Stephen Hurlbut was the bearer of bad news. Tasked with gauging Charleston’s support for the Union in late March 1861, his letter to President Lincoln held little solace. He’d met with many friends and acquaintances as well as prominent Charlestonians. He visited shippers, business owners, and military men.
“From these sources I have no hesitation in reporting as unquestionable, that separate nationality is a fixed fact, that there is an unanimity of sentiment which to my mind is astonishing — that there is no attachment to the Union,” Hurlbut wrote. “At this day, Fort Sumter is the only spot where the United States have jurisdiction and James L. Petigru the only citizen loyal to the nation.”
With a description like that, you’d think Petigru would be thought of as the black sheep of the Lowcountry. But the man was more than an outlier; he was a remarkably well-respected outlier. And history would find that Petigru was an outspoken truth-sayer in a blind, angry South.
In their biography James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter, William and Jane Pease try to explain Petigru’s apppeal. “Northerners venerated his loyalty to Union, Constitution, and, yes, country,” the Peases wrote. “Southerners prized his sense of honor, his manly independence, his courageous pursuit of justice for the weak, and, yes, his gracious dignity bespeaking a patrician culture.”
The son of an Abbeville farmer, Petigru brought his Beaufort law practice to Charleston in 1819. Three years later, he was elected by the legislature to serve as the state’s attorney general and would go on to serve on the Charleston City Council and the state’s House of Representatives. Nearly 10 years later, his Unionist bent would end his political career, though he’d continue to advise politicians throughout his life and would be held in high esteem as a noted Charlestonian known as much for his wit and sarcasm as for his sharp legal mind.
A slaveholder, Petigru’s politics were tied more to his devotion to the country. But he recognized the humanity of slaves, and he would go on to defend the rights of freed slaves in court. When he was later tasked to codify the state’s laws, his critics contested that his work granted more protections to slaves and freedmen.
At 71, Petigru watched as the Palmetto State fell into secession and war. After the state seceded in December 1860, Petigru wrote that he had seen “the last happy day of my life.” After the vote, Petigru’s most famous quote was uttered, a prophetic phrase that has taken on new and unique relevance in the era of Appalachian Trail hiking expeditions and Alvin Greene: “South Carolina is too small for a nation and too large for an insane asylum.”
Reading Petigru’s letters to friends and family in the weeks prior to Hurlbut’s visit makes one wonder why the Lincoln’s secret envoy made the effort to go anywhere else. In one letter from a friend on March 2, 1861, Petigru wrote that Charleston had seemed to unanimously embrace secession, noting the people “are as proud of their apostasy as if they were sure of the verdict of history.”
He supported the Union, but Petigru had little support for leaders of either republic. As the rest of Charleston ran to watch the spectacle of April 12, Petigru sat alone in his law office. He wrote days later to his sister Jane “that which was threatening a long time has come and the sword is drawn.
“It is an odd feeling to be in the midst of joy and gratulations that one does not feel,” he continued. “On the contrary, it is a feeling of deep sadness that settles on my mind. The universal applause that waits on secessionists and secession has not the slightest tendency to shake my conviction that we are on the road to ruin.”
Petigru’s time in court in his last years was spent challenging this new Confederacy by ironically arguing it was the Confederacy that was infringing on states’ rights. In a lot of ways, the new Constitution of the South mimicked the U.S. Constitution, with the noted exception of increased security for slaveholders. So, the questions that first struck states’ rights constructionists earlier in the 19th century endured.
He would use these arguments to protect the interests of friends who had escaped to the North, particularly property eyed for seizure. The Confederacy, Petigru would write, had “gone beyond anything in the annals of tyranny.”
Personally, Petigru would see family members lost in his final years from war and disease. His Broad Street home burned in the great fire in late 1861, and his Sullivan’s Island residence was confiscated to accommodate another Confederate fort. In his last years, in the throws of the Civil War, Petrigru moved to Summerville and undertook the task of reshaping the state’s statutes.
A memoir written soon after Petigru’s death by his friend William Grayson noted Petigru’s unusual favor, regardless of his support for the Union. “The people understood and appreciated Mr. Petigru,” Grayson wrote. “They elected him, during the tumult and dissension of secession, to the most important trust and the largest salary in their gift.
“I am not sure that another example can be found in the country of a man absolutely opposed to the creed of the people and elected by them nevertheless to important and lucrative positions,” Grayson wrote.
With Petigru’s seeming resolve that the Union was lost forever, stories would suggest that he had become a secessionist in his final months, but it was wishful thinking by Confederate romanticists. “Petigru never became a secessionist, but neither did he cease being a Carolinian,” the Peases write in their biography. “He still stood on secession as he always had. It was a tragic mistake, albeit an irreversible one.”
He would die on March 9, 1863. A bust commissioned in 1883 still stands prominently in Charleston’s City Council chambers with an inscription that lauds “James Louis Petigru, Jurist, Orator, Heroic Man.”
A poem entitled “Petigru” was published in 1865 in Northern papers and was later reprinted with Grayson’s biography. The closing lines told the tale of Petigru’s last stand:
“Thus he died: unnerved, unshaken
By opinion’s subtle art;
Now the stricken city weepeth,
And the nation holds his heart.
‘Tis for this we render honor —
That he ranks among the few
Who, amid a reign of Error,
Dared sublimely to be true.”