Oak Grove Plantation Brunson Hampton County
Robert Major Richardson shares his family's experience when Union troops came to Oak Grove Plantation in February 1865
It has long been maintained in our family that the house was built by my Great, Great, Great Grandfather, James Cameron Richardson in 1852. His son, Cameron Gregg Richardson, my Great-Great-Grandfather, informed my Grandmother, Roberta Estelle Major, stories of that eventful winter of 1865. He was 9 years old in late January of that year.
It was at this time that word reached Oak Grove of the approach of Gen. William T. Sherman's Union Army. Everyone on the plantation began scurrying about to hide food and valuables. Shortly afterwards, Union troops rode up the avenue of oaks to the house. They stormed inside and began bayoneting mattresses, bureau locks, knocked holes in the plastered walls all in an effort to find items to steal. Some soldiers removed the privy house outside in order to jump into the waste to see if valuables were hidden there. They learned during their march through Georgia that valuables were sometimes hidden in such a manner.
These lawless, undisciplined foragers tried on three occasions to set fire to the house. Only with great effort by my Great-Great-Great-Grandmother, Henrietta Thames Richardson, and the help of numerous house servants and slaves, were the house fires finally extinguished before causing significant damage.
After two days of enduring numerous visits by Sherman's marauding foragers, the right wing column of the Union Army arrived. The entire 15th Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, 15,000 soldiers, camped around the house. General Sherman's army used the house as one of his headquarters for two days. Sherman recorded in his memoirs that on the night of February 2, 1865, he spent the night in a plantation house located near Duck Branch Post Office. Duck Branch Post office was located on the Pocotaligo Stage Road which ran through the family estate two hundred yards from the Richardson home. Sherman stated that he awoke during the night and took a mantel clock off of the fireboard, smashed it, and threw the wood into the fireplace to feed a dying fire in order to get warm. He boasted that this was the only act of vandalism against private property that he personally committed during his army's march of destruction through South Carolina.
My Great-Great-Grandfather told my Grandmother that Gen. Sherman planned his march on Columbia via a large map of South Carolina that hung on the wall above the desk in James Cameron Richardson's study. Another story tells of James Cameron Richardson meeting Gen. Sherman on the steps of the house. As they shook hands, they noticed that both of them used the Masonic handshake. My Great-Great-Great-Grandfather said, "I ask you, Brother Mason, in the name of our fraternal order, do not destroy my home." Sherman assured him that the house would be protected. He ordered guards to be posted at each entrance of the house with orders to shoot any soldier that did not have authorization to enter. That is why Oak Grove is one of a handful of Civil War era homes in what is today Hampton County to still be in existence.
But the story that is most touching is that of little 9-year old Cameron, breaking down in tears and sobbing at the sight of all those thousands of enemy troops camped around his family's property. The aroma of suppers cooking on campfires filled the air during the last rays of twilight, and he had not eaten in three days. One kind Union soldier took notice and gave Cameron a piece of cornbread. But before he could raise it to his mouth, another Union soldier slapped the food out of Cameron's hand and ground it into the dirt telling the kind soldier that he would report him to their superior officer for giving a 'Secesh', an enemy, something to eat.
After two days of occupation, the Union army broke camp and continued its march of destruction toward Columbia. My Great-Great-Grandfather related how difficult it was on the plantation to find something to eat. The Yankees took everything. However, that was not as bad as the tragic news that arrived in late March of 1865. For at this time the Richardson family received a letter from Albert's [James Cameron Richardson's son] commanding officer, informing them of Albert's death in a fierce night skirmish fought on the Lynches River near present-day Bishopville, SC. Albert was a sergeant in Co. B, 5th S.C. Calvary, of Butlers Brigade. His unit was patrolling the fords of the river, searching for any unprotected, isolated units of Sherman's marching columns to attack, as they continued their march towards North Carolina.
On the night of February 26, 1865, Albert's unit repelled a Union attempt to cross the river in a brief, but fierce, night skirmish that lasted for less than a half-hour. The letter stated that Sergeant Albert rushed his command to the ford to contest an attempted crossing by the Union Calvary. A pistol ball struck him in the heart. He died instantly. After the skirmish was over, and the Union calvary's repulse, Albert's body, along with four additional Confederates killed in the foray, were wrapped in their tent flaps, and draped over their mounts. They were taken to Mt. Elon Baptist Church in what is now Lee County and left on the pews with attached notes identifying who they were and asking congregation members to give them a proper Christian burial for they did not have the time and were having to quickly move out.
Oak Grove remained a part of our family until the deepest depth of the Great Depression in 1932. During the last couple of decades before that time, the land of Oak Grove had increasingly become exhausted, and yielded little to earn enough money to support Dr. Richardson's family. Therefore, Cameron Gregg's son Walter, the banker, convinced his father to mortgage the plantation in order to buy a large truck farm 9 miles north of Beaufort, SC at Whales Branch. This took place approximately in 1910 during the agricultural boom times before, and during World War I. For the next several years Dr. Richardson's truck farm flourished financially, growing multiple acres of tomatoes, melons, strawberries, corn, and various types of peppers. Most of this produce was packed and shipped to cities in the northeast via a railroad that ran through the Richardson property. However, an agricultural depression started a few years later and wreaked havoc on the rural economy of South Carolina. Nearly all of the patrons of the Bank of Beaufort were farmers. Due to the deepening of the agricultural depression, many of them defaulted on their loans. A vicious cycle of foreclosures rapidly spread across the South Carolina Lowcountry with the end result being the failure of the Bank of Beaufort in 1926.
Dr. Richardson had to deal with this deepening financial crisis by breaking off tracts of land from his beloved Oak Grove plantation to sell in order to meet his financial shortcomings. During the next several years the depression waxed into the most severe in our nations history. Each year Dr. Richardson held on tenuously, despite an increasingly bleak state of affairs. Finally, by 1932 only 19 acres remained along with the house of the original Oak Grove estate. A property tax lien of $1,000 was charged against the property. Property values had plummeted by 1932 to the extent that the house and the remaining 19 acres of Oak Grove was worth very little in comparison to its wealthy splendor of earlier times. My Great-Great-Grandfather could not pay the tax, and subsequently, lost the family estate in 1932.
Since then, several families have owned the house and have worked to restore it to its original appearance. One owner, Joseph Gallagher, conducted interviews with Richardson family members and completed the necessary research and lengthy paper work to have Oak Grove placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.