South Carolina Governor Andrew G. Magrath, And the Box They Burried The State In

Andrew Gordon Magrath (1813-1893) was governor of South Carolina for six months: from December, 1864, when he was elected by a divided legislature, to the fall of the Confederacy, the collapse of the state, and his own arrest by Federal authorities in May, 1865. An accomplished Federal judge before the war, Magrath became a fire-breathing secessionist by the time of Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. He sat in the state's Secession Convention, and, as secretary of state, was a member of the Executive Council, an extralegal body of extraordinary power that directed South Carolina's war effort in 1861 and 1862. Before his election as governor he was serving as Confederate district judge, where his extreme states' rights views often clashed with a centralizing national government.

Magrath's entire official correspondence as governor fits into one box at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. That box is filled with the remains of a South Carolina in tumult, in confusion and desperation, as its people respond to the disintegration of order and authority. Many of the letters are from whites who fear the dissolution not just of civil institutions, but of slavery and traditional forms of mastery. Many are from writers who artfully press the governor to exempt them from military duty. Still others are from military and civil officials coping with William Tecumseh Sherman's march on Columbia and Charleston and, afterwards, what appears to be a lost cause. In their correspondence we see and feel the pressure on a people at war-and on the systems, the creeds, and the way of life their war was fought to defend. For many white Carolinians, those pressures exposed contradictions and forced them to make painful choices.

But they are not the only people in this box whose voices we can listen for. Although not themselves letter writers, the tens of thousands of enslaved African-Americans---a majority of South Carolina's population---can also be heard in Magrath's correspondence. They, too, were responding to pressure in very human ways. And, sometimes, they were creating it.