Home>Skirmish at Gamble’s Hotel

From our local historian Thom Anderson:

One of the most repeated stories from Florence history is about the 1865 Skirmish at Gamble’s Hotel, when a detachment from Sherman’s army planned to tear up the railroad junction.

Union cavalry led by Col. Reuben Williams marched from near Cheraw, but a larger than usual Confederate force happened to be in Florence. They turned Union troops back and chased them toward Darlington, leaving the rail junction intact. Besides tearing up the junction, the Union force might have expected to free prisoners in the Confederate Stockade here. The prisoners had been moved out, but Williams might not have known that.

The Skirmish was small in the overall war picture, but a big deal to Florence.

 I found an interesting reference to it on a website that featured material on Sherman’s march through South Carolina. “Sherman actually suffered at least two tactical defeats (however slight they might be) in South Carolina,” the site said. One was in or near Aiken. The other was in Florence.

Of the action here it said, “Sherman’s men were tactically defeated in their attempt to strike the town of Florence, S.C. This town was the location of a large Confederate prison. The federal forces sent, made up of mounted detachments from Sherman’s right wing, was turned back and forced to retire. However, like Aiken the town was spared of Sherman’s wrath.“

It is too bad Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t know about this. They might have done some pretty good stuff on the Florence incident.

Imagine what must have gone through the mind of the engineer of a Cheraw and Darlington Railroad train bound for Darlington on March 5, 1865. Where Ebenezer Road crosses the railroad, he spotted Union cavalry headed his way. He slammed the engine into reverse and backed toward Florence with the cavalry in hot pursuit. The train won the race, and gave the town and Confederate forces here warning of an attack.

According to Nick Zeigler’s “From Village to City,” Williams brought his force into town in a three-pronged assault. One went to Gamble’s Hotel at Coit and Baroody Streets, one to Church Street where the North Eastern Railroad had maintenance shops and much of their rolling stock, and another struck between those points.

Mrs. C.D. Bristow, a girl in 1865, decades later wrote reminiscences that included the Skirmish. She told of hearing gunshots and seeing the soldiers’ guns “glisten” in the sunlight. She said she had new dresses that had not yet been worn and put them on over each other, fearing that Yankee soldiers would steal them.

In the Aiken incident Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler was credited with saving that town and Graniteville from destruction. The communities had gunpowder and textile factories.

A large Union force camped near Aiken as Sherman prepared to attack Columbia. They planned to attack Aiken, but Wheeler had troops placed to trap the Union troops. Apparently an anxious Confederate solider fired prematurely, so the trap plan was spoiled. The Union troops were driven back to their campsite where they were harassed until they moved on toward Columbia.

 There were deaths in the dozens, and about 20 Union soldiers were reported buried in a church cemetery in Aiken, so that engagement was much bigger than the one in Florence.

After his description of the Skrimish at Gamble’s Hotel, Wayne King in his history of Florence County wrote, “Florence ended the war unvanquished by the ’heinous’ Yankee terror.” That was tongue in cheek, folks.

But Florence had to get used to occupation by federal troops shortly after that.

Other than that, Florence saw no Civil War action, though troops and military equipment frequently passed by rail. Ours was an important southern railroad junction. Also, a makeshift hospital was on Front Street (now Baroody) where wounded or sick soldiers got what medical care the Confederates could provide.

Some soldiers died at that hospital and were buried in the Presbyterian Church yard when it was located on Church Street beside the railroad. The community’s Confederate monument was erected at that site. After the church moved about 1905, the bodies were moved to Mount Hope Cemetery where the Confederate monument also was placed and now stands over their common grave.

Usually, a Confederate national flag flies over the site.

— Thom Anderson is a retired journalist who has 40 years experience with South Carolina newspapers, including the Morning News. He can be reached at THIDBIT@aol.com.