Bluffton, SC: Where the Southern Secession Movement Took Root

Every school child in the country, north and south, knows how the Civil War “started” in Charleston, S.C., when rebel cannons fired on Fort Sumter. But as with most things we learn in school, the truth is a little more complicated than that.

The war truly started with the birth of the secession movement, as political forces and the general public’s disdain for the federal government collided to rend South Carolina’s marriage to the union null and void. The movement would ultimately split the country in half, opening wounds that still sting when the pressure is right. But before this anti-Union fervor came to be known as the secession movement, it was known by another name: The Bluffton Movement.

South Carolina Congressman Robert Barnwell Rhett was, by most contemporary accounts, the architect of secession. Written off by moderates as an extremist and by northerners as “the enfent terrible,” Rhett nonetheless had attracted many followers during his 20-year campaign to fight northern tariffs and champion state’s rights.

So when a group of wealthy planters invited Rhett to speak in the sleepy little farming town of Bluffton, it must have been quite the occasion to draw nearly 500 people (by some accounts) to hear him speak in the shade of a twisting live oak tree just off the May River. The contents of his speech are lost to history, but what is known is that his words ignited the crowd and helped launch the term “The Bluffton Movement” as contemporary shorthand for secessionist sentiment.

Indeed, the term “The Bluffton Movement” shows up time and again in newspapers and letters from that era right up until Christmas Eve of 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union.

The tree underneath which Rhett gave his speech still stands, and today the branches of the “Secession Oak” wind across a private dirt road in a town worlds removed from the sleepy farming town in which the tree was planted.

Courtesy of Southern Future.

"The tree underneath which Rhett gave his speech still stands."

Despite its fame, it somehow escaped Union torches during the infamous Burning of Bluffton. On June 4, 1863, nearly a thousand Union troops descended on the Town of Bluffton, spurred on by its symbolic place as the birthplace of secession. Homes and farms were put before the torch, with just a handful of antebellum structures left standing.

And among the ashes, branches spreading wide, was the Secession Oak.

Undoubtedly the best source for a deeper dive into Bluffton’s unheralded role in the war can be found in local author and historian Jeff Fulgham’s “The Bluffton Expedition.”

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