New exhibit on personal experiences of Civil War

Posted on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 

Darlington News and Press


The display includes a detailed model of the Florence Stockade where many Union prisoners perished due to harsh conditions. (Photos by Samantha Lyles)



The display includes a detailed model of the Florence Stockade where many Union prisoners perished due to harsh conditions. Photo by Samantha Lyles
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpress.net

A new Civil War exhibit at the Darlington County Historical Commission turns the spotlight away from pivotal battles and sweeping societal changes, instead focusing on the intensely personal experiences of soldiers caught up in the deadliest military conflict in our nation’s history.

“We wanted to do something that isn’t about the North and the South, but instead is about the people who fought the war and were affected by the war,” says Brian Gandy, director of the Darlington County Historical Commission.

One such display relates the story of two Darlington-born men who ended up on opposite sides of the conflict, fighting at the same place and time, but wearing different uniforms.


Photo by Samantha Lyles

“Uniquely, we had Darlington represented on both sides at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863,” says Gandy. “Whether or not you agree or disagree with the politics and the situation, one thing you can’t dispute is the value of someone who does what they’re told with bravery and honor, whichever side they’re on.”

John H. Nettles fled slavery, became a Boston blacksmith and got married, but when war broke out, he enlisted in the Union army. Nettles was assigned to the fabled 54th Massachusetts Infantry – the African-American unit that inspired the film “Glory.” Almost one-third of the 54th died on July 18 when they charged into a hailstorm of gunfire attempting to conquer Fort Wagner near Charleston.


Photo by Samantha Lyles

Hand-written muster rolls and company documents reveal that Pvt. Nettles received a grievous knee wound and his leg was amputated; he died a few weeks later in a Beaufort hospital at only 27 years of age.

During this attack, Confederate soldier Samuel Hugh Wilds was inside the fort, serving with the 21st Regiment of Company B. Letters exchanged between Wilds and his wife Anna convey a sense of impending danger, with Anna repeatedly urging Samuel to be cautious and him trying in vain to allay her fears. Though Wilds was injured during the Fort Wagner siege, subsequent letters reveal that he likely did not tell Anna of his wounds.

Wilds was promoted to Major, and eventually returned home to Darlington, living out the rest of his life at the stately Wilds-Edwards Home – which still stands on Edwards Avenue.

With so many expansive stories to tell, new technology will be used to help this Civil War display transcend the limited physical space at the Historical Commission, as each display item with be paired with a QR code to open up a whole new level of learning. Visitors can use their smartphones (or borrow a tablet from the Commission) to scan the code beside a display and be instantly linked to a treasure trove of historical context, including photographs, maps, and in-depth explorations of the artifacts.


QR code for Minnie Balls

“What you’ll be able to do is scan that QR code beside a particular item – like the percussion caps, which a lot of people don’t know about – and you’ll be able to learn what they were for, how they were used, how they functioned with the ammunition. You can learn about the minnie ball, which is remarkable because it actually changed the face of the war since that bullet was designed to maim, to break bones, and it did its job very effectively,” says Gandy.


Photo by Samantha Lyles

The exhibit’s visual centerpiece is a detailed model (built by James Walters) of the notorious Florence Stockade, a prison camp that held as many as 18,000 captured Union troops on land that was – at the time – part of Darlington County. Limited rations, filthy conditions, and exposure to the elements killed as many as 2,800 prisoners, causing the Stockade to be closed in January of 1865, only five months after its construction.

Florence National Cemetery began as a place of interment for Northern soldiers who perished at the Stockade. Separate from the mass grave markers there is the final resting place of one unique prisoner: Flora Budwin, who dressed as a man and followed her husband to war and, eventually, to the Stockade. Budwin’s identity was discovered and she worked briefly as a nurse, but the camp conditions eventually sickened her and ended her life. Budwin was buried with full military honors, the first woman soldier ever laid to rest in a National Cemetery.

On display are numerous hand-written letters from servicemen to their loved ones, conveying the daily hardships of battle, deprivation, and loneliness. Digital scans of these missives can be read in their original longhand, or visitors may choose to read verbatim transcriptions (painstakingly done by Commission staff) with original spelling and grammar intact. Gandy notes that some soldiers were more literate than others, but even those with the barest grasp of language had heartfelt sentiments to express, making their struggle with with the written word especially poignant.

“There’s something beautiful about seeing the letters that way. You see a man desperately trying to convey something to his family, knowing it may be the last opportunity he has. It’s very real,” says Gandy.

Various flags, ribbons, and medals tell tales of brave bands of brothers, and of individual heroism. One rare badge – from the Camden chapter of the United Confederate Veterans – depicts the mercy and courage of Kershaw County native and Confederate solider Richard Kirkland, who risked his life to bring water and blankets to wounded soldiers at Fredericksburg, regardless of whether they wore the Blue or the Gray.

“There’s about four of those badges known in existence and ours is number four,” Gandy says.

Another display is dedicated to the Darlington Guards, a volunteer militia organized in June of 1859 by Capt. Frederick Warley to protect local homes and businesses as tensions grew. The Guards were summoned to active duty in 1861 and served in Charleston, Sullivan’s Island, Morris Island, and took part in the attack on Fort Sumter.

The Darlington Guards banner was the first enlisted company sigil to fly in the Civil War. The company also saw the first gun fired in the War Between the States, and witnessed the first Union flag fall to surrender. After six months, the men returned home, but many re-enlisted and went on to serve in the Pee Dee Light Artillery.

Although there is a special pleasure in seeing these fragments of history first-hand, Gandy says the exhibit will be fully available to those unable to visit the Commission.


Photo by Samantha Lyles

“Hopefully this will be the first display that people will be able to view online on our website and never have to come to the Commission. It will be completely digital and interactive,” says Gandy.

The Darlington County Historical Commission is located at 204 Hewitt Street in Darlington. They are open weekdays from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., but the Commission will be open to visitors Saturday, October 8 for the 2016 Sweet Potato Festival. To keep up to date with the latest Commission happenings, visit them online at http://www.dchcblog.net. 

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