Corner of May River Road and Boundary Street
Photograph taken by S.Cox.
Ritchie, Alexander Hay, Engraver, and Felix Octavius Carr Darley. Sherman's march to the sea / F.O.C. Darley fecit. United States, ca. 1868. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003679761/.
Photograph taken by S.Cox.
We take you from the mid 1800's when Bluffton was known as "Kirk's Bluff" up through the Civil War. Along the way, you'll learn about Bluffton's inverted school year and its life as a thriving village built on a plantation based economy. It all came to an end, of course, when Union troops burnt the town down on June 4, 1863.
First known as May River, Kirks Bluff, or simply “the Bluff,” Bluffton received its current name in 1844 and was incorporated as a village in 1852. Early residents included the Kirk, Pope, Cole and Heyward families. The village street plan you see beneath your feet was laid out in the 1830s and amazingly, remains intact today.
Soon, two churches were built in Bluffton: the Episcopal Church of the Cross at the end of Calhoun Street, and a Methodist church nearby on Boundary Street. Several stores opened on Calhoun Street, and more homes were built. This little hamlet was becoming a true town.
Although exact numbers are not known, it’s likely that about half the population in the mid-1800s was enslaved African Americans. Given the tight proximity of living quarters and workspaces – very different from life on the plantations – Bluffton developed its own distinct way of life. Research continues on this fascinating cultural landscape.
By 1843, there was a dock at the end of Calhoun Street and regular steamboat ferry service to Savannah. Steamboats brought mail, commercial goods and passengers to Bluffton, and departed with rice and cotton. Bluffton was soon the center of society for local plantation owners, whose families socialized with one another during the six months they lived here each year. By the mid-1800’s, Bluffton was a thriving village in a prosperous Lowcountry.
The Civil War changed Bluffton forever. Planters left their homes and families to fight for the Confederacy, while the women did their best to support them and oversee the plantations. Some slaves fled the area, some joined Union troops, and others remained on the plantations and subsisted as best they could. Eventually, most whites evacuated further inland abandoning their Bluffton homes leaving furniture and possessions behind.
Early in the war, the famous Battle of Port Royal Sound took place in the waters just off Hilton Head Island, pitting two famous brothers against each other. For the South, Bluffton’s own Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton was in charge of protecting the local Sea Islands while his younger brother, Percival, commanded one of the Union ships that ultimately defeated the Confederates that day. Both lived to fight on, but you can only imagine the conflicting emotions these brothers felt as they knowingly and fiercely battled each other on that clear and cool morning of November 7, 1861.
The North’s overwhelming victory in the Battle of Port Royal Sound made Hilton Head Island a Union stronghold. With masses of Union troops camped within rowing distance, Bluffton remained fairly peaceful and quiet for the next year and a half – at least on the surface. In reality, Bluffton was the center of an intricate network of lookouts and spies who reported information about Union troops and used guerilla tactics to harass and threaten them.
By 1863, Bluffton was the hub of Confederate early warning system so Union commanders decided to burn the town down. At dawn on the foggy morning of June 4, 1863, one thousand Union troops landed about a mile downriver from where you stand. They marched unopposed to the outskirts of town and began to torch everything they could. Just five hours later, Bluffton was destroyed – 40 of her 60 dwellings reduced to ashes. Despite the devastation, the town’s two churches were spared. Today those two churches, the Church of the Cross and Campbell Chapel AME Church, and eight homes remain as a living history of Bluffton before the Civil War.