By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The story of Liberty Hill is the story of a tiny agricultural community just north of the state capitol, rising from obscurity to prominence. Its wide swaths of land attracted new well-to-do families, and its historic structures were a source of pride among its oldest inhabitants.
Then some 60,000 soldiers from the United States military passed through it on their way to Georgia, and nearly burned it to the ground.
Liberty Hill, South Carolina never truly recovered from the Civil War. The handful of buildings that remain exist mostly as a snapshot of the lifestyle and architecture of the pre-Civil War period. Its development, once burgeoning, abruptly froze in 1863, when Union General William T. Sherman blazed through town on his way down south to the capitol.
But in Texas, another Liberty Hill was just beginning.
Among the first waves of settlers to the area now known as Liberty Hill was a married couple, George Washington Barnes and Katherine Barnes. Like almost all of those settlers who came in the late 1840s and early 1850s, they were from South Carolina.
One such 1854 journey was described in a brief account from one of Liberty Hill’s earliest settlers, Martha Poole Chapman.
“Our wagons were nearly all new, covered with carriage cloth, and finished with roll-up curtains and buttons, so that not a drop of rain could get inside,” she wrote in 1927 for her 85th birthday.
“Crossing the Mississippi at Natchez was quite an interesting event,” she continues. “The river was a mile and a quarter wide and we were carried across in a steamboat, which was something new to all of us. My brother Robert, aged five, said that he was not going on that boat, but Colonel Barton took him in his arms, while the boy was screaming, and said, ‘Oh, you must go to Texas.’”
Chapman’s description of her family’s move from South Carolina to Texas, a trip that historians say included about 48 settlers and 52 slaves, lists only four families. It is not known whether the Barnes family was among them.
By 1859, however, G. W. Barnes had built a one-room store that provided general purpose goods to the small Texas community. (The earliest known population count of Liberty Hill came in 1878, when Liberty Hill was marked as containing 153). Barnes was also made Liberty Hill’s postmaster in September 1860, and records show he was replaced in the Spring of 1866— although his headstone in the Liberty Hill Cemetery says he died in 1863.
Cemetery records also show that the Barneses had seven children beginning in 1850, including three who are now interred in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.
Some Texas lore writers have speculated that G. W. Barnes, as an early community leader, could have played a role in the naming of the Liberty Hill in Texas. The historian couple Bill and Clare Bradfield listed the possibility in their reference book of Texas town names, along with the more commonly circulated story that Liberty Hill’s name arose from the personal reflections of its first postmaster in 1853.
“These people around here are a peaceful, liberty-loving folk. I live upon a hill. I am fond of hills. Let’s call it Liberty Hill,” the Rev. William Oliver Spencer supposedly told a visiting U.S. Senator when asked for a name for the post office.
The story’s first known appearance comes from the 1963 book, Culture of the Shin Oak Ridge Folk. Its author, James Gordon Bryson, writes in the book’s introduction that the information contained in it are drawn from the “fairy-like true stories often heard during my formative years,” and verified by records. His father arrived in Texas from Greenville, South Carolina, 119 miles from Liberty Hill, South Carolina.
Sylvia Hudson, one of the two remaining persons in the South Carolina Liberty Hill with a lineage in the area, wrote in an email to The Independent that it was “possible that our forefathers could have had an influence in naming Liberty Hill, Texas.”
Hudson noted that her own family, the Mathesons, had been among those who left to settle Texas.
Information about the Barnes family in South Carolina is scarce, continued Hudson, 71, though records show that they were prominent in Liberty Hill’s early Presbyterian Church, where Hudson works.
The last gravestones for Barnses in the local cemetery, which is also at the church, are for a John Barnes (born 1793, died 1860) and Francis Barnes (died 1849, 54 years old). John Barnes was in 1845 recorded as an elder for the church.
Liberty Hill today still exists as a national historic district.
The historic district includes a number of pre-Civil War plantations set back from the road by large agricultural tracts of land. Some date back to the 1830s, but most were built in the 1840s and 1850s, when prosperity among the wealthy planter class in the region boomed (and when the Barneses are supposed to have left for Texas).
“It was a city for people who had plantations in the area,” said Cathy Stall, who works at the Kershaw County Historical Society. “They would go up there for Christmas parties, and in the summer, they’d go there to escape the heat.”
Liberty Hill’s location on a high ridge allowed it to be much cooler than the surrounding areas.
The village was “one of the wealthiest in the entire state,” wrote one pre-Civil War author in the area. “It was a community of large farmers and every land owner was wealthy and owned many slaves.”
The Civil War, however, upended that prosperity among the planter class. Although Liberty Hill was not a strategic point for capture, it was on the campaign path to the state capitol in Camden that Union General William T. Sherman took with his forces in 1863. Later known as Sherman’s March, the Union forces successfully divided the rebelling Confederate States in half. Cities, towns and villages along the way had their buildings razed. The enslaved African Americans who made up the backbone of the planter class’ wealth were emancipated.
Writing in 1903, a white Liberty Hill resident recalled her experience during the war.
“What an awful feeling to come so close to hundreds of Yankees who are burning and destroying everything on the face of the land! We are starving here; having nothing left to eat but sorghum molasses and black shorts bread.”
After the war, the town experienced what another contemporary author called “a period of darkness, of gloom, of despondency.”
There was, at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, a brief sputtering of new development, though it was on a far less grand scale than before.
In 1880, a new Presbyterian Church was built in the Gothic Revival style. The first new residence to be built after the war was in 1895. The small, one-story clapboard cottage became the childhood home of James P. Richards, who would later be elected a United States Congressman.
Liberty Hill ultimately never recovered, and today the community has a population around 113.
Most are recent transplants, Stall says, who bought historic homes to preserve them. Many still bear the marks of Sherman’s March, such as one, Stall describes, whose porch still features a large gash.
“It’s never been repaired,” she said, “they got to show what the Yankees did.”
Editor’s Note: Those interested in learning more about Liberty Hill’s early settler history can find out more in “Culture of the Shin Oak Ridge Folk,” by James Gordon Bryson, and in “Land of Good Water,” a Williamson County history by Clara Stearns Scarbrough.