As we celebrate the birth of our nation on Independence Day, it’s worth noting just how important the Lowcountry was in the fight for that independence. Two historic sites just down the road from one another were at the heart of the battle.
Today, the Old Sheldon Church ruins have become one of the most sought-after wedding locations in the South. But the Yemassee landmark was once at the center of a Revolutionary War battle.
The church was first built by Col. William Bull, a plantation owner who helped James Oglethorpe establish the layout and boundaries for Savannah and is buried inside the church’s ruins. Bull built the church between 1745 and 1753 adjacent to his Newberry Plantation land.
After Savannah fell to the British in late 1778, the Patriot fighters who survived crossed the Savannah River and took refuge near Purrysburg in Jasper County just west of Hardeeville. The church site, then known as Prince William’s Parish Church, became the Patriot-American headquarters, according to long-time journalist and local historian Bill Whitten.
Thomas Heyward Jr. was buried in a tomb next to his father in the family’s cemetery at Old House. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
“The location was perfect as it was far enough inland from the river, so as the British crossed the river and made their way toward Charleston, the Patriots regrouped
here,” Whitten said.
The church first burned down in 1779. Record books show that Old Sheldon was burned down by General Augustine Prevost’s British troops, but Whitten and other historians tell a different story.
“It wasn’t necessarily the British themselves, but British loyalists,” Whitten said. He points to stories of Andrew DeVeaux and his brother, two loyalists who were known to terrorize the folks that lived in the neighborhood, as the possible arsonists.
The church was rebuilt in 1826, only to suffer a similar fate in February 1865. The long-accepted story was that Gen. William Sherman’s Union troops torched the church on their historic march to the sea. There was no reason to doubt the account, as it was documented in the official South Carolina report on the “Destruction of Churches and Church Property.”
But an alternate story has surfaced recently. According to a post-Civil War letter dated Feb. 3, 1866, from Milton Leverett, “Sheldon Church not burn’t. Just torn up in the inside, but can be repaired.”
All that was left after the fire was the massive brick walls that had also survived the first fire and a few outer pillars.
Whitten said that what is known is that Sherman ruined an area that had previously been one of the richest areas in the state.
“Folks don’t think of Jasper County this way, but prior to the Civil War, the plantations along the Savannah River in Jasper County were among the richest areas in the state, right up there with Charleston and Florence,” Whitten said. “Sherman torched all of it and the plantations never recovered.”
The site is run today by the Parish Church of St. Helena. The ruins have a gothic feel to them, lined with epic oaks and Spanish moss and dotted with crumbling gravestones. Many a story has been told of the site being haunted by the ghost of Ann Bull Heyward.
Just down the road off S.C. 462 lies the gravesite of Thomas Heyward Jr., one of four South Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Many think this site was Heyward’s home, but the land was actually home to Heyward’s father, Daniel, a successful plantation owner. Earlier generations of the family had made their money in America planting indigo and cotton, but Daniel made his fortune harvesting rice, which became the big money crop in the Lowcountry at the time.
He was granted 500 acres in an area called Grahamville for his fighting efforts during the Yemassee War in 1715 and soon, what grew into the 26,000-acre Old House Plantation was born, named after the house Daniel built to christen the property.
Thomas, a fifth generation Heyward, was born at Old House and became well-educated and worldly through his law studies at London’s Cambridge University and later, a multi-year tour of Europe. He was not a “junior” but took the suffix to distinguish himself from Daniel’s brother of the same name.
After his time abroad witnessing the bias against colonists, he became a supporter of the anti-British movement and an accomplished army leader who thwarted the British’s first attempt to take Beaufort.
Patriot sympathizers were threatened with death by hanging, but that did not deter young Thomas. Much to his father’s dismay, he signed the Declaration of Independence along with the three other South Carolina signers on Aug. 2, 1776, shortly after his 30th birthday.
Heyward became a revered judge in Charleston as part of the new government. He suffered a gunshot wound in the successful 1779 defense of Beaufort and was a battalion leader in the 1780 fight for Charleston won by the British. He was imprisoned as a traitor but later freed from St. Augustine, Florida, at the end of the war in 1781.
Sometime between 1771 and 1775, he built a plantation home next to his father’s Old House homestead that was dubbed White Hall. The three-story tabby home — built on a foundation of oyster shells, bricks and mortar — overlooked the marshes of Hazzard Creek, a tributary of the Broad River.
President George Washington stayed in Heyward’s Charleston home during his tour of the South in 1791 and later made his way to White Hall.
“Washington went on to spend a night with Heyward and his wife right on that site before hanging a hard right toward Ridgeland and Savannah,” Whitten said.
Heyward died in 1809 at the age of 63. Part of White Hall burned down in 1870, with the remaining walls collapsing around 1964. All that remains are bricks that formed the grand entrance to the house and the foundations of what were once the kitchen and the ballroom. The land is now private and owned by Good Hope Plantation.
Heyward was buried in a tomb next to his father in the family’s cemetery at the Old House site, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. The site is open to the public and is maintained by Jasper County as a public park.