January 16, 1781 – Significant American Revolution Victory at Cowpens in South Carolina

Cowpens has been called one of the most significant victories in American military history.

As historian Jim Stempel writes:

That morning British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, hand-picked by General Charles Cornwallis, was opposed by American Daniel Morgan, a rough and tumble son of the frontier. On ground in South Carolina known as the Cowpens, Morgan employed a psychological ploy and tactical scheme so brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed that within an hour the British found themselves overwhelmed, enveloped, and routed from the field. It was an engagement that had significant repercussions. Morgan’s stunning victory ended a two year Revolutionary impasse, rekindled hope throughout the colonies, and put Cornwallis on a reckless path that would end with his surrender at Yorktown, thus catapulting the infant United States to independence.”

The morning of the battle, Morgan was trying to elude a British trap. Scouts informed him that Banastre Tarleton had crossed the Pacolet River, six miles south, and was coming up fast. This put Morgan in a precarious position. If he crossed the Broad River six miles away, most of his militia would probably desert him. If Tarleton caught the Americans on the road or astride the river, they could all be cut down. Morgan chose to stand and fight, and the terrain at the Cowpens, on the road to a ford across the Broad River, offered him some advantages.

Daniel Morgan

As Stempel describes the battle, Morgan decided to deploy his troops in three lines: first a skirmish line, second a strong line of militia partially obscured by a swale, and third a line of Continentals and veteran Virginians:

He asked the skirmishers to fire two or three shots then retire to the militia line behind them. Likewise, the militia was asked to do the same then withdraw to the line of Continentals, where the entire force would make a final stand, the militia now shielded by the Continentals’ bayonets.”

Tarleton fell right into Morgan’s trap. Both the skirmish and militia lines were able to wreak havoc on the British assault. Next, the entire American line withdrew, but at the last moment, turned around and unleashed a murderous volley into the faces of the pursuing Redcoats. Then, with the command of “Charge bayonets!,” the Americans surged out and over the stunned British. In short order, Stempel observes, “the Redcoats were enveloped, surrounded, and utterly defeated.”

Daniel Morgan, then 45, was already legendary for bravery. The National Park Service (NPS) reported that in 1756, while serving as a teamster in the British Army, he struck a British officer and was sentenced to 500 lashes with a cat-o’-nine tails. He not only survived, but later claimed that the British still owed him one lash.

When the Revolutionary War began, Morgan led a unit of Virginia sharpshooters to Boston where they joined the Continental Army. He was captured and exchanged and came back into service with another unit of Virginia sharpshooters. He took a brief leave of absence for illness, but rejoined the army yet again in September 1780. Promoted to brigadier general, he was sent by Major General Nathanael Greene into western South Carolina to operate as a “flying army” harassing the British left flank and rear.

Major General Charles Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton to remove the threat that Morgan created. Tarleton, 26, who had purchased his commission in the British Army, had a reputation for being ruthless, and was widely hated in South Carolina for his butchery of Continentals, even those who had surrendered.

“Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton” by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Morgan knew he would be outnumbered by Tarleton’s forces, so good strategy was of paramount importance. He did not disappoint. The battle was over in a hour. British losses were staggering: 190 dead, more than 200 wounded, and nearly 600 captured. Morgan’s losses, by comparison, were 24 killed and 104 wounded. Morgan later told a friend he had given Tarleton and the British a “devil of a whipping.”

Sir Henry Clinton later wrote that Morgan’s victory was “the first link of a chain of events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”

Statue of General Morgan erected in 1881 in Spartanburg, South Carolina

A number of counties in America were named in Morgan’s honor, and The Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security in Washington, D.C., established in 2014, was named after Morgan because of his brilliant use of strategy and intelligence during the American Revolution.

November 4, 1890 – Virulent White Supremacist Benjamin Tillman Elected Governor of South Carolina

On this day in history, the outspoken racist Benjamin Tillman, who advocated violence against African American voters, was elected Governor of South Carolina.

Tillman was born on August 11, 1847, in Edgefield, South Carolina on a plantation with 86 slaves. After the Civil War, Tillman himself became a landowner, and by 1876, Tillman was the largest landowner in Edgefield County. According to “‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman: The Most Lionized Figure in South Carolina History” (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) No. 58 (Winter, 2007/2008), pp. 38-39):

He rode through his fields on horseback much like the overseers of the antebellum period. He said at the time that his presence was required to ‘drive the slovenly Negroes to work.'”

Apparently he was not loathe to use the whip on his workers.

But his assaults on blacks began earlier. In 1873, two Edgefield lawyers and former Confederate generals, Martin Gary and Matthew C. Butler, proposed that white men form clandestine paramilitary organizations — known as “rifle clubs”— and use force and intimidation to drive African Americans from power. Members of the new white groups became known as Red Shirts. Tillman was an early and enthusiastic recruit for his local organization, called the Sweetwater Club.

From 1873 to 1876, Tillman (known as “Pitchfork Ben” because of his aggressive language) belonged to the Sweetwater Club, members of which assaulted and intimidated black would-be voters, killed black political figures, and skirmished with the African-American-dominated state militia. He later boasted about his participation in the Hamburg Massacre of six innocent black men, using his role in the riot to advance his political career. (About the massacre, The New York Times reported that he stated, “The leading white men of Edgefield [decided] to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson.” Tillman further described the massacre as an opportunity for “the whites [to] demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”)

Tillman around 1910

The New York Times article (a review of a book about Tillman’s life, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz) further adds:

How could these execution-style murders of 1876 serve as the springboard for such extraordinary political advancement — and a legacy of racism that would keep Tillman’s name alive as Pitchfork Ben well into the 20th century? The explanation lies, Kantrowitz believes, in the determination of white men in the post-Civil War South to reclaim what they had lost through emancipation and the experience of Reconstruction: their sense of independent, unfettered manhood. ‘’Tillman sought to transform the slogan ‘white supremacy’ into a description of social reality, reconstructing white male authority in every sphere from the individual household to national politics,’ Kantrowitz, who teaches American history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes. Tillman’s constituents responded to his leadership because they too believed that the end of slavery and the enfranchising of blacks had set loose a threat to white society that had to be checked by whatever means necessary. It took a man like Tillman — an ideologue, an organizer and a terrorist” — to give voice to their fears and to translate their determination into physical and political action.”

As the two-term Governor of South Carolina, Tillman, the JBHE observed, “signed a large number of Jim Crow laws and wrote a new state constitution that effectively removed blacks from political power and instituted rigid racial segregation.”

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) noted that in his campaign:

Tillman promised to keep the state’s African American population in a position of permanent inferiority. In his inaugural address and throughout his administration, he emphasized white supremacy and the necessity to revoke African Americans’ rights. Concerning the education of African Americans, Tillman argued, ‘when you educate a Negro, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.’”

After his terms as governor, Tillman was elected United States Senator for South Carolina in 1895. There he became a strident defender of white supremacy. Throughout his tenure, he opposed African American equality, women’s suffrage, and any federal interference in state government.

The New York Times observed:

When the 70-year-old Tillman died in 1918, he left behind a political legacy almost totally devoid of positive achievement. But, Kantrowitz reminds us, he left a powerful and tenacious legacy of another sort. In South Carolina, Tillman and his political allies ”fatally undermined the possibility of the development of a race-neutral language of manhood and citizenship.” The consequences of this perversion of democratic doctrine would burden the South deep into the 20th century.”

Ironically, as Slate reported, the rule famously used by Mitch McConnell in February 2017 to silence Elizabeth Warren “was created to protect delicate feelings of Senate’s foremost lynching advocate,” i.e., Benjamin Tillman. You can read about that rule here.

Tillman is immortalized by a larger-than-life bronze and granite memorial at South Carolina’s Statehouse, and both Tillman Hall at Clemson and Tillman Hall at Winthrop continue to bear his name. Some South Carolinians have lobbied to get the statue taken down.

July 17, 1947 – The U.S. District Court in South Carolina Opened the All-White Primary to Blacks

Julius Waties Waring was a white native of Charleston, South Carolina born in 1880, whose father and uncles had been slaveowners and Confederate war veterans. But somehow along the way, Waring got radicalized, and, as Wil Haygood wrote in Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, “He began expressing different views from what Charlestonians expected of him.” He even went so far as to allow blacks to sit wherever they wanted in his courtroom. He ruled against whites in court who committed crimes against blacks. He married a northerner, which in itself would have subjected him to censure. But most unforgivably, Judge Waring opened the all-white Democratic Primary in South Carolina to blacks with his ruling in Elmore v. Rice, 72 F. Supp. 516 (E.D.S.C. 1947).

Judge J. Waties Waring

Judge J. Waties Waring

The plaintiff, George Elmore, was a black man who brought suit because he was not permitted to vote in the Democratic Party’s primary election. It was the contention of the defendants that:

. . . the State having thus completely renounced control of political parties and primaries held thereunder, these party primaries are private matters, subject to the determinations and whims of its members, and that they may include or exclude members as they desire, according to racial or any other tests.”

But Waring reasoned (citing statistical evidence) that in Georgia, the Democratic Party is “the dominant and controlling political party.” Voting in the primary was for all intents and purposes equivalent to voting in a “general election.” So can the Democratic Party, he asked, actually be treated as a private organization?

Waring concluded:

I am of the opinion that the present Democratic Party in South Carolina is acting for and on behalf of the people of South Carolina; and that the Primary held by it is the only practical place where one can express a choice in selecting federal and other officials. Racial distinctions cannot exist in the machinery that selects the officers and lawmakers of the United States; and all citizens of this State and Country are entitled to cast a free and untrammeled ballot in our elections, and if the only material and realistic elections are clothed with the name “primary”, they are equally entitled to vote there.

It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union. It is time to fall in step with the other states and to adopt the American way of conducting elections.”


In time, his apostasy became dangerous for him. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his front lawn. He received threatening phone calls. Congressman Mendel Rivers of South Carolina was among those calling for Waring’s impeachment, predicting, “Unless he is removed, there will be bloodshed.”

Judge Waties Waring and his wife, Elizabeth, became close friends with Charleston NAACP leader Arthur J. Clement and his wife.

Judge Waties Waring and his wife, Elizabeth, became close friends with Charleston NAACP leader Arthur J. Clement and his wife.

Judge Waring retired in 1952 and he and his wife moved to New York, where they were more welcome.

May 23, 1788 – South Carolina Joins the Union As the 8th State

On this day in history, South Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution, becoming the eighth state to enter the American Union. The original colony, named Carolina after King Charles I, had been divided in 1710 into South Carolina and North Carolina.

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Slave owners had more control over the state government of South Carolina than in any other state, and in 1820, the legislature ended personal manumissions, requiring all slaveholders to gain individual permission from the legislature before freeing even family members.

Also in the 1820s, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun developed the theory of nullification, by which a state could reject any federal law it considered to be a violation of its rights.

Still, it wasn’t enough. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, the first of the Southern states to do so. Basically, South Carolina was incensed over the threat to the institution of slavery, according to its Declaration of Secession:

…the non-slaveholding States … have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

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After the end of the Civil War and the brief period of Reconstruction in which the North tried to enforce black rights, South Carolina once again renewed the effort to strip blacks of their freedom. Like other southern states, it instituted a number of “Jim Crow” laws to marginalize black Americans. The federal Civil Rights laws of the 1960s theoretically ended such practices and also protected the voting rights of African Americans. But in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (570 U.S. 529, 2013) struck down two important provisions of the Voting Rights Act. South Carolina was one of the first states attempting to take advantage of the Supreme Court decision by erecting increased barriers to voting for African-Americans and Latinos.

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Among the famous citizens hailing from South Carolina, one of the best known political figures is Strom Thurmond, who, in 1954, became the first US senator elected by write-in vote. Thurmond famously opposed civil rights for African Americans, stating in 1948:

… all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”

In opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he conducted the longest filibuster ever by a lone senator, at 24 hours and 18 minutes in length, nonstop. In the 1960s, he opposed the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 to end segregation and enforce the constitutional rights of African-American citizens, including suffrage.

Six months after Thurmond died in 2003, his mixed-race, grown daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that he was her father.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, Republican from South Carolina

Sen. Strom Thurmond, Republican from South Carolina

December 10, 1832 – President Andrew Jackson Repudiates the Doctrine of Nullification Issued by South Carolina

On this day in history, President Andrew Jackson responded to the action of the South Carolina legislature, which had declared a federal tariff law on imports “null, void, and no law, nor binding” upon South Carolina.

President Jackson issued a lengthy Proclamation decrying the ordinance passed by South Carolina and declaring:

I consider the power to annul a law of the United States assumed by the one state, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed. [emphasis in original.]”

He went on to point out that in coming together, the states formed “a government not a league,” and by taking this step, the constituent states “expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute, jointly with the other States, a single nation…” From this single nation they did not retain the right to secede. They did, by contrast, agree to transfer their allegiance to the government of the United States, to the Constitution, and to the laws made in conformity with it. And the laws of the United States, President Jackson assured his readers, must be executed.

[Well, unless Jackson himself disagreed with the law, as he did with the 1832 Supreme Court decision to protect the Cherokees in Worcester v. Georgia, but that’s another story….]

President Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

South Carolina still resisted, however, and even threatened Civil War. President Jackson then called on Congress for a Force Bill (4 Stat. 632, 1833), stipulating that the president could, if he deemed it necessary, deploy the U.S. Army to force South Carolina to comply with the law. Surrounding southern state legislatures also indicated they did not agree with the actions taken by South Carolina, and it finally capitulated – at least, until twenty-eight years later.

October 16, 1868 – Benjamin Randolph Assassinated in South Carolina

On this day in history, African-American Reverend Benjamin F. Randolph was gunned down on the train station platform by three white men in broad daylight as he changed trains in Hodges, South Carolina. Randolph was traveling through the state on behalf of Republican state and national candidates for office.

Randolph was born in Kentucky in 1820 to free African-Americans parents. He moved with his family to Ohio as a child, where he attended school and eventually studied at Oberlin College. In 1858, he moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he served as the principal of a public school for black students.

In December, 1863, Randolph joined the 26th Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored Troops at Rikers Island, New York as its chaplain. His regiment was discharged in South Carolina in August, 1865, and Randolph decided to stay in the state and help newly freed blacks obtain education. To that end, he was also active politically, becoming both a state senator and Republican committee officer.

After he was shot, the assailants rode away on horses without pursuit, and no one would identify them.

Benjamin F. Randolph, Harper's Weekly, October 25, 1868

Benjamin F. Randolph, Harper’s Weekly, October 25, 1868

As Douglas R. Egerton points out in the Prologue to his book The Wars of Reconstruction (Bloomsbury Press, 2014):

By [1866] Confederate veterans grasped that the White House ([under President Andrew Johnson] would not crack down on their retribution. … dogmatic southerners quietly but methodically attacked the rising generation of Republican Party functionaries.

As black activists paid for their convictions with their lives, terrified carpetbaggers – northern politicians, missionaries, and teachers – fled the South. . . . As these men and women well knew, Reconstruction did not fail; in regions where it collapsed it was violently overthrown by men who had fought for slavery during the Civil War and continued that battle as guerrilla partisans over the next decade. Democratic movements can be halted though violence.”

July 2, 1822 – Denmark Vesey Was Hanged in South Carolina

On this day in history, Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his own freedom and who had planned a slave insurrection, was hanged along with 34 other alleged conspirators.

Vesey had been a slave in both the Caribbean and South Carolina. He was able to buy his own freedom, but otherwise was stymied at every turn he took. He tried to purchase freedom for his wife and children, but his wife’s master refused to sell. Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but whites shut it down. He was also upset by the fact that the Charleston harbor was home to the nightmarish Sullivan’s Island, where some 40 percent of slaves entered the United States.

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By early 1822, Vesey allegedly began to plan a large slave rebellion. Unfortunately, some slaves fearful of repercussions exposed the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy, claiming that Vesey’s “diabolical plot” would have instigated “blood, outrage, rapine, and conflagration.”

After almost 200 years later, many South Carolinians have not changed their views. When a life-sized statute of Vesey was unveiled in Charleston on February 14, 2014, the media decried the tribute. A columnist for the Charleston City Paper, for example, wrote:

Those serious about fighting a “war on terror” might want to start in Charleston, where plans have been made to erect a statue honoring terrorist Denmark Vesey.”

Others said it was like honoring Osama bin Laden.

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Two historians at California State University in Fresno who wrote a book about slavery and public memory in Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (2018), noted that resistance to the monument has been formidable:

Local whites have offered the standard litany of excuses about the marginal role, and benign nature, of slavery.  Ground on the memorial was finally broken in February 2010, but only after opponents had prevented the statue’s placement in Marion Square.  The Denmark Vesey Memorial will stand in Hampton Park, far from the Calhoun Monument, far from the city’s historic district, far from the eyes of millions of tourists.”

Douglas R. Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College and the author of “He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey,” recalled in an editorial for The New York Times:

More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. ‘Why not work within the system for liberation,’ the man asked, or even ‘stage a protest march?’

Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that.”

On the other hand, monuments like these in York County, South Carolina, shown below, which memorialize the “Faithful Slaves” of the the Civil War, have been deemed more acceptable than the one to Vesey.

The inscription on one of the monuments reads in part:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.”

This is the “memory” the South wishes to preserve.

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As for that Denmark Vesey monument, it is still controversial, and was vandalized as recently as May 30, 2021.

May 10, 1740 – South Carolina Enacts the Negro Act of 1740

On this day in history, South Carolina passed an extensive list of rules regulating slavery. The justification for the legislation is provided at the outset:

WHEREAS, in his Majesty’s plantations in America, slavery has been introduced and allowed, and the people commonly called Negroes, Indians, mulattoes and mustizoes, have been deemed absolute slaves, and the subjects of property in the hands of the particular persons, the extend [sic] of whose power over such slaves ought to be settled and limited by positive laws, so that the slave may be kept in due subjection and obedience, and the owners and other persons having the care and government of slaves may be restrained from exercising too great rigour and cruelty over them, and that the public peace and order of this Province may be preserved: We pray your most sacred Majesty that it may be enacted….”

In specifying that “it shall be always presumed that every Negro, Indian, mulatto, and mustizo, is a slave,” with the burden of proof otherwise on the plaintiff, the act followed the adoption by Virginia in 1662 of the Roman legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, establishing that the legal status of the mother, not the father, determined the legal status of the child. This ensured that white masters could retain the popular option of using female slaves for sex, as well as retaining the value of “increase” when these female slaves gave birth.

The act went on (and on) to ensure that slaves were prohibited from growing their own food, learning to read, earning money, assembling in groups, using loud musical instruments (“which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes”), wearing nice clothes, killing a “whiter person,” and especially not inciting or attempting to incite an insurrection.

You can read the full text of this legislation here.

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769

April 12, 1861 – The American Civil War Began With the Attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina

In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. As more states followed suit and the Confederate States of America took shape, many federal installations in the South were taken over by state governments. Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, continued to fly the U.S. flag, even as Confederate forces surrounded it.

President Lincoln had just taken office and no shots had yet been fired when he received an urgent appeal from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor. They were running low on supplies, and the Confederates had so ringed the fort with military batteries that it seemed impossible any provisions could get through with anything less than “twenty thousand good and well disciplined men.” President Lincoln notified Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina that he needed to send provisions – food only – to the men stranded in the middle of the harbor at Fort Sumter. Pickens contacted Jefferson Davis, who directed communications to be exchanged between Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and Major Anderson.

Major Robert Anderson

Major Robert Anderson

As it turned out, Anderson had been Beauregard’s teacher at West Point. Beauregard was extremely courteous in his demand that Anderson evacuate the fort. Anderson thanked him for his communications, and declined with “regret.” The next day, April 12, at 3:20 in the morning, Anderson received this message:

Sir:
By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time. We have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servants.”

One hour later, the Civil War began.

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