“We thanked God that so many could go to that feast, and sobs were heard from many of the women, and tears ran down the cheeks of the men,” observed one congregant at the first service held in Trinity Church after the occupation of Columbia by federal troops under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman. “You would have to be placed in like condition with us, to understand the full meaning of the first communion after that dreadful night.”
The night in question was Feb. 17, 1865, when more than a third of the city was destroyed by fire. Finger-pointing is still the order of the day regarding the source of that conflagration. Sherman himself said that Confederate defenders of the city were responsible when they set on fire bales of cotton prior to their hasty evacuation; most local residents, however, accused Sherman himself of arson or, at the very least, of not curbing his soldiers from their rowdy celebrations on that fateful night.
In one often printed photograph of the aftermath of the great fire – taken from the unfinished State House looking north up Main Street, one can see deserted thoroughfares and a mass of rubble for block upon block with an occasional chimney punctuating the skyline. Except for the State House itself, whose outer walls were all that had been built before the invasion, the only intact landmark in the central business district was Trinity Church, which somehow miraculously escaped the flames.
Its pastor of the time, the Rev. Peter Shand, was not so lucky. While leaving his residence less than a block from the church, Shand was challenged by Union soldiers intent upon discovering the contents of the trunk that he was so hastily carrying from the burning rectory. They struck gold – or at least silver – when they confiscated the communion set – goblet, wine ewer and patin. Shand, however, put up a fight, and, according to his own account, he suffered a pistol whipping for his vigorous defense of his property.
Shand went on to serve for more than 50 years as rector, thus becoming a legendary figure in the history of the church. After his death in 1886, a committee of parishioners spearheaded efforts to collect funds for the purchase of five extraordinary windows in the chancel, the space behind the altar. Since most traditional Christian churches situate their sanctuaries so that the congregation faces east – toward the Holy Land – these windows, fashioned by a New Jersey firm out of literally thousands of pieces of tiny mosaic glass, are ablaze with light in the morning, which happened to be the time of my last visit to Old Trinity.
Last week I was hosting a group of Aikenites as part of a USCA Academy for Lifelong Learning class on “the Movers and Shakers of South Carolina,” many of whom worshipped at Trinity and are buried in its churchyard. Among these number Wade Hampton III, often called the “savior” or “redeemer” because his election to the governorship brought Reconstruction to an end and returned South Carolina to home rule at the hands of the planter class that controlled politics before the War Between the States, and Henry Timrod, the so-called Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, whose poem “Carolina” eventually became the state song.
The church itself – officially a cathedral since 1977 – is well worth a visit, especially at this point in time following the conclusion of a major three-year restoration. Trinity’s present cruciform or cross-shaped configuration dates back to the first years of the War Between the States. By 1862, the original rectangular floor plan had been transformed by the addition of transepts and the pews had been reordered to create a central aisle. The recent restoration has also resulted in repainting the interior in the colors popular at the time, especially the muted blue, brown and burgundy favored by Victorian designers – colors coincidentally one also finds across the street in the restored South Carolina State House whose principal interior decoration dates from around the same period.
Besides the church’s many stained glass windows, dating from various periods in the building’s history and including some near the entrance fashioned perhaps by Tiffany and Company in 1894-95, other items of note include the marble baptismal font donated in the 1840s by Mary Cantey Hampton, the third wife of Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton I and the first resident of the Hampton-Preston Mansion, which is now operated as a house museum by the Historic Columbia Foundation. Carved, it is said, by American expatriate sculptor Hiram Powers, the font features Gothic panels that match the general style of the church. With its false buttresses and twin towers, the cathedral is often described as the best example of Gothic Revival architecture in South Carolina.
The choice of Powers as the font sculptor is ironic since his most famous work entitled “The Greek Slave,” a life-size representation of a naked Greek maiden in bondage to predatory Turks, was eventually claimed by Northern abolitionists as a symbol of their cause.
Equally evocative are the bronze tablets that line the walls of the sanctuary, especially the one dedicated to the male parishioners who died in the War Between the States, some, like William Beckwith, as young as 15. According to various estimates, about a third of the South Carolina males who joined the military died during their service to the Confederacy.
Because of the sacrifices of its congregation and because it was the only church in the city’s urban core not destroyed during the fire of 1865, Trinity holds a special place in the history of Columbia and our state.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” will be published this fall by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).