Flames of the Civil War – How a Recent Project Took Us Back in Time

Recently, a client asked us to conduct a title search on some parcels of real estate located in Orangeburg County, South Carolina. In an uncommon request, they instructed us to search as far back as the records would allow. In the Carolinas, this can mean searching public records that begin in the latter part of the 1700s.

When conducting such a title search, the searcher starts with the current owner of the property and creates a “chain” of owners going back in time based on each deed recorded as ownership changes hands. After taking our chain back to a deed recorded in 1876, we hit a problem — the next deed back in the chain predated February 17, 1865. This was the date that Columbia, South Carolina was burned after its surrender to General Sherman of the Union forces by Mayor Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn.

Those familiar with South Carolina geography may be wondering how the burning of the city of Columbia in Richland County, South Carolina could impact the real estate records of neighboring Orangeburg County. After all, the real estate records of Orangeburg County are housed in its county seat, the city of Orangeburg, which is located over 40 miles away from Columbia, South Carolina.

The answer begins the month before in January 1865. That month, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his 60,000 troops entered South Carolina in their advance north from Savannah, Georgia. In order to protect their real estate records, officials in Orangeburg had them sent from the Orangeburg courthouse to Columbia for safekeeping. When Sherman’s troops entered Orangeburg on February 12, 1865 seeking military stores that had been reported there, the burning of the town began. The next day, the courthouse was destroyed by Union explosives as Sherman’s troops were marching out of town. Fortunately, the records were not there. Unfortunately, Columbia was burned only four days later upon Sherman’s arrival and all of Orangeburg’s deed records were lost then. A new set of deed records were started in 1866, which is why our search ended there. We had to inform our client that our search could go no further due to the flames of the Civil War.