Under the magnolias at Rose Hill

I first visited Rose Hill seventeen years ago, in the days before the internet or Wii or even Netflix had invaded our lives and relegated that summer staple, the “day-trip,” to the quaint annals of the past.  I had a nine-year-old daughter and a visiting niece in tow that August, and all the things you can do with children at home had been done.  We needed some new surroundings.  Or so I thought. But since this was also in the days before GPS or MapQuest and there were no smartphones yet, only dumb phones, there was always a possibility that you would get lost on such an adventure, ending up in a trackless forest or on a nuclear testing range. 
            I had armed myself with a good map of South Carolina, I believed, but soon discovered that such a map is only functional if the roads on the map correspond to marked roads in the landscape, and once we were shed of the freeway and making our way on secondary roads, my husband and I marveled at how many of the latter lacked signage of any kind.  By now I understand a bit better how residents of the Palmetto state view such things, with the opinion prevailing that if a body doesn’t know where he or she is headed without the help of road signs then that body doesn’t have any business going there, but at the time I found it mystifying.  Once we'd passed out of York County and were making our way towards the town of Union we were forced to stop every few miles at gas stations and convenience stores to ask the way.   When a cashier at the Stop-n-Go on the outskirts of town told me she had never heard of Rose Hill, despite the fact that she’d spent her whole life in Union, eight miles from the plantation, I began to doubt that the place had ever existed except in legend.
            Today, Rose Hill is a fairly well-known state historic site and landmark, but seventeen years ago the ranger was so happy to see us when we finally rolled into the dusty parking lot and fell out of the car, gasping with gratitude, that I thought it was going to be hugs all around.  It turned out we were only the second group to visit him that Saturday, and this Ohio transplant was going crazy for lack of company.  He took us on a private tour that went on for so long I was worried we might have to camp out on Mrs. Gist’s capacious mahogany bed.  But the spell of that place stayed with us a long time, drawing my husband and me back for several more visits over the years.
Rose Hill, built 1828-32
            I have toured a great many historic parks, sites and gardens in the former Confederacy, embracing the homely rusticity of the Latta farmhouse close to the banks of the Catawba River in North Carolina, as well as the federal splendor of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia.  I’ve gawked at architecturally stunning monuments built by rice fortunes, like the Nathaniel Russell townhouse in Charleston, and explored the sprawling compounds of cotton and tobacco plantations that must have functioned in their heydays more like communities (rigidly hierarchical ones, given the large numbers of slaves) than family homesteads.  Brattonsville in South Carolina is one of these.
            I have taken away sobering lessons and fresh understanding about history and humanity from all these places, but no site I have visited south of the Mason-Dixon line has impressed me (disturbed me?) in quite the same way as Rose Hill.  Perhaps it’s because of the way the former governor’s home is situated, surrounded today by dense forest on what would have been thousands of acres of cleared cropland in William Gist’s time.  In this way it gives the impression, once you arrive at your destination, of having stumbled on Sleeping Beauty’s castle, slumbering behind its defenses of magical briars for a hundred years.
            The home is sited on a slight promontory, with giant Magnolia grandifloras framing the view from the front porch.  Standing there, your eye travels across the boxwood hedges and follows the arrow-straight line of the carriage drive, which forms a perfect axis with the house.  The home’s design evokes the antebellum period with acute specificity; the second-floor ballroom, for instance, occupies an entire quadrant of the house.  With its gold-framed cheval mirrors, candle sconces and piano, it is virtually impossible when standing in that room not to imagine female guests in enormous hoop skirts gliding across the floor, or retiring two-by-two to the ladies’ parlor adjoining the ballroom, where the windows would have been opened to the verandah for the sake of the breezes.  It is a house intended to impress as well as accommodate, to contain the builder’s aspirations for power and prestige as much as to house his family.  And yet there is a pervasive feeling of loss here, of dreams sacrificed.  The air is weighed down with doom.
The two magnolias growing on the front lawn are
original to the house.
            Gist was born in 1807, the illegitimate son of a Charleston merchant named Frances Fincher Gist.  The elder Gist moved his son and the child’s mother upcountry where he and his brother Nathaniel owned large tracts of land.  When Frances died a few years later, Nathaniel raised Henry in the Union district, suing to have the boy legitimized by acquiring the name “Gist” legally and sending him down to Columbia when he came of age in order to study law at South Carolina College.  It was at college that Henry began to develop a reputation for hot-headedness, leading fellow students in a boycott of the college’s dining services.  He was promptly expelled.  Also while a young man, he and his brother-in-law got into a dispute with a Union storekeeper over an insult alleged to have been leveled by the b-i-l against a lady known to them all.  In the fracas that followed, the shopkeeper was killed.  Neither of the young men was punished for the deed.   A few years later Henry was rumored to have fought a second duel, also stemming from damage done to a woman’s reputation, but the incident was hushed up.
William Gist’s choleric disposition and his flair for dramatic gestures were characteristics he may have come by honestly in the family bloodline, considering that his Uncle Nathaniel named his own child, a son born in 1831 as the Nullification Crisis was fanning flames of secession in South Carolina, “States Rights Gist.” This was the name Henry’s cousin bore proudly as a brigadier general for the Confederacy when Civil War finally broke out in 1861, and it is the name misspelled on his tombstone at a churchyard in Columbia where he was buried after a Union sniper felled him at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, in 1864.
            A painting of States Rights hangs in the house at Rose Hill, close by a small, somewhat primitive portrait of a girl with downcast eyes, who wears an uncomfortable-looking bonnet.  Our guide points out – unnecessarily – that the lady’s expression is untypically sad for a bride-to-be, as if, the ranger adds, “she already knows what’s going to happen to her.”  This is a portrait of Gist’s first wife, Louisa Bowen, who married the young planter in 1828 when she was sixteen. She couldn’t have foreseen her fate when the picture was painted, but one wonders if she was happy about marrying William Henry.  Eleven months after the wedding she bore a child who was either stillborn or lived very briefly.  In 1830 she gave birth to her second and final child, Maria, who survived.  Louisa, however, lived only eleven days longer.  When she died she was eighteen.
            Two years later, as Gist finished building Rose Hill, he married a Union neighbor named Mary Elizabeth Rice.  She proved physically stronger than the first Mrs. Gist, bearing a total of twelve children for William.  Only four of them lived to adulthood, however, with five dying as infants, and a son, William Junior, killed at age 22 while leading a regiment in battle against Union forces near Knoxville, Tennessee in the fall of 1863.
            How Mary survived motherhood with her sanity intact is a mystery.  On our most recent visit to Rose Hill, the ranger opened a box on Mary’s dressing table and allowed me to look at the pale lock of hair enshrined there: a remembrance of Ellen, who died of fever in 1854 at the age of six.  In that hideous autumn three of her children died, with brothers Clarence, 12, and Charles, 7, dying in the same day.  These deaths occurred while Mary was alone at Rose Hill, with William Henry serving as a senator at the state legislature in Columbia. 
Rear facade
            He took a break from his political life in 1855, returning to the farm to tend to his reduced family and presumably to give solace to his grief-stricken wife.  More than likely, it was also necessary for him to resume a more active role in the administration of his plantation.  At its peak, Rose Hill depended on 179 slaves to tend the cotton and tobacco, care for livestock, clear timber, and see to the needs of the family.  William Henry may have preferred politics to planting; nevertheless, he was an ardent champion of slavery and worked assiduously to protect and promote the institution, first as a legislator and then as governor of South Carolina, returning to the capitol in 1858 to accept that office. 
            Gist was raised in that rarefied class of white South Carolinians born in the first half of the 19th century who trained all their lives for a titanic fight with the federal government, men raised by fathers and uncles who believed so passionately in the principles held by their hero, John C. Calhoun -- that a state had the sovereign right to create its own laws and to resist any tariffs, levies, laws or prohibitions forced upon that state by the powers-that-be in Washington -- that these ‘fire-eaters’ had pushed President Andrew Jackson to send an army down to Charleston as far back as 1828.  He would have done, if Henry Clay had not hammered out a compromise bill at the eleventh hour.  The compromise bought the Union some time, but the clash of wills and competing values (along with a generation of male children named ‘States Rights’) guaranteed a violent reckoning, eventually.
            Gist did his best to expedite that confrontation.  In early October of 1860, prior to the presidential election, Governor Gist was attempting to organize lawmakers in other slave states to pledge secession in the event that Abraham Lincoln was voted into office, entrusting his cousin States Rights to serve as courier and carry his top-secret letters to the governors in every cotton-growing state but Texas.  In these letters he informed his counterparts that South Carolina would withdraw from the union and would move against the north with a militia at the earliest opportunity, and he urged them to join him and his countrymen.  (One month later, Gist would address the South Carolina legislature in a special session he called to prepare for the state’s approaching secession, telling the assembled members: “If, in the exercise of arbitrary power, and forgetful of the lessons of history, the Government of the United States should attempt coercion, it will become our solemn duty to meet force by force…”  During that address he called for the House and Senate to beef up the state’s militia and get it ready to deploy on short notice.  “Every man in the state, between the ages of 18 and 45, should be well-armed with the most effective weapons of modern warfare, and all the available means of the state used for that purpose” (“The Called Session”)            
Rear view of property, with kitchen in
left foreground.  The land slopes down
to the Tyger River.
Three of Gist’s cooler-headed correspondents advised caution in their responses: the governors of North Carolina and Louisiana wrote that the voters in their states were divided over the issue and that Lincoln’s election alone could not be seen as grounds for such a drastic response, while Georgia’s governor answered that only some overt act of aggression by the north would provoke his legislators to take the step of withdrawing from the Union. On the other hand, the governor of Alabama told Gist he would support him if a third state also joined forces, and the governors of Mississippi and Florida told him they were ready to roll as soon as he gave the word. 
            Gist was not deterred by the reluctance of cooler heads in other statehouses, because he knew that slave-owners throughout the south felt as he did.  With slaves accounting for close to half the population in the Deep South by the 1850s, anxiety on the part of white planters was growing rapidly, drowning out the cautious arguments of Unionists in those states.  At the root of this anxiety was John Brown, a New York farmer who along with five of his sons became a militant force for abolitionism in the north and the face of domestic terrorism in the south.  Brown made national headlines in 1855 fighting pro-slavery factions in Kansas; he and his band murdered five pro-slavery Kansans in retribution for the deaths of five anti-slavery activists in Lawrence.  (It should be remembered that during the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ period Southern states sent cash, emigrants, and enthusiastic young partisans to Kansas to fight for the pro-slavery cause.  One of the incidents that riled John Brown so particularly was the sacking of two anti-slavery presses in Lawrence, the Herald of Freedom and the Free State, by a gang of pro-slave volunteers carrying the South Carolina flag.  According to a newspaper account of the day, after destroying the offices of the newspapers and burning the building to the ground, “the excited mob thereupon planted three cannon near the hotel, fired some thirty shots in a vain effort to batter it to pieces, and tried to blow it up with a keg of gunpowder. Finally, after ransacking the rooms and seizing the stock of liquor, they burned it down. When the best hostelry in the Territory was a heap of ruins, they fired Governor Robinson’s house and barn, destroying his furniture and library. Before setting out for home they also pillaged a number of shops and houses” (Nevins).)
            With his zeal fueled by the conflicts in Kansas, Brown sought to arm slaves in all the southern states and to lead them in a mass uprising against the planters.  To that end, he planned and carried out a raid against a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on October 16, 1859.  Five black men and sixteen whites, including his own sons, carried out the attack, but local militias fought back and were soon aided by the arrival of ninety U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.  Brown refused to surrender, and by October 18th all but two of his raiders had been captured or killed. 
            Although his raid was unsuccessful and Brown hanged in December (a public execution witnessed, fatefully, by John Wilkes Booth), this violent political action had a powerful effect on Americans in the north as well as the south.  Brown was admired by respected figures in the north who began to popularize the abolitionist cause, while he stirred up enormous alarm among southerners, who feared that their own slaves would soon be armed by abolitionists and would liberate themselves through bloody uprisings.  For many southerners sympathetic to Gist’s position, the conflict between north and south had escalated frighteningly from disagreement over which states would join the Union free of slavery, and to what extent abolitionists were breaking the law by helping runaway slaves, to become a matter of life or death.  Their own.
            Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, and it’s tempting when one studies history to judge harshly those figures that caused or contributed to great calamities -- people who were instrumental in decisions that exacted an enormous price in human lives (usually exempting their own) and human suffering. Gist wasn’t the only impassioned southerner calling for war, and plenty of abolitionist voices were singing the same chorus in the north.  But with the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg observed in June 2013, a great many historic perspectives on the Civil War are being aired again, along with some new views of this great American conflict that question the cost /benefit ratio of those hostilities. 

            A thought-provoking commentary written by Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, caught my eye in The Week, July 19, 2013.  In “Glorifying the Civil War,” Horwitz points out that modern demographic studies of census and casualty records from the time have pushed the death total much higher than previously thought, especially when civilian deaths – estimated at around 50,000 – are added to the mix.  Instead of 600,000 dead, it’s now believed that as many as 800,000 may have died as a direct result of fighting, and Horwitz makes the horrifying observation that such a death toll today would be equivalent to losing seven and a half million people out of our ranks – an unimaginable prospect.
            He goes on to summarize the traditional arguments made by historians in the past who argued that such a toll was the devastating but essential price paid to end slavery and preserve the democracy, and to compare those views with the provocative perspectives of contemporary historians like David Goldfield, who tells Horwitz that the Civil War was “America’s greatest failure.” 
            Goldfield parts ways with the mostly southern-based ‘revisionist’ historians who have traditionally argued that slavery was not the main cause of conflict between north and south -- that it was a disagreement over states rights v. federal authority.  He maintains that slavery was most definitely the cause of it all.  (The recorded rhetoric of secessionists like William Gist supports this position.)  But Goldfield points to the incomplete dividends paid on the investment of so much blood and treasure – the ‘unfinished work’ that Lincoln referred to in his Gettysburg Address. The Civil War ended slavery, but in the war’s aftermath black Americans were largely denied their full civil rights for the next one hundred years.  Goldfield blames that on the deep-seated conviction of racial supremacy held by 19th century whites in the north as well as the south, a belief that undermined Reconstruction and which, when combined with war-exhaustion and diminished funds, helped to bring about the lapse of federal enforcement of post-war equality in southern states.  It was inevitable that the Union’s withdrawal led to the speedy resumption of business-as-usual in the south’s social order, with the rise of Jim Crow laws, the Klan, and the eventual large-scale migration of southern blacks seeking to escape lynchings and economic subjugation by fleeing to cities in the north and west. 
            As Horwitz characterizes it, the war didn’t reunite the country, either.  The South settled into being isolated and economically stagnant, “a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation’s progress.” Considering the sacrifice on both sides, David Goldfield states, “Emancipation and reunion, the two great results of this war, were badly compromised …  Was the war worth it?  No.” (Horwitz).
View of the partially restored rose gardens from the 2nd story
verandah.  Many of the boxwoods are original to the home.
            I think about this remembering the shadow that seems to be permanently parked over the former governor’s home, despite the sunlit, restored rose gardens and perfectly manicured camellias.  On my last visit I presumed this haunted feeling to be some form of sympathetic grief on my part for the many children lost in that home, especially when the guide took us into the back parlor where the family would have gathered in the evenings to sew, read, play and talk but also where dead family members would be laid out on the ‘cooling board’ in preparation for burial.  Now I wonder if that oppressive intimation of loss at Rose Hill is not merely due to the Gist children who died there (God knows how many slave children died on the plantation -- their passing was not noted) but is a residual effect of the thousands of lives cut short in a needless war, a war whipped into existence through political ambition, stubbornness, and vainglorious pride.  Horwitz also said of historian David Goldfield that he blames the Civil War on “politicians, extremists, and the influence of evangelical Christianity for polarizing the nation to the point where compromise or reasoned debate became impossible.”  What’s so chilling is that he could be describing the American political scene in 2015.  Perhaps that’s the lasting lesson of a visit to Rose Hill.
A view across the lawn to the carriage drive
            Leaving the house after our last tour and walking around back to look at the rose garden one more time, we encountered a family who had arrived too late for the 1:00 tour, and had strolled the grounds waiting for our group to finish and the next one to start. The wife pointed up to the porch, to the windows of the back parlor where we had just ended our tour.  As the ranger had talked, that’s where I’d been imagining Mary Gist sitting in the rocker on a hot September night.  She sat with her sewing box and the half-finished quilt on her lap, trying to stay busy as she kept vigil over the body of her six-year old daughter, Ellen Douglas Gist. 
            The visitor said that she had been trying to get our attention through the window, but none of us had noticed her waving.  “The whole time you were in there, a black snake was stretched out on that windowsill.  It must be four feet long.  It’s lying there still – go on up and take a look.”
            I didn’t need to see the snake.  I’d been feeling it everywhere I looked.

Rose Hill is located a few miles south of the town of Union, SC.  For directions, hours, and special events refer to the website: http://www.southcarolinaparks.com/rosehill/introduction.aspx

“The Called Session of November 1860.” Journal of the Senate of the State of South Carolina, being the Sessions of 1860.  Columbia, S.C.: R. W. Gibbes, 1860. Web. 7 Aug 2013.

Horwitz, Tony. “Glorifying the Civil War.” The Week. (Originally published in The Atlantic, 2013.) 19 July 2013: 40-41.  Print.

Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny 1847-1852.
New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1947. Print.

"William Henry Gist." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1936. U.S. History In Context. Web. 6 Aug. 2013.