History of Sumter County, South Carolina  


Located in the midlands of South Carolina, Sumter County is just east of the geographic heart of the state. It lies within the fertile plains of the upper pine belt with its highest crest, located in the western portion of the county known as the High Hills of the Santee, 450 feet above sea level. Geographically diverse, the southern most part of the county is only 107 feet above sea level. Named for General Thomas Sumter, the "Gamecock General" of the American Revolution, Sumter has well earned its nickname of the "Gamecock City." Although Thomas Sumter was born in Virginia, he lived in South Carolina for almost seventy years. Almost half of Thomas Sumter's ninety-eight years were spent in the picturesque High Hills of the Santee located in the district, and then county, that bears his name. When he died on June 1, 1832, Thomas Sumter was the last surviving officer of the American Revolution.

Originally, Sumter County had an area of 1,672 miles, but that was reduced to 681 square miles due to the formation of Clarendon County in 1855, and then Lee County in 1902. The natural boundaries on the east of Sumter County are Scape 'Ore Creek, Black River, and Lynches River, and on the west are the Wateree and Santee, two sections of the same river system.

Early on, what we now know as Sumter County, was located in Craven County. In fact, much  present day South Carolina, except for areas nearer the coast were designated as part of Craven County. Early land grants describe the lands east of the Wateree River as lying in Craven County. In a modern sense, Craven County was not actually a governmental entity, but merely a geographical location. Craven County was created originally in 1682 on the coast of the state, extending from Seewee Bay for twenty- three miles northeast, and inland for thirty-five miles. Settlers gradually moved into the interior, further and further from the coast and the boundaries of Craven County moved with them, eventually extending to the North Carolina line. Craven County was an election district with representation in the provincial House of Commons. When the province was laid out into parishes in 1706, Craven County ceased to exist as an election district. Representation after that was by parishes. The name, Craven, did continue to be used until even after 1769, when circuit court districts were established.

The earliest settlers who came into the future Sumter County were nominally in Prince Frederick's Parish, but the parish church was many miles away, near Georgetown on the coast. By the 1750s, so many settlers had come to the area that in 1757, a new parish, St. Mark's, was formed. The line which separated St. Mark's from Prince Frederick's was an extension of the northwest line of Williamsburg Township to the Santee and Pee Dee Rivers. St. Mark's embraced all of the area between those rivers, northward to the North Carolina line, and was the largest of the parishes. The whole of St. Mark's parish was included in Camden District which extended from the northwest line of Williamsburg Township to the North Carolina line and from Lynches River to the Santee-Congaree-Broad river system.

Many of the men living east of the Wateree River served in the Revolutionary War but in the area that was to become Sumter County, very few events of war took place, except for the movement of troops over the road (now Highway 261) from Camden to Charleston. Even though few war-like events took place in the immediate area, conditions among the people living east of the Wateree after the war ended was difficult. Supplies of every kind had been seized and carried off by the armies on both sides as they passed along the "Great Road." The nearest town, Camden had been virtually destroyed. When the British left and set fire to their military stores, the fire spread and burned homes, businesses, the courthouse, and the jail. Disorder and lawlessness prevailed which made it even harder for the residents to rebuild their ruined homes, farms, businesses, and mills.

The need for a reorganization of counties and the court system was recognized. This led to the creation of counties and county courts with resident magistrates which would also relieve the overburdened dockets of the circuit courts. In 1783, a new law was passed and each of the seven great circuit court systems of the state were subdivided into counties of a convenient size. The former  Camden District was divided to form seven counties. The boundaries of the seven counties were established, largely on natural lines. Created were York, Chester, Fairfield, Richland, Lancaster, Claremont, and Clarendon. The last two would be included in the area of what would become the future Sumter District. Under the constitution of 1790, Clarendon and Claremont elected one senator, and each had two representatives in the General Assembly. Two years after the counties were created, the county courts were set up. In 1792 some of the area of Clarendon and Claremont was used to form Salem County. The part taken from Claremont known as "Upper Salem" and the part from Clarendon known as "Lower Salem." The courthouse in the town of Salem was probably a log building as was the courthouse in Clarendon. (The Claremont County courthouse was located at Stateburg.)

But the new sytem did not suit every resident of the area. Among those learned men of the legal profession, the operation of the county courts was not proving to be satisfactory. They felt that justice was not being properly served by laymen. Thus, in 1791, the county magistrates were replaced by three county court judges who were "to handle all business that came before the court." With the opposition of lawyers to lay judges continuing, the county court system was finally abolished effective on January 1, 1800. The region was organized as Sumter District when the legislature of South Carolina united three of the counties of Camden District, namely, Claremont, Clarendon, and Salem; and on the first day of January in the year 1800, the district began to function in the administration of justice through circuit courts.

Mail service was begun in 1801 for a place designated as Sumterville under order of the postmaster general of the United States. About 1830, a mail route from Charleston to Camden began passing through the village as required by law, since it was a courthouse town. The village of Sumterville was incorportated in 1845. For many years the mail to Sumter District was carried by stage, but in 1850, mail service by train was started between Wilmington, North Carolina and Sumterville. At this time Sumter District had 20 post offices:Bishopville, Bradford Institute, Bradleyville, Brewington, Clarendon, Friendship, Fulton, Lodibar, Manchester, Mechanicsville, Mill Grove, Mount Clio, Plowden's Mill, Privateer, Providence, Salem, Stateburg, Sumterville, Willow Grove, and Wright's Bluff. The name of the county seat was shortened to Sumter in 1855. Following the fall of the Confederacy in 1868, Sumter District became Sumter County.

The War of Succession began so slowly that many people in the North and in the South believed that there would be no war. But soon many of the younger men of Sumter District left for service in the Confederate Army while the older men were organized into the Home Guard, many of whom were stationed along the coast. Before long, there were few left at home except women and children and to them fell the responsibility of raising food and maintaining order. With the assistance of their servants, the women of Sumter District made garments for their families as well as for the soldiers away from home. "They sent their silver to the Confederate government, the church bells to foundries to be cast into cannon, and cut their carpets into blankets for the soldiers." As the years of war lengthened, wounded soldiers from distant battlefields came by train to hospitals set up in the Baptist and Presbyterian churches, in the hotel, and in the courthouse. Many soldiers were taken into private homes to be cared for. Civilian refugees came to Sumter to escape the bombardment of Charleston. The Sisters of Mercy transferred their convent from the beleaguered city of Charleston and opened St. Joseph's Academy in Sumter. Sumter District became a center for army stores. Hundreds of freight cars loaded with the supplies of war left to roll north through Camden or northeast to arrive in Wilmington. Charleston fell in February of 1865 and Sherman marched north from the sea. Columbia, 45 miles away was sacked by his army and the residents of the town of Sumter could see the glare of the burning homes in the night sky along the "Great Road" as Sherman's troops traveled toward Camden.

Rumors soon came to Sumter about another march from the sea. On the 5th of April 1865, Union Brigadier General Edward E. Potter left Georgetown with total of about 2,700 fighting men. He followed the path of the river road, burning mills, gins and cotton, and stripping the farms and plantations of their livestock and food supplies. Here at the very end, the war and its horrors entered the boundaries of Sumter District. An order came from headquarters in Sumter for the local militia to assemble. "In response to the order, came old men, teenage boys, and convalescent soldiers from the hospitals. With assistance from neighboring towns the Sumter force totaled about 575 strong. At the news of Potter's approach, everyone was busy hiding food and valuables in safe places. Those responsible for the courthouse and its contents, saved the public records by having them sent ten miles out into the country and hidden.

Potter left Manning in Clarendon County on Saturday morning, April 9, 1866, This was the same day of Lee's surrender in Appomatox, but no one in Sumter knew that the war had ended. Potter set out for Sumter and its defenders marched out the Manning Road to meet him at Dingle's Mill. About 2:00 p.m. the enemy came within range and the small force defending Sumter opened fire. Although Potter's first and second charges were driven back, further resistance became impossible and a general retreat was called. Potter did not pursue. He knew that he had opened up the road into Sumter and his men were weary. Late in the afternoon of the next day, Potter's cavalry rode up Main Street into Liberty Street and then to the depot where they camped.

The infantry camped on Liberty in the Catholic grove and a third camp was made on the road toward Providence. Party after party of Union soldiers went from house to house, supposedly searching for contraband and hidden Confederates, but they also took away food, clothing, and anything of value that they could find. The shops in town were broken into and stripped. Before leaving town, the Union soldiers ruined all of the printing press machinery and scrambled all of the type.

On Tuesday morning, April 11, Potter's army left Sumter, and marched the 12 miles to Manchester where Potter established his headquarters at the Richard Singleton plantation. Potter's mission was thoroughly accomplished. Systematically, any and all railroads, engines, cotton gins, lumber, governmental stores, bales of cotton and more were blown up or burned and destroyed. He took between 300 and 500 horses and mules and innumerable vehicles such as wagons and carts. On April 13, Potter sent a detachment to Stateburg and destroyed some stores. The next week was devoted by the Union army to destroying or confiscating whatever could be found.

A number of families had sought refuge at Milford Plantation. Milford stands to this day, located in the sandhills near Poinsett Park not far from St. Mark's Church. On April 21, Potter was nearing Milford on his way back to the boats at Wright's Bluff on the Santee River for his return to Georgetown on the coast. No injury was done to the estate. It may have been because former Governor Manning said to Potter, "It was built by a man from New England by the name of Potter and I suppose that a man from New York by the name of Potter will destroy it." Potter replied, "No sir, that is not my intention." Potter's army passed by Milford, doing no harm. Within twenty minutes of their departure, a Confederate courier arrived with the news that the war had ended. The courier was sent on under a flag of truce to give the news to General Potter who was only about a mile away by that time. Potter continued on to Wright's Bluff and he ceased to lay waste to the countryside but in the two weeks that he had been in residence, Sumter District was ruined and Potter's Raid became a swan song of the final day of the of theWar Between the States.

Sumter adopted the City Manager-Council form of government in 1912, becoming the first city in the United States to successfully adopt this form of government. It is still in effect today. The county seat of Sumter is complimented by the nearby Sumter County communities of Pinewood, Mayesville, Dalzell, Stateburg, Oswego, Wedgefield, Rembert, Horatio, and Rimini. Primarily once a commercial and agricultural area, Sumter has become known as one of the most economically balanced areas in the United States. Income is equally distributed between agricultural, industrial, and commercial pursuits. A prime economic factor since the World War II era is Shaw Air Force Base, home of the Ninth Air Force and the 20th Fighter Wing.

Located in the heart of South Carolina, Sumter is 44 miles southeast of Columbia, 110 miles northwest of Charleston, 90 miles west of Myrtle Beach, and 145 miles southeast of Greenville, South Carolina. New York is 675 miles north and Sumter is 2,780 miles from San Francisco, California. Sumter is encircled by Interstate highways I-95, I-20, and I-26, with easy access to all connections. Sumter County is located on a latitude of 34.0 N.

Come home to Sumter.

You'll be glad that you did and we'll be happy to see you.

By James W. Simmons

 When Carolina's hope grew pale,
 Before the British lion's tread,
 And freedom's sigh, in every gale,
 Was heard above her martyred dead, --
 When from her mountain heights, subdued,
 In pride of place forbad to soar,
 Her eagle banner, quenched in blood,
 Lay sullen on th' indignant shore, --
 Breathing revenge! invoking doom,
 Tyrant! upon thy purple host;
 When all stood wrapt in steadfast gloom,
 And silence brooded o'er her coast, --
 Stealthy, as when from thicket dun,
 The Indian springs upon his bow,
 Uprose, South-Mount, thy warrior-son,
 And headlong darted on the foe!
 Not in the pride of war he came,
 With bugle note and banner high,
 And nodding plume, and steel of flame,
 Red battle's gorgeous blazonry!
 With followers few, but undismayed,
 Each change and chance of fate withstood,
 Beneath her sunshine and her shade
 The same heroic brotherhood!
 From secret nook, in other land,
 Emerging fleet along the pine,
 Prone down he rush'd before his band,
 Like eagle, on the British line! 
 Catawba's waters smiled again,
 To see her Sumter's soul in arms;
 And, issuing from each glade and glen,
 Rekindled by war's fierce alarms,
 Thronged hundreds thro' the solitude
 Of the wild forest, to the call
 Of him whose spirit, unsubdued,
 Fresh impulse gave to each, to all!
 By day the burning sands they ply,
 Night sees them in the fell ravine;
 Familiar to each follower's eye,
 The tangled brake, the hall of green.
 Roused by their tread from covert deep,
 Springs the gaunt wolf, and flies -- while near
 Is heard, forbidding thought of sleep,
 The rattling serpent's sound of fear.
 Before, or break of early morn,
 Or fox looks out from copse or close,
 Before the hunter winds his horn,
 Sumter's already on his foes!
 He beat them back! beneath the flame
 Of valor quailing, or the shock;
 And carved at length a hero's name
 Upon the glorious Hanging Rock!
 And time that shades or sears the wreath
 Where glory binds the soldier's brow,
 Kept bright her Sumter's fame in death,
 His hour of proudest triumph -- now.
 And ne'er shall tyrant tread the shore
 Where Sumter bled, nor bled in vain;
 A thousand hearts shall break before
 They wear th' oppressor's bonds again.
 Oh! never can thy sons forget
 The mighty lessons taught by thee;
 Since, -- treasured up the eternal debt, --
 Their watchword is -- thy memory!
James Wright Simmons (ca. 1790-1858) was one of the founders of the Southern Literary Gazette in 1828. His work was published in America and in Europe. Poet, dramatist, essayist, and reviewer, Simmons had attended Harvard, traveled widely in Europe, and worked for the New York Mirror and the New York Courier before moving to Texas. He became comptroller general of the Republic of Texas and worked on the Banner newspaper in Galveston, Texas.

Sources for the above information are: The History of Sumter County by Anne King Gregorie, Historical Sketches of Sumter County by Cassie Nicholes, and personal knowledge.


This page was last updated on June 23, 2001

Sumter County Page

Highlights of Sumter County

General Thomas Sumter

A Short History of Clarendon County


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