Friday, May 10, 2024

After South Carolina's capital went up flames, state leaders burned papers in new capital 70 miles away. Now there is an effort to preserve that house in Union

The Thomas Dawkins House in Union dates to about 1845 (Photos: Preservation South Carolina)
It’s not every day you get an enticement this juicy while looking up a residential property on Zillow:

In one of the home's eight fireplaces, papers were burned that would have hung many a Southerner if they had fallen into Union or Federal hands.”

The real estate overview of the Dawkins House at 117 N. Church St. in Union, S.C., included this and other nuggets about its history – notably service as the state’s capital for a few weeks toward the end of the Civil War.

Gov. Andrew Magrath, before fleeing Columbia as Federal troops closed in, got in touch with college chum Judge Thomas Dawkins about using the home and others nearby to conduct business amid the chaos.

From about Feb. 15, 1865, until sometime in early March, Magrath tried to run the state from the Dawkins House as Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman sacked Columbia and moved on other cities, bent on destruction and submission of Confederate troops.

Judge Thomas Dawkins, Mary P. Dawkins and Gov. Magrath (Preservation SC)
Nearly 160 years later, the two-story clapboard is in pretty rough shape and in need of a rescue.

That’s happening now through the nonprofit Preservation South Carolina, working with supporters and $300,000 from the Legislature

Bennett Preservation Engineering of Charleston is studying the structure and the feasibility of its restoration, says Joanna Rothell, director of outreach and preservation for Preservation South Carolina. The group acquired the long-vacant property last year.

The hope is for the home – nicknamed “The Shrubs” by Dawkins and his wife Mary -- to once again be occupied, this time as an alumni and event center for nearby University of South Carolina-Union.

A need to hide evidence from the Yankees?

Extensive repairs, upgrades are needed in structure (Preservation South Carolina)
Andrew Kettler, an assistant professor of history at the small campus, has amassed a lot of research about the town’s history and Dawkins, a prominent political figure who came from a wealthy family. While a unionist before South Carolina seceded, he came to support the Confederacy.

His old pal Magrath was elected governor by the Legislature in December 1864. Before the Civil War, Magrath had served as a federal judge, and made a ruling that certainly made him unpopular with the North, as an article about him states.

“Although opposed to the trade personally, Magrath nevertheless handed slave-trade proponents a signal victory in 1860. In a decision associated with the cases surrounding the Echo and the Wandererships seized for illegally transporting African slaves, Magrath stated that the 1820 federal statute on piracy did not apply to the slave trade.

In his brief tenure as governor, Magrath knocked heads with the main Confederate government. At the Dawkins House and other places where he fled until his arrest in May 1865, he sent and received correspondence about military and economic challenges.

The University of South Carolina Libraries has a fascinating Feb. 27, 1865, published message from Magrath to South Carolinians. It was likely composed during his time in Union. (Public domain photo, left. Click to enlarge)

The governor describes Federal troops who took Columbia as exhibiting hate and causing wanton destruction as women and children suffered. He encouraged citizens to come to the aid of those left in the ravaged city.

“They are destitute, they are in want, they need food, give what you can, sell what you cannot give. Let your succor be promptly offered, for such suffering will not brook delay.”

According to histories and local legend, Magrath and his subordinates burned possibly incriminating documents and correspondence in the Dawkins House fireplaces. (The home served as South Carolina's capitol while the city was briefly is capital.)

Kettler told the Picket in an email nothing in accounts he has seen show anything about the contents of those papers.

Confederates burned documents for a lot of reasons, he said. Many went up in flames in Richmond, Va., as President Jefferson Davis fled.

“Generally, burning would be to avoid military secrets getting into the enemies hands,” Kettler said.But, at the late stages of the war, such secrets may have become secondary as Confederates may have also wanted to hide evidence of the original treason of the Confederacy in the first place, and any other actions that could have led to prosecutions and trials after the war.”

When asked about the significance of preservation of the Dawkins House, Kettler said such buildings are retained for their importance to historical memory. (Photo, right, taken decades ago. Courtesy: Preservation South Carolina)

The historical memory here is about those who committed treason against the Union finding their way to an escape house as fugitives and attempting to hide their treason through burning incriminating materials,” he wrote.

“Historical memory works to honor the past and critique its most problematic histories. This site is retained for those purposes and as a clear reference point from the community of Union that existed well before the Civil War and was important well after outside of those contexts," said Kettler.

What happened to the targeted town?

William Waud's illustration of Columbia's capture (Library of Congress)
Before Magrath traveled 70 miles to Union, South Carolina was the symbol of rebellion. 

Sherman and his troops entered the state from Georgia with an eye on a full prosecution of the war. While they are behind some fires that ravaged Columbia, others were caused by other parties.

Union was a community with a business district and nearby plantations. “Many Quakers left the county in the first few decades of the nineteenth century due to their general stance against the institution of slavery,” said Kettler. Enslaved people became a majority in Union County during the 1840s. (The area became a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity during Reconstruction.)

It’s evident that many papers associated with Magrath were not burned in Union or elsewhere.

The Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina contains many letters sent to Magrath at Union and elsewhere. One, dated March 16, 1865, informed him of the total loss of state ordnance in Columbia. (Image: A.G.Magrath Papers, #467-z, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, click to enlarge)

Magrath and his staff raced away from Union as Federal troops moved in. He was eventually captured on May 25 and imprisoned at Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Ga., until release that December. (Interestingly, President Davis stopped by Union in April 1865 after he fled Richmond.)

As for the town of Union’s fate?

It was spared burning, as the story goes, because the Broad River was flooded and Sherman turned away.

Group thinks house can be 'brought back to life'

Rothell, with Preservation South Carolina, said the short-term goal is to stabilize and prevent further deterioration of the Dawkins House while assessing how much can be saved.

This is what the $300,000 from the state legislature is geared towards, though, that funding will likely not cover stabilization plans and work,” she told the Picket.

The group is looking at other legislative funding and grants, specifically from the South Department of Archives and History. And it is likely that local sources in Union will need to help pay for refurbishment.

The home's exterior in 2011 (Preservation South Carolina)
While it seems that the task of renovating may be daunting, we have seen buildings in far worse condition brought back to life," said Rothell.

Kettler said the foundation and standard structural integrity appear to be solid. “Some of the bones of the house date to the late eighteenth century, which is partly why it was granted National Historic Register site status in 1973.”

Mary Dawkins lived in the home until 1906, and there has been a succession of owners since, including the Faucett family for many years.

Rothell said the goal is for the Dawkins House to be preserved and used by the community

“We are currently working closely with USC-Union, the city of Union, and the County of Union in developing a plan for its future. We hope that USC-Union will purchase it from us and use it as an alumni center, but we do not have an agreement with them yet,” she said.

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