Union legacy lives unseen in Columbia

The Fourth of July is a holiday of sun, fun and barbecue — a red-white-and-blue celebration of the United States of America.

But 150 years ago, the existence of those United States was very much in doubt as the country was mired in a bloody Civil War. Then, over the space of two days — July 3 and July 4, 1863 — Pickett’s Charge failed at Gettysburg, Penn., and Vicksburg, Miss., fell.

The Gettysburg campaign, if successful, would have removed pressure from Vicksburg by causing the Union to transfer troops from Mississippi to Pennsylvania. But its failure and the subsequent Confederate surrender at Vicksburg split the South in half and relinquished control of the Mississippi River to the Federals. The Confederacy, then, was doomed.

“The combined Confederate defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg proved a turning point in the war,” said Kristina Johnson, curator of history at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room & Military History Museum.

It was Union soldiers who forged those victories 150 years ago that saved the country. But in Columbia, capital of the state that led the South into secession, there is little to honor those sacrifices, even though some of those heroes are buried in our midst.

“Even years after the war, the wounds were still pretty raw,” said Joe Long, the Relic Room’s director of education. “So the interest has been on our folks and not the enemy. It took years for people to realize that we were all Americans again. Many of the veterans of the time understood that, but it took the rest of us a while to catch on.”

The prisoner of war

Joseph Kerr Wilson was a Medal of Honor recipient from Ohio. A tall gray granite pillar stands, lonely in Elmwood cemetery. The simple words “8th U.S. Infantry” is all that hints of his past.

Wilson was a member of that unit in 1861 at the onset of the war, stationed at San Antonio, Texas. On April 23, 1861, the Northern officers and enlisted men at the post were taken prisoners by the Southern members of the regiment and other rebel troops.

After a few days, the Northern troops were allowed to go home. But before leaving, Wilson and another soldier secretly took the regimental and American flags that the unit has carried through the Mexican War, hid them under their clothes and carried them back to Washington, D.C., where they were returned to the reformed regiment.

Wilson served with the regiment throughout the Civil War and was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant on July 30, 1864, for “his gallant and meritorious services” in the assault on Petersburg, Va.

He was serving as the regimental quartermaster in Columbia when he died in September 1869 of an illness while billeted at USC’s Horseshoe. He is buried in Elmwood’s Masonic Plot.

Medals of Honor were given out pretty freely during the Civil War, and Wilson’s was rescinded after the war because his action didn’t involve valor under fire.

“But I would say that stealing the regimental colors under the noses of armed rebels was a pretty valorous act,” said Ken Robison, of the S.C. Chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans, who has spent years tracking down Union burials in South Carolina.

The Army surgeon

Joshua Fulton Ensor also is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. He served as superintendent of the State Hospital on Bull Street, inspector of the port of Charleston and Columbia postmaster. But before that, he was a U.S. Army surgeon during the Civil War.

Fulton, of Baltimore, was mustered into service as assistant surgeon of the 1st Maryland Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (USA) on Dec. 1, 1863. In October 1864, he was appointed regimental surgeon of the 79th United States Colored Troop Regiment and left the Army a year later.

From 1868 to 1870, during Reconstruction, Ensor served as a medical purveyor for South Carolina Freedman’s Bureau, which oversaw the state’s freed slaves. He served as the superintendent of the South Carolina State Insane Asylum from 1870 to 1878, where a new laboratory was named in his honor.

The laboratory still exists and is one of the buildings that could be demolished to make way for the commercial and residential redevelopment of the State Hospital campus on Bull Street. Ensor’s house is prominent on a hill in Eau Claire.

During Reconstruction — a period in which “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” were renowned for theft and corruption — Ensor was considered a consummately honest man. He remained in high positions even after Democrats regained power in the state and Reconstruction ended.

“He was the only Republican (that Confederate general and Gov.) Wade Hampton left in office,” Robison said. “At a time when everyone was stealing left and right from the state, he was fighting for everything he could get for the mental hospital.”

The Union chaplain

Benjamin Franklin Randolph has a monument almost identical to Wilson’s, but in the African-American cemetery that bears his name adjacent to Elmwood. He was a Union chaplain who would become the state’s first African-American state senator.

Randolph was born a free black person in Kentucky and relocated to Ohio with his family as a child. He attended Oberlin College from 1854-1861. He initially started his career as a Presbyterian minister and later converted to Methodism.

When the Civil War began, Randolph joined the Union Army as a chaplain in the 26th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, and landed at Hilton Head Island in 1864. He then relocated to Charleston after the war.

Randolph co-founded the Charleston Journal Newspaper and worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in the education division. He was elected senator from Orangeburg County in 1868 and played a major role in the 1868 S.C. State Constitutional Convention in which black men and non-property owning white men were granted the right to vote. Randolph also served as chairman of the state Republican Party.

In October 1868, Randolph was assassinated by a group of armed white men while he attempted to board a train in Abbeville County.

“He was a driving force for African-American rights in the years following the war,” said John Sherrer of the Historic Columbia Foundation. “Randolph’s resolute spirit, played out during the course of his life, overcame his violent death through the memory he left behind during Reconstruction.”

‘No one left to remember them’

There are many other locally buried Union soldiers that have been identified by the S.C. Chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans — and most carry no indication that the person interred served in the U.S. Army during the war.

“In most cases there’s no one left to remember them or care for their graves,” Robison said.

Oddly enough, the Northern graves most associated with the Civil War — a row of 10 white, military headstones fronting the Confederate gravesite at Elmwood — hold the remains of soldiers who probably never fought in the war, Robison said. They were Reconstruction garrison soldiers from the 8th U.S. Infantry — Wilson’s unit. All but one likely joined the Army after the war was over.

Most of the Union dead in South Carolina are buried in Beaufort National Cemetery or Florence National Cemetery.

Beaufort serves as the final resting place for 7,500 Union soldiers, sailors and Marines who manned the blockade of the state’s harbors, garrisoned occupied towns on the coast or participated in the siege of Charleston.

Florence was home to the Florence Stockade, established in 1864 when Union Gen. William T. Sherman took Atlanta. It was built to house prisoners from Georgia’s infamous Andersonville prison. An estimated 2,500 Union soldiers died there and are buried in mass graves.

“The actual prisoners of war say the place was worse than Andersonville,” Robison said.

Florence also became the resting place for an estimated 1,000 other Union troops who were killed during Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, as well as in smaller prison camps around the state, such as those at Camp Sorghum, located in what is now the gardens of Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens in Lexington County, and at the State Hospital at Bull Street.

Few city markers

It is not only forgotten graves that mark the Union legacy in Columbia.

While most Civil War battlefields — and Columbia was one — have markers indicating the movement of troops and the locations of key landmarks, very few sites here are marked, much less interpreted. The State House is dotted with stars where Sherman’s cannonballs struck. And a historical marker stands on Sunset Drive where the cannons were fired. But few other guideposts to the battle exist.

The headquarters of Union Gen. O.O. Howard, a key figure in numerous battles in the East, including Gettysburg, and Sherman’s campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas, still stands on the corner of Bull and Pendleton streets. There is no interpretive sign telling its story.

•  The headquarters of Union Gen. John A. Logan was located in the Hampton-Preston Mansion, which is a well-preserved historic landmark. But no interpretive sign exists to explain its importance during the Civil War.

•  There is a plaque on the Clarion Hotel on Gervais Street marking where Sherman’s headquarters stood. But ironically, the house that stood there was torn down in 1962 — the centennial of the Civil War.

•  And the site of the Battle of Congaree Creek — on the Old State Road in Cayce — is home to impressive earthworks, as yet un-interpreted, although the River Alliance has a plan in place.

The alliance’s executive director Mike Dawson said the reason for this oversight is obvious.

“The residue of the war was the destruction of the city and the society around it,” he said. “They didn’t want to mark things associated with the Union Army.”

Sherrer noted, however, that Columbia’s history has ever since, for 150 years, been shaped by the Union experience. “It wouldn’t have burned if they weren’t here.”

But it wasn’t the destruction of the city in 1865 that caused the most damage to Columbia’s historic sites — that occurred during the 20th century and continues today.

Sherman’s headquarters “wasn’t gone with the wind,” Sherrer said. “It was gone by the bulldozer.”

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