The Smithsonian and South Carolina in the Civil War

Old Beaufort College, home of the Beaufort Library in 1861. Photo by Malcolm Goodridge, 2013. I was visiting South Carolina recently, and passed through Beaufort.  It turns out this beautiful southern town has a surprising connection to the Smithsonian.

In November 1861, when Union troops occupied Beaufort, one of the principal treasures of the town was its outstanding library - which had been incorporated in 1807 and encompassed several thousand books, many having been brought back from Europe by wealthy Carolinians. With the arrival of the troops, landed Beaufort-area residents had fled and the town was in the hands of those left behind: enslaved people from the Sea Islands plantations.

General Isaac Stevens and staff in Beaufort, 1862. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan. Library of Congress. General Isaac Stevens, the Union commanding officer, ordered that the library, called "the pride of the town," be arranged for the use of the troops. Within a few months, however, a treasury agent appeared, demanding the books be confiscated as war booty. The books were sent to New York, where they were put up for auction.

The Smithsonian Institution Building, as seen from the southwest in 1858, with the stocky South Towe This caused an immediate outcry. The New York Times editorialized against it; and a letter to the editor urged them to continue the fight (or as the writer wonderfully put it, "ventilate" the subject!). Within a day, Salmon Chase, Lincoln's Treasury Secretary, allegedly declared "the Union does not make war on books," and put a halt to the proceedings. The books were then deposited for safe keeping at the Smithsonian. They were to be returned at the conclusion of the war. (Salmon Chase became a Smithsonian Regent in 1864, after Lincoln successfully nominated him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he continued in that role until his death in 1873.)

Saved from auction, the books were placed in the fifth floor of the South Tower of the Smithsonian Building (the Castle - then the Smithsonian's only building). The war dragged on; in 1864, two years after the seizure of the books, newspapers reassured the South that the library remained safe and sound.

The Beaufort branch of the Beaufort County Library today. Photo from the Beaufort Branch Library Fac Tragically, on January 24, 1865, fire ripped through the Castle building. The Beaufort Library collection was completely destroyed, along with many other collections and papers - including almost all of the relics of the Smithsonian's founder, James Smithson, which were being kept a few floors below in the Regents Room.

Beaufort eventually received some token compensation for their loss. Today the Beaufort County Library is a thriving place. Happily, the book collection lost in the 1865 fire wasn't the last connection between Beaufort and the Smithsonian. The library hosted a Smithsonian traveling exhibition in early 2012.

Related Resources

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.