Civil War intrigue still captures the spirit in old Beaufort inn

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 9, 2013 

Dr. James R. "Jimmy" Mitchell Sr. is shown on the porch of the Cuthbert House Inn on Bay Street in Beaufort. He lived in the antebellum mansion as a child.

SUBMITTED PHOTO

If walls could talk, we might know what put a rare smile on the face of Jimmy Mitchell.

It came during his recent visit to the John A. Cuthbert House on Beaufort's Bay Street.

The 92-year-old retired pharmacist lived there as a child, and he often told his own five children romantic stories about the ante-bellum mansion.

He talked of little boys having sword battles with real swords they weren't supposed to touch.

But today, Mitchell remembers very little. Alzheimer's disease has taken a slow toll on him. Still, he looked forward to the trip when three of his children and their spouses drove him down from Batesburg-Leesville near Columbia to see the old house once again.

He saw the beautifully restored and furnished Cuthbert House Inn, a nine-room bed-and-breakfast whose white columns stand above the Beaufort bay across the street.

Owners Jeff and Mary Ann Thomas warmly welcomed their special guests. They pulled out an old newspaper photo that might have had family members in it.

"He kept repeating, 'Boy, this sure does bring back memories,' " said Mitchell's son, James R. "Jim" Mitchell Jr. "He used to always say he should have kept a couple of those swords. But this time he didn't say anything specific. We're not sure what his memories were this time."

The stories the house can tell -- about war and reconstruction, historic preservation, and the hospitality economy -- should never be forgotten in Beaufort.

CORNERSTONE OF HISTORY

Mitchell's father moved around a lot, working for a casket company, so Mitchell didn't live there long. It was in the 1930s, more than a century after the home's oldest walls were built between 1805 and 1811. John A. Cuthbert was a planter and civic leader who built it in the Federal style for his new bride, Mary B. Williamson.

By the time everyone fled Beaufort in the twinkling of an eye at the outset of the Civil War, Mary was twice widowed. She escaped to the Aiken area when federal troops took control in late 1861, and never returned.

If those tall walls could talk, they might explain the night infamous U.S. Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman spent the night there.

What did he say to Union Gen. Rufus Saxton, who was living there? Saxton was assigned the task of establishing from scratch a new world for freedmen -- the same freedmen Sherman wanted to offload after they latched on during his fiery march to the sea.

Saxton's job must have cost him a lot of sleep in the old house. It entailed jobs, wages, education, voting, military service, health care and land ownership for freedmen -- the birth of a social revolution that would still be rocking the nation a century later.

Sherman's visit on Jan. 23, 1865, came one week after he signed his famous Special Field Order No. 15, known for guaranteeing certain freedmen "40 acres and a mule." Saxton was to oversee the complex proposition, and the old abolitionist balked, fearing it would be another in a string of broken promises to the freedmen.

Whatever was said at the Cuthbert House, Saxton withdrew an offer of resignation. Sherman then marched on to burn Columbia. By July, Saxton had overseen the settlement of 40,000 freedmen.

A picture of Sherman hangs on a back wall at the Cuthbert House Inn, and Jeff Thomas said his guests often recoil, and ask why.

NEW LIFE

Saxton bought the house for $1,000 at auction, when it was sold in 1863 for the lack of $54 in taxes, Thomas said. Saxton sold it in 1882 to one of his top men, Col. D.C. Wilson, who had come south during the war to build barracks and a large hospital on Hilton Head Island.

Wilson -- who became instrumental in the Port Royal railroad, and for whom a city park is named -- enlarged the home. It subsequently became a rooming house and then apartments.

Thomas said former residents come to visit right often. Once, a group of former teachers spent a weekend there in a reunion 50 years after they taught up the street at Beaufort High School.

The neighboring Presbyterian church bought the house about 100 years after Saxton did. It was in bad shape, and was almost torn down for a new sanctuary. But public sentiment was against it, and it was spared. Thomas Logan bought it 1972, about the time it was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Because it was saved, the Cuthbert House was restored by successive owners and has lived to be a place where people from around the globe come to drink in Beaufort's old stories.

Sometimes the stories and mysteries are buried in the walls.

"For Dad, there was something there that he could put a finger on," Jim Mitchell said. "This might have been a tad bit cathartic for the three children, too. It let us see Dad remember, and see him be at peace with all this stuff. He wore the biggest grin I've seen in a long time."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content: National Register of Historic Places sites in Beaufort County

The Cuthbert House Inn

Beaufort tourism information

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