South Carolina's role in the US Civil War is well documented with federal historic sites at Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the war were fired, and locations where lawmakers voted to withdraw from the United States and signed the Articles of Secession.
But in the years leading up to the war, South Carolina was one of the wealthiest states in the nation, thanks in large part to "King Cotton," Carolina Gold Rice and the slave labor that made these crops grow. The plantation system was firmly in place and being protected by lawmakers from all across the South. Today, several South Carolina state parks preserve portions of some plantations to help tell the stories of the lives of all the residents. There also is one state park dedicated to a battlefield site, where Confederates made one last stand against the onslaught of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march across the South.
Hampton Plantation State Historic Site contains the remnants of a rice plantation with its Georgian-style mansion and well-kept grounds. Visitors learn about the system of slavery that helped build such plantations in South Carolina, which were an early source of wealth in the new country. You can explore the mansion and grounds as well as see the remains of rice fields in Wambaw Creek. Archibald Rutledge, a descendant of the families who lived here and a South Carolina poet laureate, gave it to the state as part of his families' legacy. The site is now a National Historic Landmark. In its heyday, the plantation saw the production of rice, which was successful largely because of the know-how of West African slaves. The area also produced lumber as well as the crop indigo, which was used to create a blue dye. The families that lived here are a who's-who of historic South Carolina, including the Rutledges, Horrys and Pinckneys.
Redcliffe Plantation was a major plantation built near the end of the era - little more than a year before South Carolina became the first state to secede from the US. Redcliffe, on the western edge of the state, was once the home of James Henry Hammond as well as three generations of his descendants. Hammond was a cotton planter, congressman and governor who spent his life defending the plantation system. Hammond famously espoused that "cotton is king" and a separated South would thrive without the northern US states. He defended slavery as an economic and social system. Today, visitors to Redcliffe can explore the remnants of slave quarters, the mansion and its magnolia-lined drive as well as an onsite heirloom garden. The plantation was also home to generations of slaves and free African-American men and women who worked there. These families include the Goodwins, Henleys and Wigfalls. These families lived and worked there as sharecroppers and paid employees into the 1970s.
Rose Hill Plantation was home to another politician and defender of the plantation system and slavery. William Henry Gist was the son of a Charleston merchant and became governor of South Carolina in 1858-about the same time Hammond was making speeches on the floor of the US Senate defending slavery. After the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, Gist said the only alternative for the state was to leave the Union. He became known as the "Secession Governor." His home, which today includes rose gardens as well as original plantation buildings, is located oddly enough in the town of Union.
Rivers Bridge State Historic Site marks the site of one of the Confederacy's last stands against Gen. William T. Sherman's march across the South. Sherman had already marched from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., and turned his sights on Columbia as the birthplace of secession. It was early 1865 and the Confederacy was on its last leg. An outnumbered force of Confederates attempted to delay Sherman's march to Columbia at a place on the Salkehatchie River called Rivers Bridge. The Confederate veterans knew how to locate their defense and set up on a fortified bluff overlooking the river. The Confederates stopped the frontal assault, but the US troops flanked both sides of the Confederate line and forced them to retreat. The victory at Rivers Bridge left Sherman a virtually clear path to the state capital. A guided trail at the state park of less than a mile details the battle with interpretive panels. It is one of the best preserved Civil War sites in the state, with ranger-led tours given throughout the year. Visitors also can learn about the lives lost in the battle. Four cemeteries are located throughout the park, including one for the Confederate dead from the battle of Rivers Bridge. Others are for World War II veterans and private family burial grounds.