite slaveholders, reared to command, took charge and prospered fabulously. After 1830 they built themselves elaborate and impressive mansions that were more than mere places to live. They bore proud names, symbolized families, clans, and factions, served as social centers, and proclaimed dynastic ambitions. The home where Charles Sumner’s assailant Preston Brooks was born and reared had four acres of flower gardens in front of it.

Between the elite and the rest of the free population persisted great economic disparities. In 1860 the wealthiest 10 percent of household heads accounted for 73 percent of personal wealth, which included slaves. Twenty-two people had more than $100,000 in personal property, while the poorest quarter of households had less than $200. About half the free farmers owned no slaves in 1850, and half of those owned no land either. Plain folk lived plainer lives in rough whitewashed clapboard or log houses. Lower down than landless farmers were the white workers in the new cotton mills, whose lot was described by the Edgefield Advertiser as “a condition of slavery.” The gentry might claim that so long as “the people” followed their lead there was no conflict of class. But economic disparities nevertheless bred class conflict among whites which made itself felt in many ways and found numerous spokesmen. Class conflict there undoubtedly was and it was powerfully felt. Nevertheless it was never enough to override completely the shared values and cultural bonds that molded the unique community of Edgefield. Even the slaves, as we shall see, felt the pull of those values.

About slavery and the lot of the slave there is no nonsense in Burton’s account. Underlying all other devices and strategies for slave control—and they were numerous and often ingenious—was “violence and the threat of physical punishment.” A great deal of variety existed among masters in the use of force and punishment, but it was always there, and neither masters nor slaves ever forgot it. “Spare the rod and you spoil your negroes,” admonished the editor of the Edgefield newspaper. To a great extent verbatim testimony of former slaves and their children is used as evidence of punishment. It is eloquent and explicit and sometimes horrifying. Agreement between slaves and masters generally exists, however, that food was plentiful, and census data reveal curiously that in 1860 the average number of slaves per slave house was 4.2, a figure smaller than the average household size among the white population between 1850 and 1880. Whatever that leaves unrevealed, it probably indicates that slaves lived in nuclear family housing units.

Family is the centerpiece of Burton’s investigation, family in all its ramifications and in all ranks of society. To a surprising degree the form it took, the patriarchal, male-dominated form, prevailed in all classes. In the upper strata it was more formally buttressed by legal, religious, and cultural supports. Family was what “honor” was mainly about, the more prickly, dangerous, and cultlike aspects of honor. The leading families of gentry—the Pickenses, Brookses, Butlers, Bonhams, Simkinses, Hammonds, Wigfalls, etc.—were virtually all kinsmen by blood or marriage. They intermarried into one extended and complex “cousinage.” One chose one’s words carefully in speaking of any person, for one was likely to be speaking of a kinsman in some degree of the person addressed. Relationships were proclaimed to the extent possible by tagging offspring with family names as given names, often both given names, one of them that of the mother. People usually thought, voted, and fought by family clans, though that did not preclude intrafamily feuding.

The power and mystique of familial bonds were no monopoly of the gentry. Take the Ouzts tribe of yeoman stock, for example. Peter Ouzts (1757–1829) and Elizabeth Harling Ouzts (1770–1847) had thirteen sons and two daughters. By 1880 they had 940 descendants, and most of them lived in Edgefield. People could often be placed geographically by name, and a family the size of the Ouztses might carry a precinct in a close election.

The potency of family ties on the black side is illustrated by the Morgan family, whose genealogy begins with two former Edgefield slaves, Alfred and Rosa Morgan, who belonged to Francis Pickens. As late as 1979 the descendants of this couple held a family reunion that included three children, twenty-one grandchildren, eighty great-grandchildren, 108 great-great-grandchildren, and twelve great-great-great-grandchildren—without counting those not surviving or attending. No dissolution of the black family here, and no hint of modern urban dissolution to come.

The centrality of family and the values associated with it and shared in all ranks of society is, in fact, best illustrated from the black experience. Because slave marriages had no legal basis and because slavery was a real threat to the integrity of the family, it is often assumed that slavery left a fateful legacy of weakness in the black family. On the contrary, Burton finds that the very adversity of slavery “reinforced” the commitment to the family ideal. Family was the anchor of slave community and, along with religion, the main refuge and defense against slavery. After emancipation it was the integrity and stability of the nuclear family that made possible the revolt against the hated gang-labor system and the substitution of tenancy with family members as the labor unit. Welded by generations of survival under white domination, the foundations of rural black family integrity held firm well into the twentieth century.

Black or white, rich or poor, Edgefield families were thoroughly and completely patriarchal—as were their churches. Biblical authority was available in Ephesians: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.” By entering marriage women gave up autonomy and could not be independent economic agents. If a wife earned wages, they belonged to her husband. Wives could not make contracts, sue or be sued, or execute a valid will. Until 1868 only single women and widows could own real property in their own names. Divorce provided no legal alternative to a troubled marriage. As Mary Chesnut described their plight with some exaggeration, “All married women, all children and girls who live in their father’s houses are slaves.”

The myth of black matriarchy has already received some telling blows, but Burton finishes it off totally with a devastating barrage of statistics. He goes further than that to demonstrate that white and black family structures were remarkably similar and that “maleheaded, two-parent households predominated for both groups, and they shared similarities in the size, occurrence, and structure of nuclear, extended, and augmented families.”

I have made an admittedly impressionistic survey of a highly quantified, computerized, and methodologically sophisticated study. For thoroughness and comprehensiveness it rivals, if it does not exceed, any historical investigation of an American community of comparable scope. For the 1880 population census, for example, there were 9,877 cases and forty-seven variables, and that for only one of the several decades covered. “I have,” Burton writes, “coded every household head, every family head, and every spouse and child present.” The passions that drive and inform such dedication among scholars are numerous and no doubt complex. But it is hard to imagine their manifestation in the case of Orville Vernon Burton without thinking of the fierce and stormy history of Edgefield County and how it possessed the imagination of a native son.

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