On June 4, 1863, Union soldiers burned down the town of Bluffton, destroying the homes of many local planters and confederate soldiers. In its wake, only 15 homes were left and two churches, devastating the town for years to come.
"There wasn't really any strategic plan as to which homes were burned; (the soldiers) just shot from the river," said Maureen Richards, executive director of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society. "The smoke probably blocked their view, and they missed some."
Today, eight of the houses and both churches still remain in Bluffton's historic district. One of those -- the Heyward House -- will play host to a commemoration marking the anniversary of the burning of Bluffton from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 4. The event will offer free tours and storytelling for the whole family. From 6 to 10 p.m. there will be a Lowcountry boil and entertainment at the Colcock-Teel House.
In 1863, Union forces had control of Hilton Head Island, while Confederates were in nearby Bluffton. As a tactic, the Union army would burn down a town to gain control of the area. Since Bluffton was a strategic location, it was set ablaze.
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"I think they knew that the men who had homes in Bluffton were significant planters in the area," Richards said.
The Historical Preservation Society recently presented a letter dated June 5, 1863 -- discovered in an antiques store in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- to the Bluffton Town Council, that details the burning. The letter describes how Confederate troops drove Union soldiers back to their gunboats on the May River as most of the town was in flames.
"The enemy on yesterday made a raid on Bluffton," the letter states. "I had just assumed command here and proceeded immediately with all my force to some place eight miles distant. When I reached them, I found the enemy in the town; and by 2 a.m. it was in flames."
Richards said June 4, 1863, is one of the two most important dates in Bluffton history. The other is July 31, 1844. That day commemorates the "Bluffton Movement," when 500 planters and politicans met, underneath the "secession oak" in old town. The meeting created momentum for secession.
"The town survived the burning," Richards said, adding that it's particularly significant for the Preservation Society because, "it's our mission to preserve and promote the history."
An antique mirror that hangs in the Heyward House is also a reminder of the day. A soldier with the initials J.W. from Company E, 115th New York, scratched the note, "Flee Rebels, Hell is here" on one side of the mirror. It is dated July 12, 1863, just a month after the burning.
The upcoming celebration will also include a burning ceremony, people in costume, the reading of letters, a historical commemoration and singing around the camp fire.
"Turnout seems to increase each year," Richards said. "Whether you've been in town two years or 200 years, we encourage everyone to come celebrate being part of Bluffton's past, present and future."