On June 4, 1863, the quiet history of the sleepy planter’s town of Bluffton was forever divided into two chapters. As Union forces invaded the small Southern town, setting a torch to what had been a retreat for wealthy planters, Bluffton’s story was neatly segmented into what it was before the Civil War burning, and what it was after the burning.
It’s believed that Bluffton was targeted by such a vengeful military occupation not for any strategic purpose, but rather as retribution for a less literal fire set long before that. The secession movement, which saw South Carolina break ties with the United States of America, had its roots in anti-Union sentiment that had for years been called “The Bluffton Movement.”
The movement would eventually spark the Civil War, and bring the fire of Union forces down on Bluffton in dramatic fashion. Just 15 buildings survived that evening’s wrathful Northern incursion, 15 buildings that would dwindle to 10 as decay and neglect returned them to the earth. The fact that those 10 buildings are still remaining can almost entirely be attributed to the tireless efforts of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society (BHPS).
In fact, the BHPS calls one of those historic 10 buildings home, making its headquarters in the beautiful Heyward House Historic Center. The structure bears the scars of Northern incursion in the form of a carved message from a New York soldier in one of its rooms, but otherwise escaped the torches unscathed. It has been lovingly restored by the society over the years and is now a must-see for history lovers visiting Bluffton.
It’s not just a beautiful place to hang a shingle; BHPS Director Jeff Fulgham considers the restoration of the Heyward House to be among the society’s greatest accomplishments. “There have been a number of great accomplishments by many individuals, but I would have to say that transforming an old house into a functioning museum was one of the biggest,” he said. “Past executive director, Robert Jones, Jr., accomplished this and a number of other things during his time as director.”
Fulgham, a military veteran and Bluffton native, joined the society as directory on April 1, 2015. “I always enjoyed exploring and learning, and when I joined the military and began deploying I became interested in world history,” he said. “When I realized I knew more about ancient Egypt than my own home town, I figured I needed to research and write about Bluffton.”
That growing passion for Bluffton’s history led Fulgham to write The Bluffton Expedition, a meticulously researched and thoroughly engrossing account of that fateful June night in 1863. It also made him a perfect fit to serve as director of a society whose own mission was in a moment of evolution.
The Bluffton Historical Preservation Society begin in 1981, a year that in itself is slipping into ancient history. Bluffton native W. Hunter Saussy and a handful of like-minded locals realized that as the growth on nearby Hilton Head could potentially spill over into their little town, there was a need to catalogue what Bluffton was and what it had been before it was changed forever. The society’s mission was simpler in the beginning, as each member gathered their own small fragments of town history – family photos, newspaper clippings, etc., — and added them to what has become known as the Caldwell Archives, named after Ben and Betsy Caldwell. The couple had started this newer, less aggressive Bluffton movement by storing a wealth of historical documents in their home.
By 1988, the society’s mission had expanded. Realizing that the surviving buildings from the burning were slipping into decay, the group mobilized, placing historical markers on the 10 that remained. Shortly after, the society began purchasing as many of the properties as it could, turning the Heyward House into a museum as well as purchasing the ca. 1890 Colcock-Teel House.
And while the mission had expanded, that archive of Bluffton’s past first gathered in 1981 is still the society’s crown jewel. Moving forward, Fulgham wants to make sure those archives don’t go the way of those five houses that survived Union torches only to fall under the weight of time.
“We’re in the process of digitizing, inventorying, and safeguarding the archives. The importance of this project cannot be overemphasized,” he said. “We have original documents that exist nowhere else. When State Representative Bill Herbkersman heard of our efforts, he immediately sensed the magnitude of what we were doing and has since fought for state funding to support the BHPS mission. Preserving the archives literally translates into preservation of the BHPS. Without a central library and research center we would not really be a historical society.”
It’s a much different Bluffton than it was in 1981, and for the most part the original prediction that Bluffton might one day change forever has proven true. As Bluffton turns the page on its next chapter, Fulgham is making sure the society stays focused on its core principles.
“Bluffton is now a village of festivals, events, and social gatherings. This is not a bad thing for the BHPS, as long as we focus our efforts on our mission statement, which is to share Bluffton’s history with the public and to preserve it in the form of maintaining the Caldwell Archives and encouraging the preservation of historic buildings in the National Register District,” he said. “Successfully carrying out this mission takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and there are always distractions.”
But what sweet distractions they are. Whether it’s the Arts and Seafood Festival or just a Thursday Farmer’s Market, Bluffton’s many wonderful distractions always seem to rotate around the nucleus of its Old Town. And thanks to the diligent efforts of the BHPS, that Old Town presents a playground of authentic historical treasures, from the quiet grandeur of the Heyward House to the riverside majesty of Church of the Cross. It’s something that visitors have been quick to respond to.
“Not only do (visitors) share our appreciation for the town’s history, but, in many cases, their interest exceeds that of the locals,” said Fulgham. “I would like to encourage more locals to visit the Heyward House Historic Center and to come do research at the Caldwell Archives located at the Colcock-Teel House.”
Written by Barry Kaufman
Photos courtesy of the Bluffton Historical Society