From the Archives: Sherman's march comes alive

Saturday, February 16, 2002

April 15, 2011 

To some, Sherman's invasion of South Carolina 137 years ago this month is history.

To Lawton Clarke O'Cain, it's still happening.

"See that tree?" She points to a large live oak. "They hung a Yankee straggler up there by his thumbs."

What'd they do with him?

"Left him there, I reckon!"

She laughs.

O'Cain, 62, whose great-grandfather's plantation, Jericho, was burned by the invaders, doesn't have much use for Sherman's bluecoats.

Except for one thing - Yankees make good stories.

"We were the first to feel Sherman's wrath. He burned his way to Columbia , burning all the towns around here. Robertville. Lawtonville. Barnwell. After Columbia , he was kind of burned out," she says.

"The Yankees called Barnwell 'Burn-well,'" she says.

Over the years, amateur historian O'Cain - who runs a bed- and-breakfast in Estill - has given hundreds of tours in western Hampton and Jasper counties. She's on the list of recommended tours of the Lowcountry Tourism Commission, a quasi-state agency that covers Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties.

"She's the real thing, a colorful person, a dyed-in-the wool Southern belle who brings authenticity to her tour," says Jim Wescott, executive director of the commission. "But she's definitely rooting for the home team."

O'Cain's specialty is Hampton County's swampy lowland where, around Feb. 1, 1865, some 30,000 Union soldiers under Gen. William T. Sherman's command crossed the Savannah River into South Carolina to begin their march to Columbia . Another 30,000 Union troops started from Beaufort and headed north. O'Cain mixes heartfelt invasion tales - handed down by her mother and by area residents - with material from history books.

As such, she's a living library and represents hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians whose Confederate ancestors' lives were changed by Sherman's army.

In January 1865, Sherman's army was in Savannah, loading provisions to prepare for the big invasion. "We knew Sherman was coming, but we didn't know where or when," says O'Cain, who often says "we" instead of "they."

The winter Sherman came, many able-bodied S.C. Confederate men - those who hadn't been killed in the war - were in Virginia, making a last-ditch stand with Gen. Robert E. Lee, she says.

Even though there were few Confederate troops in South Carolina, citizens thought the Yankees would have a hard time marching through the state.

That was because that winter, with the worst rainfall in years, rivers and swamps throughout South Carolina were at record levels. Roads were few and muddy. People believed it would take months for any army to get to Columbia .

But on Feb. 1, 1865, 35 miles above the Savannah River at Two Sisters Ferry crossing, the Federals made a bridge out of canvas boats covered with wooden planks. Thousands of infantry and cavalry poured across. The Northerners would prove brilliant at making quick bridges to ford rivers and swamps.

The well-equipped army showed little mercy - except Sherman had ordered his men not to rape South Carolina women, O'Cain says.

As Union forces moved toward Columbia , they met little resistance. It would take them just 15 days to go about 120 miles.

"All we could do was stall," O'Cain says, clearly disappointed.

Her tour begins on a narrow dirt road, several miles from the Savannah River. It is flanked by tall pines.

"If these trees could talk, they would tell wonderful stories," she says, describing the swarms of bluecoats marching up the road, hundreds of cavalry and foot soldiers on either side, and gunshots in the distance.

A few miles away, she points to a set of concrete steps at the edge of a field. The steps once led to Black Swamp Plantation, she says. Sherman burned it.

She stops at a rural cemetery. Once, the cemetery stood inside a village named Lawtonville. Sherman's troops burnt it all. Today, the area is fields and woods.

One tombstone reads: "Pvt. S.J. M. Clarke. S.C. Cavalry. Confederate States Army." He was one of O'Cain's great-grandfathers.

Years ago, a family story had it that Clarke was a general.

But O'Cain's mother corrected the record, saying, "General? Somebody had to do the fighting!"

Another O'Cain family story has a great-grandfather burying a saw instead of silver. After the Yankees passed through, he had a tool to build new houses rather than useless precious metal.

Although O'Cain identifies herself with the Southern cause in the 1860s, she flies an American flag from her house.

"I'm very patriotic," she says.

Had she lived in the 1860s, she says, she would been against secession. But once South Carolina broke from the Union, she would have fought for her state.

"This is home," she says. "That says it all, when you say, 'This is home.'"

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