Unknown stories of Bluffton: Eulogy for the Secession Oak
Story + Photos By Eddy Hoyle
Originally I wrote a story about the history of the Secession Oak in Bluffton. Unfortunately, I had to rewrite it as a eulogy.
On February 6, I went to see the grand tree for the first time with my husband, Renny. We stood in awe of the huge oak with its massive trunk and immense canopy. I commented that it was a miracle that this mighty oak could bear the weight of so many huge limbs. Ironically, four days later, this symbol of the Confederacy could no longer bear its own weight, and it collapsed, split in two and fell. This photo I took that day may be the last picture ever taken of the Secession Oak in its centuries-old glory.
I had asked Renny to stand next to the tree for perspective. A picture of the grand dame, solitary and alone, could never capture the true girth and height without an element with which to compare it. Renny is 6’2” tall, and he was dwarfed by the Secession Oak. We used a tape measure to see what the circumference was, and we recorded a whopping 25 feet, seven inches.
Could it be karma that we were blessed to be there before ‘the fall?’ As I circled the tree and touched its bark, I wondered if it could speak; what stories it could tell, what secrets it held. Perhaps it could tell us how the Bluffton Movement was the true impetus of the Civil War. Now, ironically, as America has begun to remove Confederate monuments and confront the challenges of improving race relations, the Secession Oak split apart and fell – in February, Black History Month.
This magnificent live oak tree was tucked away and hidden from public view on a private, dirt road in Bluffton. Its broad canopy stretched across the sky, and it would probably have taken about five people holding hands to encircle its massive trunk. It had no historical marker or signage that designated its place in history. It sat alone, isolated and largely unnoticed. Yet, like an acorn that drops from an oak and gives birth to a seedling, under its boughs the seeds of secession were planted on July 31, 1844 – over 16 years before the cannons fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston.
Jeff Fulgham is a former executive director for the Historic Bluffton Foundation and is considered an expert on secession. He is the author of The Bluffton Expedition: The Burning of Bluffton, South Carolina During the Civil War, in which he provides a detailed account of the Bluffton Movement and what led up to it.
South Carolina Congressman Robert Barnwell Rhett was, by most accounts, the architect of secession. He had championed state’s rights and initiated a campaign to fight Northern tariffs that were crippling the South’s economy. His fiery rhetoric attracted many followers and he was invited to give a speech in Bluffton on July 31, 1844.
Fulgham said, “Based on my research, I estimate that there were several hundred in attendance at the initial Bluffton Movement meeting on July 31, 1844. Probably around 200 or 300. Because rain had been consistent for several days according to reports, this was a considerable number because some came from 20 and 30 miles distant.”
This crowd in the sleepy village of Bluffton was not a ragtag group of radicals who heard Rhett proclaim that it was time to consider separation from the Union. Quite the contrary, the site of the Secession Oak is regarded as the birthplace of the Bluffton Movement which grew until South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in 1860.
According to Fulgham, “The organizers consisted of a wealthy group of plantation owners from Bluffton and surrounding areas. They were protesting the federal tariff which was a tax on imported goods that was especially costly to Southerners who lacked manufacturing facilities. Those in attendance represented the top 10 percent of the wealth.”
“The Bluffton Boys were not exclusively from Bluffton,” Fulgham stated. “This phrase eventually became synonymous with those who represented the movement. They included popular names like James Henry Hammond, John McQueen, William F. Colcock and others.”
The contents of Rhett’s speech are lost to history, but what is known is that his words ignited secessionist sentiment. He was a passionate crusader whose rallying call inspired many and he was the impetus of the Bluffton Movement, later known as the secession movement.
History books cite the rebel cannon fire at Fort Sumter as the start of the Civil War, but that’s not entirely true. The rebellious sentiments and economic suffering in the South were first radicalized under the Secession Oak.
Political forces and disdain for the federal government fueled the movement that would ultimately split the country in half. Southern politics against slavery, rising taxes and tariffs would result in the state’s secession from the Union on December 20, 1860. The first shots followed only four months later at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, as South Carolina dove headfirst into a ruinous Civil War.
It’s quite a story, and it all started under the magnificent, silent oak in Bluffton.