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A Little known Civil War ‘Affair’ at Flat Rock

Posted: August 30, 2013 9:58 a.m.
Updated: September 2, 2013 5:00 a.m.

As a part of the centennial of the Civil War, in 1959 the South Carolina Archives Department published Military and Naval Operations in South Carolina, 1860-65. In the portion of the book treating Sherman’s march through South Carolina, the department named a military action with little or no combat, an “Affair.” That name describes this event at Flat Rock.

The Flat Rock community, located about 18 miles north of Camden toward Lancaster, derived its name from a broad expanse of bare, exposed granite rock. From colonial days to the present, many things in that area of Kershaw District/County bore or continue to bear the name Flat Rock.

Prior to the Civil War, the Flat Rock community contained grist mills, several mercantile stores, a number of churches, a post office, many thriving farms, Dr. Alexander McDowell’s medical office, a literary society, a militia company, etc. The Flat Rock Guards was the local militia unit in operation when the Civil War began.

Within a few days after Sherman’s Army left the burned city of Columbia, he quickly marched across the Richland and Fairfield districts. On the afternoon of February 22, 1865, the 15th and 17th Corps of his army reached the Wateree River at Peay’s Ferry on the road leading to Liberty Hill across the river in Kershaw District. They crossed the river on the 23rd and began their conquest of this district. By the 24th they had captured Camden.

As his army had done since January when it entered South Carolina from Savannah, Georgia, it lived off the land, taking food for men and animals from the local people. The army also continued to plunder and burn both public and private property as it traversed an area. To help in accomplishing these objectives, Sherman sent out foraging parties.

One of these foraging parties in the Flat Rock community was led by Captain Jacob B. Ritner, 1st Iowa Infantry, 25th Iowa Infantry, 15th Army Corps, Army of Tennessee. In a letter to his wife written shortly after his Corps left Columbia, Ritner described the activities of his 17 man foraging party in the Flat Rock community.

On February 25th, Ritner related how cloudy, dark and rainy the day was. While foraging that day, his men encountered a company containing 60 South Carolina militiamen and captured them at Flat Rock Post Office. That night, Ritner got lost and separated from his brigade in the rain, dark and gloom and “took possession of a Baptist Church [Flat Rock Baptist] and camped on my own hook.” The next day [Feb. 26th] when he found his brigade about noon, he turned over his prisoners to Colonel Stone.

Ritner was much relieved since his small 17-man party was very vulnerable to attack and capture by Confederate cavalry or militiamen. Ritner described his prisoners in this manner: “They are mostly old gray-headed soldiers.” The captured local Confederate militia group told Ritner they were on their way to Camden to be armed and equipped.

Ritner’s account of this little known Civil War “Affair” is contained in Love and Valor, the Intimate Civil War Letters between Captain Jacob and Emeline Ritner, edited by Charles F. Larimer and published by Signourney Press in 2000. None of the Confederate or Union official publications contain these details related by Ritner in his letter to his wife.

Until Captain Ritner’s letter to his wife came to light in 2000, local historians, including yours truly, knew nothing about this event. Neither did the Flat Rock Baptist Church records contain any reference to it.

The Confederate and Union official records do not list the names of those captured. However, Dark Hours by Randolph W. Kirkland Jr. does list the following names of 12 South Carolina militiamen and citizens captured at Flat Rock, February 10-26, 1865: Feb. 10th: Pvts. Lewis J. Langford and T. G. Langford; Feb. 24th Pvts. P. G. Gibson & H. P. Pugh and citizens Levi Kelly, G. A. Lewis, J. M. Lucas, D. Ruff and E. Wessenger; Feb. 26th Pvts. A. W. Craft, H. E. Hoover & A. D. Jeffcoat. The seven militiamen were from the 15th S. C. Militia, four from Co. A, one Co. B, and 2 Co. G.

The Feb. 10th date is clearly an error since Sherman’s Army was in the Orangeburg District area of South Carolina at that time. The other two dates of capture, the 24th and 26th that Kirkland found in the Compiled Service Records of Confederate servicemen in the Civil War done by the War Department in the early 1900s, do not exactly match up with the dates in Ritner’s account.

Ritner recorded this “Affair” contemporaneously. For that reason, more credibility should be given to it than records copied 50 or so years later, records which are known to have numerous errors in dates. Also Colonel Stone may have reported the date of capture as the day Ritner turned the prisoners over to him.

It is reasonable to assume that the five citizens and two privates reported captured on Feb. 24th by Kirkland were captured by Ritner’s foraging party. The same may be true for those men reported captured on Feb. 26th, but we likely will never know for a certainty.

The reason for capturing five civilians, four of whom were from Lexington District, remains a mystery. Sherman’s Army also captured a number of other civilians in the Carolinas. A future article will provide a list of all civilians Sherman captured in South Carolina and sent north to prison. Hopefully, additional information about why they were captured and sent to prison can be discovered.

On February 26th, the day after Ritner reported the 60 men captured at Flat Rock, Major Thomas W. Osborn wrote in his private journal at Tiller’s Ferry, “The detachment which came out yesterday [February 25th] to take and hold the bridge till we should come up captured more than a hundred of the S.C. Militia who said they were on their way home, having left the army when they reached the foreign state of North Carolina.” These details are only found in Osborn’s private journal.

These two reports indicate Sherman’s Army captured 160 or more militiamen in two days in Kershaw District. Dark Hours does not list any of these men as having been paroled but does list more than 100 prisoners captured in Kershaw District who went on to prison camps. A number of these “old” militiamen likely were paroled without any “official” record being made or reported of it.

A future article will discuss how Sherman handled prisoners while on his march across the two Carolinas.

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