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All Roads Lead to Camden

A ‘game’ ends at Lafayette cedar at the Kershaw County Courthouse

Posted: August 8, 2013 4:58 p.m.
Updated: August 9, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Photos courtesy of Rick Bell/

In front of the Kershaw County Courthouse is the Lafayette cedar, planted 190 years ago in honor of de Kalb’s great friend from France, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette also aided Colonial interests and returned to Camden in 1824 to lay the cornerstone on de Kalb’s new grave.

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If an American Revolution board game called “All Roads Lead to Camden” existed, it could well tell the story of an unacknowledged bit of local history. Pewter game tokens -- as in Monopoly’s thimble, top hat, or iron -- might be tiny replicas of the following: (1) The Washington Monument, (2) a bayonet, (3) a heart, (4) double-piazza-ed mansion, (5) a china platter, (6) Masonic jewel, (7) gold-fringed sash, (8) a dog, (9) a silver trowel and (10) a cedar branch. Once all were collected, the game would culminate with the identification of an oft-forgotten historic icon.

The starting point would be June 12, 1777, when noted Frenchman Gilbert du Morteir Marquis de Lafayette and Johann Baron de Kalb (for whom DeKalb Street in Camden is named), distinguished soldier of German birth, arrived together on the shores of South Carolina to join the fight for freedom. According to Howard Unger’s biography, Lafayette, these words were spoken by the Marquis: “When I felt American soil under my feet for the first time, my first words were an oath to conquer or die for America’s cause.”

The two warriors were among many who came to America offering their services to defeat Britain, the greatest world power of the time. Certain football rivalries of today resonate with that same spirit -- loyalists cheering for any team in combat against their No. 1 rival.

The battle adventures of Lafayette and de Kalb are chronicled in many publications, so that history will not be told here but to say that both earned America’s honor and respect with their steadfast zeal in the struggle for liberty.

Gen. George Washington warmly embraced the 19-year old Lafayette, and a father/son relationship developed between the two which strengthened in intensity through the war years and beyond. Unger noted in his Lafayette biography that Washington once remarked of the Marquis, “I don’t know a nobler, finer soul, and I love him as my own son.” Game token No. 1, the Washington Monument, is representative of the connection between the two Generals.

But what of the Marquis’ comrade, Baron de Kalb?

The Baron found himself in command at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, after his superior, General Horatio Gates, deserted the field at the onset, enabling the British to turn the battle into a rout. The failed strategies of Gates, combined with troops suffering the heat, humidity and after-effects of a diet of corn mash, green peaches and molasses, contributed to the decimation. de Kalb fought heroically on foot with his men, and suffered 11 wounds from shell, shot and bayonet -- game token No. 2. According to Joanna Craig, executive director of Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site, Cornwallis expressed his sadness at seeing the Baron so injured and ordered his men and surgeons to minister to de Kalb. Three days later, this great patriot of the Revolution died from his wounds. All the British soldiers attended his full Masonic funeral. When George Washington toured the Battle of Camden and Hobkirk Hill sites several years later, he also made a reverent visit to de Kalb’s grave, then on Meeting Street.

The game now fast-forwards to 1824 when Lafayette returned to America to travel through 24 states, visiting battlefields and accepting honors at numerous soirees, balls and galas. Kirkland and Kennedy note in their work, Historic Camden, that none of the countless invitations touched a more responsive chord than the one to Camden to lay the cornerstone of a monument to his old friend, Baron de Kalb.

Local historian Charles Baxley characterized Lafayette as a revered superstar of the time, held in the highest regard as one of the last living Revolutionary War leaders, and almost as beloved by Americans as the venerable George Washington. Camden citizens were feverish with excitement and anticipation of the Marquis’ visit. Legend holds that the heart of one potential Camden hostess, so overcome with anxieties at the prospect of entertaining Lafayette, gave out and she died. Game token No. 3, the heart, can be collected.

Thundering cannons heralded Lafayette’s arrival in Camden on March 8, 1825. With great military flair, he was welcomed to the just-completed Broad Street residence of Congressman John Carter. This imposing double-piazza-ed mansion was selected as the Marquis’quarters, and became known as Lafayette Hall -- the fourth game token. The Kershaw County Courthouse (1121 Broad St., Camden) has stood on this property since Lafayette Hall burned in 1904. An alcove in the courthouse contains a marker commemorating events surrounding the Marquis’ visit.

The beautiful house was empty, so there followed a heated frenzy of citizens vying to provide furnishings. Two sets of china were made for the occasion, and the only known remaining piece can be viewed at Proctor Hall -- game token No. 5, the Lafayette platter.

As Lafayette proceeded up the brick walkway, young girls in crisp white dresses scattered flowers on the path. The few surviving war veterans stood at attention on the piazza to honor their former comrade-in-arms. Col. Henry G. Nixon addressed Lafayette with these remarks: “You left family, country, wealth and nobility to engage in the storms of a doubtful revolution … consecrated our soil with your blood, and exhibited decision and bravery in battle. Friend of my country, welcome. We greet you with our hearts.”

Abraham DeLeon extended words of fellowship in French to Lafayette, his Freemason brother. To express appreciation, the Marquis presented his personal Masonic jewel to DeLeon. The original is in possession of the Masonic lodge in Charleston. A replica -- game token No. 6 -- is housed at the Camden Archives and Museum.

The night ended with a lavish reception and grand ball. Soldiers wore commemorative badges and other guests received white moiré silk sashes hemmed in heavy gold fringe, and stamped with the likeness of Lafayette, represented by game piece No. 7.

According to Kirkland/Kennedy’s Historic Camden, Lafayette queried each gentleman if he was married. A “yes” response received a nod and “Ah, happy fellow,” from the Marquis. To a “no” response, he winked and chuckled, “Lucky dog, Sir, lucky dog.” Game piece No. 8, the dog, can now be collected.

At noon the following day, the re-interment ceremony of Baron de Kalb’s remains took place on the grounds of Bethesda Presbyterian Church (502 DeKalb St., Camden). Regarding the honor of laying the cornerstone for the tomb, Kirkland/Kennedy recorded these words from Lafayette: “The honor … I receive with mingled emotions of patriotism, gratitude, and friendship … his (de Kalb) able conduct, undaunted valor and glorious fall in the first Battle of Camden, form one of the remarkable traits of our struggle for Independence and Freedom. He was cordially devoted to our American cause. Here I remain to pay to his merits on this tomb, the tribute of an admiring witness, of an intimate companion, of a mourning friend.”

The Marquis was then presented with an ivory-handled trowel with blade of solid silver engraved: “Made for Brother Lafayette to lay the cornerstone of de Kalb’s monument, 1825.” Game token No. 9 represents this historic trowel, perhaps the most treasured relic of the Masonic Order of South Carolina. It was also used to lay the cornerstones of the Camden post office (1914), Camden City Hall (1955) and the reconstruction of the Joseph Kershaw House (1977).

Now only one game token remains -- the little cedar cutting, and the inspiration for this story. According to Craig, prior to the Marquis’ arrival, Camden citizens recognized that the lodging had been readied and furnished, but the barren grounds needed something to offer a softer welcome to Lafayette Hall. So instant landscaping was undertaken with the placement of two rows of branches snapped off of cedar trees and hastily placed in the ground.

Nearly 190 years later, the sole surviving cedar which somehow took root, rises 60 feet tall in the heart of downtown Camden on the grassy knoll in front of the Kershaw County Courthouse. Liz Gilland, Camden’s Urban Forester, expressed concern for the health and condition of the tree.

“The ravages of time, aging, the elements, and the impact of the human environment have taken a toll, evident in the sparse foliage and lopped off branches,” Gilland said.

Past efforts to propagate the cedar have failed. As limbs have fallen over the years, the late J.B. McGuirt, and now his son Jim, have formed gavels out of the wood. Several organizations in the county proudly possess those.

With little grandeur to its silhouette, it may likely be the least visited, let alone photographed, historic site in town. An informal survey of 85 people passing by or through the courthouse revealed only four aware of the cedar and its significance.

Biographer W.L. Weems refers to Baron de Kalb’s epitaph in The Life of Marion, with this sentiment: “The people of the future may heave a sigh when they read of the generous stranger who came from a distant land to fight their battles and to water, with his blood, the tree of their liberties.” Like his friend de Kalb, the Marquis also watered the tree of liberties with countless sacrifices in America’s Revolutionary War. The Lafayette cedar is the final game token.

Baxley agrees that the cedar is symbolic of Lafayette’s visit and of those who followed the roads in pursuit of freedom, but also much more, as he said, “The importance of the tree is what it represents -- the birth story of our country and how so much of it played out in Camden. The tree deserves to live -- just like liberty.”

Game over.

(A Battle of Camden Remembrance Ceremony will be held Saturday, Aug. 17, at 11 a.m. at the Battle of Camden site, on Flat Rock Road approximately eight miles north of Camden.)

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