William Gilmore Simms, Woodlands, and the Freedmen's Bureau

By Singleton, Robert R. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

William Gilmore Simms, Woodlands, and the Freedmen's Bureau


Singleton, Robert R., The Mississippi Quarterly


Four letters [Appendix A] by James C. Beecher, Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, commander of the 35th United States Colored Troops and sub-assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau first in Barnwell District (county), South Carolina, and then in adjacent Colleton District, reveal a hitherto unreported story of confrontation between William Gilmore Simms, the freedpersons at Woodlands, his plantation, and the Freedman's Bureau in the summer and fall of 1865. They reveal "Regulator" or vigilante activity at Woodlands led by Simms's neighbors and close friends. They reveal conflict between units of the U.S. occupying army. And they also reveal that Woodlands was for a time classified as Abandoned.

Eighteen sixty-five was an annus horribilis for the Simms family: Woodlands had been burned by stragglers in Sherman's army sometime in' February, the second time the house had burned since 1862. Simms's oldest son, William Gilmore, Jr., had been stricken with typhoid while travelling home from military service and was convalescing in Chester, South Carolina, sixty-five miles from Columbia. Simms had had almost no income from literary production since the beginning of the War, and now his plantation -- stripped of its labor force, tools, seeds, mules, cattle -- was uninhabitable and unproductive. Simms had left Woodlands -- "abandoned" would be the word employed by the Freedmen's Bureau's sub-commissioner Beecher -- in the care of a Mrs. Hopson Pinckney, an old friend, and had gone with some of his six children to Columbia, South Carolina, in expectation of Sherman's coming. He had hired out twelve of his eighty slaves to work at jobs away from Woodlands,(1) twenty-eight to thirty had been "carried off" by the Sherman stragglers, and about forty-five remained on the place. He had removed some furniture and food with him to Columbia and hoped (vainly) for a chance to remove his library of 10,700 books. The library was destroyed with the house. So short of money was Simms, so beset was he with caring for his twenty-two-year-old son, Gilmore, and other children, so uncertain was railroad and mail service, that Simms seems not to have returned to Woodlands between the fall of Columbia on February 17 and the commencement of the events related in these letters in late June of 1865. Sometime before August 12 William Gilmore Simms, Jr. ("Gilmore") had "taken charge of the place," had countermanded Beecher's orders, and had attempted to take "ostensibly one fourth the entire crop." The daughter who "did [Beecher] the honor to say that [his] order was most ungentlemanly" was probably the thirty-eight-year-old Anna Augusta Simms Roach (Beecher's first letter), who was living near Bamberg.

By August 12 (L, IV, 514) all the Simmses except the writer were back in Barnwell or Orangeburg attempting at Woodlands to "make some out-houses habitable." Simms himself planned to return to Woodlands the week of October 1 (L, IV, 552). Beecher's first letter, dated September 23, 1865, refers to his June visit to Woodlands, apparently his first, and includes an enclosure dated June 23 which gives his orders for distribution of the crop under direction of freedman Billy Curry, whom Beecher designates "foreman." We learn in Beecher's second letter that on August 21 "Simms Jr" has contested Beecher's orders at a military court of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, another black unit, in Bamberg, which now has jurisdiction over Woodlands. The fact that Beecher is no longer the Bureau sub-commissioner in Barnwell District does not stop him, with permission from his superior in the Bureau, General Rufus Saxton,(2) from issuing at least one final confirmation (Enclosure B, dated October 3) of his order that the entire crop of approximately seventy-five acres of corn and rice belonged exclusively to the forty-seven freedpersons under Billy Curry's supervision. (A list of these forty-seven was found at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College and is included in Appendix B.

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