Nationwide, Edgefield County is recognized as significant in a number of ways. In 1949 the United States Government chose Edgefield County as a proving ground for tactics and procedure for rural counties to be used in the 1950 census. Saturday Evening Post has sent representatives from its staff to study the county as an area of national significance; and soon thereafter, National Geographic Magazine addressed a frequently voiced question: “Are Edgefield’s ten governors real native sons, or men adopted to support an extravagant claim of the Chamber of Commerce?” or words to that affect. To answer this question one must delve considerably into facts that are sometimes illusive; but from the research, these ten Edgefield statesmen emerge well defined. Each has a challenging record of service rendered to South Carolina.
Office Has Stormy Launching
The office of chief executive of the Colony of South Carolina, then province, and later state, was established in 1669; and the first ten men to serve encountered stormy conditions. Four were ordered removed from office, one died, another bowed himself out of the honor by retirement, still another refused to serve at all, one was deposed by revolution, and the remaining two served only one year. Later a succession of Lowcountry Pinckneys, Moultries, Vander Horsts, Rutledges, Draytons, Middletons, and Alstons became chief executive until the tradition was broken by the 64th man to act in that capacity, Andrew Pickens, of Edgefield.
Andrew Pickens, Jr. (1816-1818), son of Gen. Andrew Pickens of the Revolution, and father of Francis W. Pickens, Confederate Was Governor. He was born about 1778, probably on the plantation on the Savannah River in Horse Creek Valley in Edgefield District which was part of his father’s property. During his administration as Governor an active program of road and canal construction took place in the state; and a disastrous yellow fever scourge prostrated Charleston. It is probable that he lived in Augusta in 1829, but in his will his plantation “Oatlands” in Edgefield County and his residence, “Halcyon Grove” in the village were mentioned. The home is now the Feltham home on Buncombe Street, and its restoration has led many lovers of fine mansions to its door.
George McDuffie (1834-1836) was the 28th person elected with title of Governor. He practiced law for 14 years in Edgefield and until recent years his offices stood in Devore Grove. In the United States Congress where he went in 1820, he spoke as an ardent nullifier, probably because he was a protégé of Calhoun. During his term as Governor of South Carolina, the state had 709 public schools state supported at a cost of $33,631, having 8,475 pupils. McDuffie’s only daughter married Wade Hampton. His last public address was delivered in Academy Grove, Edgefield.
Pierce Mason Butler (1836-1838) immediately followed McDuffie. He was born April 11,1798, in Edgefield District. During his term as Governor, charter was granted to the Great Western Rail Road, designed to connect Charleston with Ohio, Kentucky, and the Mississippi Valley. South Carolina made a large contribution as she had for the Charleston, Columbia, Augusta Road, then the longest continuous rail road in the world. Butler signed the Ordinance of Nullification in 1832. He was also Governor of Florida, elected in 1841. Butler died in the Mexican War, leading the Palmetto Regiment.
James H. Hammond (1842-1844), resident of Beech Island, then part of Edgefield District, was a planter of great culture and wealth, who became Governor at a time when politics was exceedingly warm. The ticket on which he ran held John C. Calhoun for president, George McDuffie for United States Senate and Whitfield Brooks for Congress. As Governor, he led the state in improving and developing agricultural possibilities. He died at “Redcliffe” in 1864.
Francis W. Pickens (1860-1862), son of Governor Andrew Pickens followed Hammond to the governor’s chair after a lapse of 16 years. At 27, he was elected without opposition to succeed McDuffie in Congress, and was the presiding officer of the state convention of 1852 which drew up the ordinance affirming the right to secession. He was appointed by President Buchanan to the post of Minister to Russia, returning to South Carolina to be elected to be governor 4 days before the state formally broke with the Union. Pickens died at “Edgewood” at Edgefield and is buried in Edgefield Cemetery. The residence was removed some years ago to Aiken, where it was restored to become the residence of Mrs. J.B. Salley.
Milledge Luke Bonham (1862-1864) immediately followed his fellow townsmen, Pickens, to the office of Governor after rendering brilliant service at Manassas. Primarily a military man, he had served on the staff of General Bull in the Seminole War, and in 1846 in the Mexican War. In 1857 he succeeded Preston Brooks in Congress but withdrew when South Carolina seceeded in 1860. After his term as governor, he returned to the army in 1864, still valiant in a failing cause. 1876 found him active in the Red Shirts, ridding the state of Radical rule. His home between Edgefield and Trenton is now the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Douglass Wise; but he also lived for a time following the war in the home in Edgefield, now the residence of Mrs. T.H. Rainsford.
John C. Sheppard (1886), born in upper Edgefield County, began his political career at the age of 26, later becoming speaker of the famed “Wallace House”. For 16 years his name figured in the political history of the state; and for 50 years he was a member of the leading law firm of Edgefield. In 1882, Gov. Shappeard is buried in Willowbrook Cemetery, Edgefield; and his home is now the resident of his son, former Lieutenant Governor Jas. O. Sheppard, on Columbia Road.
Benjamin R. Tillman (1890-1894), born in western Edgefield County was elected to succeed himself, one of the strongest political figures the state ever produced, whose statue is on the grounds of the state house in Columbia. He founded Clemson College and Winthrop. After term as governor he was elected to the United States Senate where he remained until his death in 1918. Tillman was the chairman of Senate Committee on Naval Affairs in World War I. His home stands near Trenton and he is buried in Ebenezer Cemetery in Trenton.
John Gary Evans (1894-1897) immediately succeeded Tillman as Governor; the nephew of Gen. Martin Witherspoon Gary, “Bald Eagle of the Confederacy”, whose home and estate were given to Edgefield by Gov. Evans as a shrine. Gov. Evans was admitted to the bar in Augusta in 1885, and established his practice in Aiken the following year. He was elected Governor at the age of 31, the youngest man ever to attain that honor in South Carolina. In the Spanish-American War, he was made head of the civil government of Havana, and organized the first municipal court along American lines on the Island.
J. Strom Thurmond (1947-1951) is Edgefield’s first native son to be Presidential candidate while occupying the Governor’s mansion. James Strom Thurmond was an American politician who served as the 103rd Governor of South Carolina and as a United States Senator. Strom Thurmond ran for the President of the United States in 1948. He left office as the only senator to reach the age of 100, while still in office and as the oldest-serving and longest-serving senator in U.S. history (although he was later surpassed in the latter by Robert Byrd). Thurmond holds the record for the longest serving Dean of the United States Senate in U.S. history at 14 years.
One must admit that the facts stretch credulity, but all ten of the Governors of South Carolina memorialized on her city square are Edgefield’s own.