This Fourth of July Blufftonians will probably celebrate Independence Day as we always do: with friends, family, cookouts, the sandbar and fireworks. Before the day cranks up, however, you can spend a little time remembering why we celebrate -- and all with just a short drive from the house.
An easy roadtrip through the local countryside will uncover history, nature and adventure and you will be home in time to get the boat in the water or round up that beach blanket and get a good seat at Shelter Cove for the fireworks show.
You can start out by taking a short ride up Interstate 95, or a more roundabout back road path of your choosing to Yemassee and the historic Sheldon Church Ruins. Built in 1745, this old church served the colonial Lowcountry in grand style. To planters and statesmen it was a symbol of prosperity ... and revolution. British troops burned the church in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. The church was rebuilt and burned again by federal troops under William T. Sherman in his infamous "March to the Sea" as a stab at the heart of secession. Sheldon Church was never rebuilt but that doesn't mean it isn't lovingly maintained. Its graceful arches and bare columns still serve during annual worship services, and it is a magnet for outdoor weddings and photography.
Your next stop should be a few miles down the road at the grave of Thomas Heyward Jr., one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Elected to Continental Congress in 1775 to represent South Carolina in Philadelphia, Heyward signed the famous declaration -- and then paid the price for his stand with imprisonment by the British. This quiet little family cemetery is a historic site off Highway 462 near Ridgeland and offers sweeping marsh views under airy pines, and when you visit, is it not hard to imagine it as a fitting place of rest for a historic figure -- and maybe even a picnic spot for you and your family.
Moving forward through history -- and closer to home and that grill -- end your journey on Hilton Head Island at historic Fort Howell. This massive earthwork fort was built by the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War and has been remarkably preserved. Angled bastions that once housed guns now entertain songbirds and squirrels and a quiet path and interpretive trail makes for a short and enjoyable walk. This fortress protected a sprawling Union encampment and nearby "Mitchelville," home to hundreds of freed and escaped slaves who sought refuge on the island. Hearing of the landing of blue-coated "Lincoln Men" in 1862 they flocked to safety, risking death and recapture.
I have lived in Bluffton for many years with my family and am amazed at how often a local friend remarks that even though we may have known of these places we have rarely stopped to enjoy them or consider their impact on our nation. We live so close to the foundation stones of our liberty, freedom and way of life. Take time to pull off the road and enjoy them for a moment. It will make the cookout taste better and the fireworks shine brighter on this Independence Day and beyond!
Sheldon Church: From Bluffton, take Hwy. 462/Coosaw Scenic Drive north to Interstate 95. Go one exit to U.S. 17 at Point South. At 8 miles turn left onto Old Sheldon Church Road. The church ruins are one mile on your right. The site is on the National Historic Register and there is free parking but no facilities. The grounds are open dawn to dusk. Bring plenty of insect repellant. Call 843-522-1712 for more information.
Thomas Heyward Grave: Backtrack to Hwy. 462/Coosaw Scenic Drive and drive approximately 9 miles to the intersection of Hwy 336 at Old House. The entrance to the site will be on your left down a short dirt road. The cemetery and old homesite are open to the public from dawn to dusk. Call 843-726-8126 for more information.
Fort Howell: Take U.S. 278/Fording Island Road to Hilton Head Island. At 2.2 miles turn left onto Beach City Road. The entrance to Fort Howell is one mile on left. There is a small parking area and the five-acre area of the fort is open to the public for self-guided tours during daylight hours.
AN ARMED CAMP: LOWCOUNTRY FORTS
Bluffton and the Lowcountry are significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the vast reservoir of historic and cultural sites. Wars have come and gone in America since colonial times and our little neck of the woods has played a significant role in nearly all of them. During the Revolution both the British and American forces built stockades and fortifications nearby. Fort Fredrick in Beaufort is a reminder of colonial days.
The Civil War resulted in a bastion-covered landscape as Union forces moved onto Hilton Head Island and into Beaufort. Confederates built forts facing the roads and rivers into these areas while Union troops faced out. Stoney Creek Battery Heritage Preserve on U.S. 17 not far from Old Sheldon Church was built under the direction of Robert E. Lee to hold the line after Federals landed on Hilton Head. New, modern wars brought Fort Fremont, a massive concrete fort of the Endicott System to St Helena Island during the Spanish American War. WWI and WWII saw the establishment of coastal batteries and of course Beaufort Marine Air Station and the training center of Parris Island -- where Marines are still made today.