While the Civil War receives a great deal of attention in South Carolina, the state’s role in defeating the British in the American Revolution is often overlooked. Historic Revolutionary War sites, including battlegrounds, offer important lessons. Three South Carolinians are among those dedicated to preserving and sharing this rich history.
David Reuwer serves on the board of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. He is a founder, with Charles Baxley, of Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution. His car tag reads “Rev War,” and his business card features an image of a 1776 version of the American flag, the Declaration of Independence, and a quote by patriot Gen. Nathanael Greene that states, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”
When David is not working in his legal profession, he is often writing, reading, or speaking about the American Revolution. Or he is most likely knocking on someone’s door to negotiate the purchase or easement of an actual Revolutionary War battle site. Why? He does not want history to be lost, nor does he desire to see South Carolina only focus attention and education on the “more recent” Civil War.
Charles, an attorney for 41 years, first delved into the Revolutionary War because he wanted to have a better understanding of local history. His library of more than 200 books on the subject rivals David’s. Charles first met David in 2002 on a bus tour organized for the Sumter County Historical Association. They connected on the topic of the Revolutionary War and decided to form Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, which hosts Revolutionary War Roundtable events — forums for fellowship and sharing that draw hundreds from all over the South.
Doug Bostick is more than a hobbyist; he is a professional preservationist and sought-after speaker on topics such as the Revolutionary War. The executive director/CEO of The South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, he has written 26 non-fiction history-related books. He says he decided to pursue preservation full-time after seeing a historic site destroyed. “It was a Revolutionary War site in the Lowcountry and was developed into a high-end residential development. Extant resources were destroyed. The biggest legacy I can leave children, grandchildren, and future generations is to preserve these sites.”
Doug, David, and Charles are adamant that South Carolina not be overlooked regarding its significant role in the War for Independence between the Patriots and the British. In sharing an analogy about South Carolina’s historic role, David says, “While the Revolution may have been conceived on the Massachusetts battlefields of Lexington and Concord and its birth certificate drawn up in Philadelphia in 1776, the labor and delivery rooms for the nation were the battlefields in South Carolina.” In other words, he says, “What the Northerners started, it took Southerners to finish.”
With more than 200 battles and skirmishes fought throughout the state, South Carolina possesses a plethora of other historical military sites in addition to battlefields, such as fortifications, that highlight the state’s significant contribution to the United States’ military actions around the world. “The British in particular had a habit of seizing mansion homes, like the Kershaw-Cornwallis House in Camden, as well as churches, and fortifying them or making them into ammunition depots,” Doug says. “They put swivel guns in the windows of homes and fortified around them.”
This apparently happened all over South Carolina. “So many people only think of places like Yorktown in Virginia as where the Revolutionary War was fought, but ‘we have better factual stories that people just don’t know,’” says David, quoting his friend, Doug.
While the public’s awareness is piqued during re-enactments, those events can only maintain historical accuracy through the establishment and preservation of the land on which conflicts occurred. The South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust’s mission states, “For thousands of years, warfare has shaped every aspect of human civilization. Beyond the obvious and direct impacts to history in the forms of the victories and defeats, armed conflict also effects change and development in technology, economic systems, ideology, culture, art, literature, music, and spreads religion to every corner of the globe.”
Thus, the trust’s purpose is “to protect and preserve these historic military sites across South Carolina to not only honor the soldiers who gave their lives in service to their country, but also provide current and future generations a space at which to remember, contemplate, discuss, and learn how our history not only shapes the past, but is also relevant to the present and future of our great state.”
Charles explains that the process of securing battle sites for generations to come is multifaceted. It involves finding them, purchasing them or obtaining preservation easements, researching, interpreting information to share with the public, providing signage and maps, maintaining, and protecting.
“The trick is to find landowners willing to sell battlefields, and then raise the money to purchase them,” he says. Money also has to be raised to erect signage, a monument, or another type of structure.
The time frame to secure a battlefield can take from a few months to a year, says Doug. “There is no such thing as a typical battlefield size. The Battle of Eutaw Springs battlefield in Orangeburg County is about four and half square miles, and the battle took a half a day from beginning to end. We have pieces of that battlefield, but that battle was so large. There are probably 60 property owners that touch parts of the battlefield. I don’t know if we will ever own the whole thing.”
In contrast, the Battle of Hanging Rock battlefield is about 400 acres. “We hope to end up owning all of that,” he says.
Some battlefields are owned by other entities. In Camden, for example, Historic Camden owns much of the Battle of Camden battlefield. Washington, D.C., based American Battlefield Trust supports the work of David, Doug, and Charles. “They work hand in hand with us,” says Doug. “They raise money, but we handle battlefield negotiations as the boots on the ground. They’re a large, extremely successful preservation group. The benefit to them is knowing that vital parts of American history are being preserved. It doesn’t matter to them or to us who owns these places. What matters is that that they will never be destroyed by being built on or becoming an industrial site, for example. Instead, people can learn from them.”
How do they know a piece of land is actually the site of a Revolutionary War battle? They use conflict archeology. “What we are looking for are dropped and fired round balls with metal detectors,” says Doug. “If it’s been a fired round ball, it’s no longer perfectly round. It’s squashed … elongated. If you’re at a battlefield and you find a lot of dropped round balls, that’s telling you that’s where Patriot or British lines stood. They were quickly reloading because their lives were threatened. They fumbled and dropped a lot of balls. The pattern of fired round balls versus unfired round balls tells a story.”
Doug says that people ask him “why” a lot, at which point he refers to a sign that hangs in the Medal of Honor Museum in Charleston, reading: “A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure,” Abraham Lincoln.
“These battlefields are hallowed grounds,” maintains Doug, “sacred places that should be saved. They tell the story of how this country began. And we’ve lost touch with that in such a huge way. I recently heard from someone interviewing young people about why we celebrate July Fourth and less than 20 percent of the people he asked knew. The ones who did not know why offered answers like Columbus discovered America, the Emancipation Proclamation, the start of the Civil War, or celebration of the summer party season. Plenty of people just responded, ‘I have no idea.’”
Education is imperative. Charles believes that the more the Revolutionary War can be shared through literature, letters, papers, maps, plats, historical markers, local tradition, and battle sites, the more history will come alive and become interesting to future generations.
Doug says he looks at these battlefields as outdoor classrooms as the Revolutionary War has stories that involve everyone, including women and children, African-American soldiers, even a whole company of volunteer Jewish merchants. “The Catawba Indians were involved in lots of battles, too,” he says. “It’s crazy how many people don’t know any of this.”
He adds that he especially likes to learn of the unconventional stories. “We are frequently surprised by the units that fought in different areas. We mostly figure that out by finding buttons, which were engraved with their company information. Once we found a button from Rhode Island on a South Carolina battlefield. So we have to research that further. Artifacts lead you to tell the story and to document it.”
These three history buffs are dedicated to the establishment of the Liberty Trail, an envisioned battlefield history “path” through the state. The goal is to focus on 69 battles, with the trail divided into four geographically arranged sections. The trail would be designed so that visitors could cover each trail section in a long weekend.
The Liberty Trail will be connected through a smartphone app, funded by American Battlefield Trust. Doug says the app will include paintings of the battlefields, information and links to key people, and battle details. “People are engineering the app currently. The plan is for it to be available in the spring of 2020 at the latest. Once the app is available, people can go to these sites and see signage there, and they can learn how the battle unfolded and other information.”
Already, though, the Liberty Trail is becoming known in South Carolina. “There are more requests to speak on the Liberty Trail battlefields than we will ever be able to do,” says Doug.
“The Revolutionary War is my favorite subject. It’s fun because it’s who we are, as a peopled government,” says David. “In my lifetime, I hope we will make the Liberty Trail to the Revolutionary War what the Shenandoah Valley trails are to the Civil War.”