The British had been digging trenches around Charleston for weeks — a classic European siege technique, each line closer to the city than the last. It was May 1780 and inside Charleston a young judge, Thomas Heyward Jr., made a gesture the British would not forget.
Heyward was born in 1746 on his father’s Old House plantation, southeast of Ridgeland in present-day Jasper County.
At 30 years old in 1776, he was one of four men from South Carolina to sign the Declaration of Independence and he would go on to lead the colony through the American Revolution.
As the British army collected around Charleston four years after the signing, Heyward made another kind of declaration. He found three loyalists, all Charleston citizens, guilty of treasonable correspondence and sent them outside the city walls. Within plain sight of the British, they were executed.
Days later, when the British accepted the unconditional surrender of Charleston, they did not smile on Heyward. He was taken from his home, confined to a prison ship and sent to St. Augustine, Fla., where he would stay in exile until the British surrender at Yorktown.
Two hundred and twenty five years later, monuments to Heyward stand in Washington, D.C., and throughout South Carolina — a private school in Jasper County and a Beaufort chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution bear his name.
His famous White Hall mansion didn’t survive the Civil War, but his body remains entombed in the family cemetery on S.C. 462 near Ridgeland — just 100 yards from where he was born.
The live oaks that shade the small plot of land were planted when Heyward was a boy.
The makings of a revolutionary
The siege of Charleston went quickly and with few casualties. Most historians blame poor strategy by the colonial commander
Maj. General Benjamin Lincoln who garrisoned his troops within the walled city rather than dispersing them throughout the neighboring creeks and rivers. The fall of Charleston was the greatest American loss of manpower and equipment during the war — effectively giving the British control of all the Southern colonies.
Heyward had a dual role in the city’s defense, as a judge and commander of the Charleston Artillery Company.
But it was far from his first fight.
During the Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal in 1779, Heyward scored a temporary victory for the 13 colonies by directing six-pound guns as an artillery captain alongside Edward Rutledge. A musket ball grazed Heyward, but still, the British were routed for the day.
Four year’s earlier he was an officer in the first attack on the British within the Southern colonies at Fort Johnson on James Island. After the fort was seized, the colonial commanding officer Col. William Moultrie requested a new flag for his victorious troops — a silver palmetto and crescent moon on dark blue flew for the first time.
Heyward’s politics estranged him from his father, Col. Daniel Heyward, one of the richest planters in the South Carolina colony. The family fortune was built on rice and indigo distributed through England. Independence meant dissolution of an otherwise profitable economic relationship.
“Heyward’s father didn’t leave his son very much,” said Harold Guerry, a member of the Jasper Historical Society. “He didn’t think Thomas would live through the revolution.”
With his father’s means, Heyward was given the finest education available from the start. The “Jr.” was later added to his name, as was the custom at the time, because his uncle was also named Thomas.
“He got the best legal education in the world at Middle Temple, essentially the law school of England,” said Walter Edgar, professor of Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina. “He was then admitted to the London Bar, which means he had to be an excellent lawyer.”
After law school, Heyward spent several years on continental Europe, acquainting himself with the Western cannon. Throughout his life he was known as an aficionado of fine art and a man of the enlightenment. Heyward returned to South Carolina in 1771 and immediately took up the revolutionary cause.
“The fact that Heyward was a very ardent revolutionary from the beginning is striking,” Edgar said. “Most people took time to see how each side played out, but he was very involved from the beginning.”
A war on all fronts
Early on Heyward served in the Charleston Artillery Company and the Beaufort Safety Commission, which incubated and organized local militias that would later rise against the British.
“In the colonies at that time, probably one-third favored independence, one-third favored the British and one-third didn’t care,” said Milton Gustafson, an archivist at the National Archive in Washington, D.C., that houses the original copy of the historic document.
After the siege of Charleston, Heyward’s plantation outside Ridgeland was ransacked, and his city townhouse was mobbed by British troops and loyalists. But the family revolutionary spirit flared on the domestic front too. His first wife, Elizabeth, refused to bend to British officialdom at their Charleston home.
“During Heyward’s imprisonment, when the British army won the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, (Charleston) inhabitants were instructed to light candles in their windows to celebrate the victory,” Walter Fraser, a former USC and Georgia Southern University historian wrote in his book, “Patriots, Pistols and Petticoats.” “When Mrs. Heyward’s house at 87 Church remained shrouded in darkness, a British officer went to investigate and demanded an explanation, to which Mrs. Heyward replied that as long as her husband was a political prisoner, she could feel no ‘spark of joy’ at a British victory.”
The commander insisted she adhere to the British rule or risk a razing by rowdy soldiers, to which Mrs. Heyward replied: “I will not illuminate.”
Her political convictions matched and supported her husband, but she would never see him again. She died of illness before he was released from Florida exile.
The house still stands at 87 Church St., owned and operated by the Charleston Museum as the Heyward-Washington House, due to an extended stay by the nation’s first president.
Several myths flowered out of Heyward’s prison stay. In his introduction to a brief biography on Heyward, J.E. McTeer — the famous Beaufort sheriff and direct descendant of the revolutionary — recalls a tour he took of the old Spanish fort.
“One prisoner, Thomas Heyward Jr. gave the guards considerable trouble,” McTeer recounts the tour guide’s speech. “He just refused to conform and led the other prisoners in singing a song he had composed to the tune of ‘God Save the King’ which in essence said ‘God Save the Thirteen States,’ and for this he was put in solitary confinement for quite a period of time.”
The prisoners sailed from St. Augustine to the nation’s headquarters in Philadelphia on their release. Heyward fell asleep on the deck during a sweltering night and was thrown overboard. He clung to the ship’s rudder until a fellow passenger, John Sansun, threw down a rope — Heyward would not go under.
“It took him a couple of years to get back together after his prison experience, his war experience, his wife’s death,” said Thomas G. Heyward, the fourth great-grandson of the Declaration of Independence signer. “After a couple years, he was back on his plantation and continued his service to the state. If you look at the works of the first five years of the General Assembly for South Carolina, you’ll see his name on every other page, all the while having very large rice and farm holdings.”
The fourth great-grandson, Heyward’s most direct descendant, maintains a small farm in Bluffton, a short car ride from where the signer’s ante-bellum mansion once stood in Jasper County. A retired aviator at the Hilton Head Airport, Thomas. G. Heyward is the president of Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, which meets every July 4th in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
“Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 42 had descendants, 14 did not,” he said. “(Heyward) is still very large in the Lowcountry — but not just here, all over America; we celebrate the Founding Fathers, and he is certainly one of them.”
At his death in 1809, Heyward was the last surviving signer of the Declaration. He left behind his second wife and eight children, who would carry the Heyward agricultural dynasty well into the Civil War.
Every July 4th the Beaufort chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution hold a ceremony at his grave site at Old House, just outside Ridgeland.
“As one of the signers of the Declaration, he is a legendary figure in South Carolina history,” Edgar said. “The men who signed could’ve just as well been signing their death warrants and Heyward had no reservations about it. He was a true patriot and a true hero of the American Revolution.”