When the guns fired on federal troops in Fort Sumter 150 years ago this week, it would have been to the applause of the wealthy rice planters of Georgetown, who had amassed a fortune in the labor-intensive rice culture with the use of thousands of slaves.
They had been among the leaders in the state's secession movement and watched closely as the abolitionist movement progressed, fearing an end to their economic way of life as well as what they viewed as a perfect society where, "if a white, then a free citizen, if a Negro, then a slave, at least, one without political rights."
Those were the words of Plowden C.J. Weston, scholar, political leader and planter of True Blue, Weehauka and Waterford on Waccamaw Neck, at a July 4, 1848, celebration at Wachesaw Plantation.
The ghosts of that rice culture and its slave connections exist today. A few of those plantations remain, and the names of many others are now more familiar as subdivisions and golf courses. Slave houses may be viewed on tours at Hobcaw Barony and Hopsewee Plantation.
The remnants of the rice fields also remain along the rivers, mostly used now for waterfowl hunting. Their collapse bears testimony to the importance of slave labor to Georgetown planters, who had more to lose by the abolition of slavery than those anywhere else in the South.
"In the 50 years from 1810 to 1860 the slaves composed 85 percent to 89 percent of the population of Georgetown District, the highest percentage of slaves in any district in South Carolina," wrote historian George C. Rogers Jr., author of "The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina."
The Georgetown area was the main rice-growing area of the nation. The amount varied from year to year, but in 1840 the Georgetown planters grew more than 36 million pounds, compared with a national total of 80 million pounds.
The county's five rivers and the method that used the fertile river bottoms for growing and the effects of the tides to flood the fields made the area a center of the culture of the popular Carolina Gold rice.
"The profits from rice planting were high," Rogers wrote.
Riches from rice
Joshua John Ward and his family owned two of the plantations that are now part of Brookgreen Gardens. They probably earned about $141,000 in 1859, according to Rogers. The sums seem small by today's standards but were princely at a time when a fine house in downtown Charleston could be had for $20,000, the plantation overseers earned about $500 a year and a person to work the fields could be bought for $500.
"Some of the largest fortunes from the pursuit of agriculture in the antebellum South were accumulated by the rice planters," Dennis Lawson wrote in "No Heir to Take Its Place."
In the golden era of the decades just before the war, Georgetown was one of the richest regions anywhere.
The planters enjoyed lives that included homes in Georgetown as well as Charleston, and sometimes in cooler parts of the state or in New England. Their children were usually sent to private school or tutored. They had books, fine wines and liquor, horse racing events, nightly parties during the social season and slaves to attend to their every personal need as well as to work in the fields.
With the high proportion of slaves to owners, the planters feared what might happen in an uprising. They equally feared what would happen to the ruling class if the slaves were freed.
"The problem that the whole state faced in reference to slavery was more accentuated in this district than in any other," Rogers wrote.
Robert F. W. Allston, owner of Chicora Wood Plantation and manager of others, was another leader of the secession movement.
He wrote in a diary that "the Southern states claim for their citizens the right to settle in any part of said territory where their slave labor may be profitable, or its service convenient."
In 1855, Kansas became a battleground of the new state dispute, so intensely that Georgetown planters put up money to send people and their slaves to live there.
Allston himself gave $430 to the cause and pledged a slave to anyone who would participate.
"We are disposed to fight the battle of our rights with abolitionists and anti-slavery on the field of Kansas," Allston wrote to his son. If the slave owners were beaten there, "our equality in the union will be lost, and we must prepare for organization and defense."
The slave owners had been able to maintain a balance of slave and non-slave states as new ones entered the union, and they feared being outvoted if that balance went against them.
Struggles over the slavery question in new states nearly led to secession in 1850, when Southern Rights Associations sprang up across the slave states, which disagreed with the latest congressional approach to the issue.
Both All Saints' and Winyah parishes in Georgetown County formed rights groups, along with the militia unit the Winyah Minute Men. The slave owners would take a stand for their rights even if it involved violence, they said.
"Unless the Northern people now come to be reasonable people, revolution will be unavoidable. It were better to settle the matter now than to leave it to our children," Allston wrote in a letter quoted in Rogers' book.
Tempers flared so hotly that Joel R. Poinsett warned in a letter to the people published in a Charleston newspaper that secession was revolution and South Carolinians should consult maps and census figures before mistaking violence for power.
Poinsett had been a diplomat and state secretary of war as well as a rice planter in Georgetown County. He later became more famous for bringing from Mexico and popularizing the plant now named for him, the poinsettia.
The tempers of 1850 cooled, but the planters remained vigilant for any further threats to their way of life.
Taking a stand
Allston, who had been a leader in the state Senate as South Carolina began its march toward war, was elected governor in 1856. In his message to the legislature he told of the resolutions against slavery he had received from Maine and Connecticut and dismissed them as frivolous.
"In preserving and protecting the property of our fathers in Negro slaves, we deem ourselves entitled to the respect and aid of all good men and wise statesmen," he said.
"There are few results more amazing in statistics than those which are produced by the fruits of this labor, a labor which could no more be dispensed with by America now, than could the commerce and manufacturers to dependent on its productions."
Feelings again cooled until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Although Lincoln had pledged not to interfere with slavery, his party's platform was abolitionist and the slave owners decided it was time to act.
The six delegates from Georgetown County were among those who voted unanimously for the Ordinance of Secession in the early winter of 1860.
The Georgetown Rifle Guards, a local militia organized decades earlier, was the first troop to offer itself for the cause. They signed up Jan. 2, 1861, and were posted to a garrison on South Island.
Georgetown rice planter J. Motte Alston wrote in his memoirs that when Sumter was attacked, he asked Unionist planter J.L. Petigru how it would end.
"Alston, don't you know that the whole world is against slavery?" he wrote that Petigru replied. "So if the South is to fight for that, rest assured it is lost, never mind which side wins."
"He was right," Alston added.