You may know that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. And, if you are like most people, you probably think the call for secession began with cannon fire at Fort Sumter, which launched the Civil War. Well, you'd be mistaken about when South Carolinians wanted to secede. The first rally for disunion began right here in Bluffton sixteen years before that fateful day in 1860. Indeed, Robert Barnwell Rhett, a South Carolina congressman, gave a fiery speech here in 1844 under the branches of the "Secession Oak." This venerable tree still stands on the former plantation that was home to the M. Alexander Verdier family. Young planters and politicians, cheered his call to leave the Union and they became known as the "Bluffton Boys". They held more such rallies in the coming weeks and soon the cause for secession became known as "The Bluffton Movement".
Welcome to Dubois Park, named after the family which donated the land with the stipulation that it be maintained by the town as a park forever. As you enjoy this pocket of green, notice the historical marker under a young live oak tree near the edge of the park on the Boundary Street side. Take a moment to read about the Burning of Bluffton in 1863.
In time, the young tree that shades the marker will be as majestic as the centuries-old live oaks that grace downtown Bluffton. Their shade is as welcome now as it was in the 1800’s before the advent of electric fans and certainly before anyone had ever dreamt of such a thing as air conditioning!
Back then, outdoor gatherings were often held under the live oaks. Draped in Spanish moss, their cooling shade provided respite from the summer heat. One such gathering, a dinner party in honor of a local politician, would put the town of Bluffton on the map forever as a birthplace of the Secessionist Movement.
Despite what many of us think we know about the beginnings of the Civil War, the notion of secession did not originate shortly before the fateful shots on Fort Sumter in 1861, or even a decade before. No – in reality, the roots of secession were planted right here in Bluffton in 1844, nearly twenty years before the Civil War began!
Back then, the federal government ordered tariffs on imported goods to protect American manufacturers. Congress also imposed taxes on exported cotton. These policies favored the industrial Northern states. Southern politicians made impassioned speeches against the tariffs in support of states’ rights. These sentiments, as well as anxiety over the growing abolitionist movement in the North, set South Carolina squarely on the path of protest and eventual secession.
And so it was that on the hot, steamy evening of July 31,1844, US Representative Robert Barnwell Rhett gave a famous and fiery speech on a platform in the shade of a spreading live oak tree just a few miles from here. Exciting the crowd, he especially appealed to young planters and politicians, who enthusiastically supported Rhett’s speech with loud cheers and toasts.
These young firebrands held more such rallies in the weeks that followed making conservative Southern politicians uneasy and disdainful. Referring to their youth, opponents mocked them by calling them “Bluffton Boys.” Rhett’s supporters proudly adopted this name as a badge of honor and their cause soon came to be known as the “Bluffton Movement “– understood throughout the South as a radical call for disunion. Spreading throughout the region, the Bluffton Movement was a catalyst for South Carolina becoming the first state to secede from the Union sixteen years later.
The magnificent tree that towered over that rousing speech nearly two hundred years ago became known as the Secession Oak. Estimated to be 350 – 400 years old, to this day it shades private property not far from this very spot.