South Carolina encompasses 31,113 square miles of territory and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, North Carolina to the north, and Georgia to the south and west. It is a varied state in terms of climate and topography. It includes highlands and mountains (part of the Appalachian chain) in the northwest; predominantly clay and sandy flatlands in mid-state; and low-lying sandy topography punctuated by vast salt marshes and swamps along the coastal plain. Extreme cold weather is uncommon throughout the state, although freezing temperatures and occasional snow and ice are not rare in the upper half of the state. Near and along the coast, especially from the city of Charleston south, the climate is subtropical, where freezing temperatures are not common and frozen precipitation is rare.
Slavery and states' rights have always been important issues in South Carolina. Indeed, the state had considered secession in the early 1830s over the question of high tariffs. While South Carolinians remained in the Union, less than 30 years later they again flirted with secession. One of the reasons why South Carolina looked to secession, and ultimately left the Union, was because of the dominance of agriculture in the state's economy. That agricultural economy was heavily dependent upon slave labor. Because plantations and smaller-scale farming were the major means of subsistence in South Carolina, slavery was considered to be a critical linchpin in the state's prosperity. According to the 1860 census, South Carolina had a total population of 703,708 people, of whom 402,406, or 57.2%, were slaves. The state was also home to more than 9,000 free blacks. Whites constituted only 41% of the population. Most of the population was centered in the Low Country region near the coast, or in the two major cities of Columbia (the capital) and Charleston.
The major crops produced in South Carolina were cotton, rice, indigo, and sugarcane. On the sea islands south of Charleston, the warm, moist climate allowed for the cultivation on long-staple (or Sea Island) cotton, which was among the most expensive and sought after in the world. Most of the state's cotton was exported from Charleston to port cities in the North as well as Europe. Great Britain, one of the world's leading textile manufacturers, received close to 75% of its cotton from the United States, and the majority of this came from South Carolina.
Political power in the state was held by a small minority of rich plantation owners who often lived in Charleston or Beaufort and only spent a small amount of time on their plantations. Because of the large African American population, the small planter class was able to use the fear of potential slave revolts to gain the support of poor and middle-class whites who did not own slaves themselves. Indeed, most of the state's whites did not own slaves. They often resented the planter class but nevertheless felt obliged to align themselves with upper-class whites.
Gov. William H. Gist, a Democrat, led South Carolina out of the Union. Gist was known as a fire-eater, a term given to extremist pro-slavery and pro–states' rights politicians who favored leaving the Union rather than compromising their lifestyle. After receiving assurances from the governors of Florida and Mississippi that those two states would follow South Carolina's lead, Gist called for a convention that unanimously voted to make South Carolina an independent republic. While Gist called the convention, a new governor, Francis W. Pickens, was sworn into office before it could take place. Pickens' politics were similar to those of Gist, and it was under his administration that South Carolina entered the Confederacy.
Upon assuming office, Pickens called for the United States Army to abandon their forts within the state, including Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. When the commander of that fort refused, Pickens, in conjunction with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, authorized the bombardment of Fort Sumter, setting off the Civil War.
Early in the war, in November 1861, Federal forces took two Confederate forts in Port Royal Sound, providing an important base for subsequent Union coastal operations. Although major fighting did not come to South Carolina until 1865, during Major General William T. Sherman's Carolinas Campaign, Union soldiers did occupy the Sea Islands in and around Port Royal Sound early in the war. From these bases they harassed ships delivering supplies to South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The U.S. Navy instituted a blockade off Charleston and mounted a major naval assault under Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont on April 7, 1863, which resulted in failure. Union troops tried unsuccessfully to take Battery Wagner protecting the harbor in July 1863. In mid-February 1865, Sherman's army reached Columbia, having encountered no significant opposition. The city's mayor surrendered the city, but on February 17, a huge conflagration consumed much of the city. The cause of the fire is still unknown; some argue that retreating Confederates accidentally started it by setting goods on fire to keep them out of Union hands. Others claim that Union forces set the fire to punish the state for its role in sparking the Civil War. In any case, Charleston fell on February 21, and Union troops immediately raised the American flag over Forth Sumter for the first time since 1861.
During the war, South Carolina raised 33 infantry regiments for the Confederacy. It also provided 7 cavalry regiments as well as 1 regiment and battalion of heavy artillery and 29 battalions of light artillery. In April 1862, the Palmetto Sharp Shooters (also known as Jenkin's Infantry Regiment or "Jenkin's Brigade") was formed from the state's 2nd, 5th, and 9th Infantry regiments, with a strength of some 1,100 men. Colonel Mica Jenkins commanded the outfit, which eventually saw 1,650 soldiers serve in its ranks. It saw action mostly in Virginia, but also in Tennessee; in April 1865, it was among the Confederate units that surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The state also furnished four colored regiments that fought for the North in the Union Army. In 1861, South Carolina had a white military-age population (18–45) of 55,046; during the war, it lost more white men between the ages of 18–45 than any other Confederate state, 23% of its prewar white population. More than 130,000 South Carolinians served in the war. Known South Carolina dead in the war total 18,666, but the actual number who died may be as high as 23,000. Seth A. Weitz
Edgar, Walter B. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998; Ford, Lacy K. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991; Rogers, George C., Jr., and James C. Taylor. A South Carolina Chronology 1497–1992. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994; Wallace, David Duncan. South Carolina: A Short History, 1520–1948. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1961.
Seth A. Weitz