It was a Sunday morning, Feb. 5, 1865, and 15,000 Union soldiers – only a part Gen. William T. Sherman’s shock troops, veterans of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta and the March to the Sea – rolled up the Old State Road toward Cayce like a raging blue flood.
There were only 1,500 Confederate cavalry troopers and infantry arrayed behind earthen fortifications built by slaves along the north bank of Congaree Creek, hoping to bar the Yankees’ way to Columbia, South Carolina’s capital.
It took only four hours for the Federals to rout the Rebels in the Battle of Congaree Creek. But it’s taken more than 150 years for the battlefield to be properly studied, interpreted and opened to the public.
Now, the National Park Service, SCANA Corp. and the River Alliance are making strides to bring the battle to life as part of Cayce’s planned 12,000-Year History Park. It’s an attraction that the University of South Carolina has estimated could draw 150,000 visitors a year, adding to the area’s expanding tourism options, which include the State Museum, Riverbanks Zoo, EdVenture Children’s Museum and the Three Rivers Greenway.
“For the Midlands, it’s another piece of the puzzle to get visitors to stay another day,” Cayce Mayor Elise Partin said.
The utility company is building a winding, two-mile concrete trail through what will become the history park. It is called the Timmerman Trail, after former SCANA chief executive Bill Timmerman.
“We’re hoping this is going to be a big benefit for people throughout the area,” SCANA spokesman Robert Yanity said.
The trail will give visitors access to all facets of the battlefield, including the 11/2 miles of original Civil War earthworks. The trail with its three bridges should be completed by December and eventually could be connected to an expanded Cayce Riverwalk, part of the Three Rivers Greenway.
“We want those earthworks to last another 100 years,” said River Alliance executive director Mike Dawson.
MASTODONS AND MAMMOTHS
The area is called the 12,000-Year History Park for a reason.
More than 12,000 years ago, mastodons and mammoths may have roamed the banks of the creek.
But for sure there were prehistoric Indian settlements – generations before Christopher Columbus discovered America – where Native Americans hunted and gathered among the bluffs and forests near where the creek meets the Congaree River.
To date, researchers already have discovered arrowheads and shattered pots used 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, when the last ice age was ending.
When the Europeans did arrive – first Spanish, then British – they built a stockade on the bank of the creek to trade with local tribes. Scientists have discovered artifacts from Indians who lived on the land near the river during the 1500s. These Indians were the first to meet the Spanish Conquistadors as they traveled from Europe to explore the New World for gold and other treasures.
During the Revolutionary War, Rebels and Loyalists fought there, treading the old State Road, which was the main route from Charleston to the Midlands and the Upstate. Researchers have discovered remains of Fort Congaree, which served as a bastion for the colonial settlers of South Carolina against Indian attack, then as an outpost for the British.
And the creek was the scene of the clash between North and South during the Civil War as Gen. William T. Sherman marched to Columbia and left it in flames. Slaves constructed about three miles of earthworks – earthen fortifications – along the northern bank of the creek.
“Literally, we have at that location in Lexington County a continuum of history that goes back 12,000 years,” Dawson said. “It goes from the wooly mammoth to the Civil War. There is no other place that the park service knows of that has this much continuous human occupation in a relatively undisturbed site.”
‘Look at what the zoo has done’
But the Civil War is the big tourism draw and one that the Columbia area has never fully developed and exploited. A properly investigated and interpreted Congaree Creek battlefield could be another cog in the area’s growing tourism offerings.
“You look at what the zoo has done with over a million visitors a year,” Mayor Partin said. “You look at (USC’s) baseball stadium, the State House, the State Museum, when you add this in it could cause visitors to stay another day in our hotels. It’s going to matter.”
The battle featured the Union’s Army of the Tennessee against remnants of the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee meeting at the Old State Road Bridge over Congaree Creek.
Confederate Gen. George Dibrell’s dismounted cavalry brigade, supported by infantry and artillery, manned the earthworks, against Union Gen. Charles Woods’ 1st Division of Gen. John A. Logan’s XV Corps.
Wood pushed skirmishers ahead to keep the defenders at the bridge busy, while one of Woods’ brigades crossed upstream and turned the Southerners’ right flank. Dibrell’s force withdrew from Congaree Creek and then from its earthworks, retreating to Columbia.
The National Park Service grant “will help us find where that Union deployment line was,” Dawson said.
Though the Confederates set fire to the bridge, the Federals saved it and made their camp nearby that night. They later shelled Columbia (cannonball strikes are still marked by golden stars on the State House walls) and then occupied the city, much of which was burned to the ground.
Some blame Sherman’s men for the blaze that destroyed about one-third of the capital city. Others credit the blaze to the fortunes of war.
“We’re still arguing about it 150 years later,” Dawson said.