A Good Deed in the Midst of Looting
by Gordon Thorsby
The Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia were now in motion. South Carolina started the war and Sherman’s two armies and a force of Cavalry was about to punish the people and the land.
On February 8, 1865 Union cavalry under Kilpatrick attacked the First Alabama Confederate Cavalry holding the railroad around Augusta in the vicinity of Williston. The primary mission of Confederate cavalry was delay, delay, and delay to enable Confederate forces to build a defense of the state.
Blackville, Feb. 8, 1865
General: I will encamp to-night at Williston and destroy some track: … I will be prudent, bold, but not rash.
Leaving Blackville, SC, Kilpatrick needed to destroy the South Carolina railroad there and then torch and loot the city. Kilpatrick was said to have purchased $5000 worth of matches in Augusta and Kilpatrick wanted to make South Carolina burn even brighter than Georgia.
The Seventeenth Corps will move to Blackville and continue the destruction of the railroad westward. The Fourteenth Corps will come up on the road about White Pond or Williston and as soon as the destruction of the road is complete, will cross the Edisto … and push out … ready to move … according to developments.
By Order of Major General W. T. Sherman
On February 9th, Confederate Cavalry General Joseph Wheeler uncovered the Federal XIV Corps and Kilpatrick’s intentions and assembled Confederate cavalry to attack the Federal column. While troops in blue approached Williston, mounted troops in gray moved on Augusta.
To town civilians, the setting sun in Williston revealed a sight that they never expected to experience; blue uniformed troops camped at the Ashley/Willis house that was owned at the time by Mr. Hollis Johnson. The results were all too familiar of a small town in the path of Sherman's army. As soldiers entered the area, refugees streamed out to the west, and to the north, anywhere “yankee scoundrels” were not. The residents took whatever valuables they could and buried what the could not. Foragers confiscated livestock to feed their troops and then looted the homes. Then they proceeded to set fire to every home and every building in the town. That is until they came to a home just outside of the town inhabited by Mrs. Susan Willis and four children 11, 9, 7, and 3.
Susan’s husband was Robert Moore Willis, a Captain in the Second Palmetto Sharpshooters. (Willis’ regiment was at the time arriving in North Carolina with Hoke’s Division.) Susan
delivered a son on five days prior and mother and baby were still bedridden. As troops reached the home and about to fire the building, they stopped the moth in bed with her child. Mattress and all, soldiers lifted both up, carried them out of the home and placed them on the grass a safe distance before setting lighting up the outside. An Iowa lieutenant riding nearby approached curious as to the commotion. He recognized the situation and “commanded the men to return the mattress with mother and baby to her bedstead.”
The Lieutenant checked to make sure the family was safe and back in their home. Susan expressed her gratitude by inquiring his name. “Lieutenant Walter Tate”. In response, she named the child Walter Tate. It was one of two homes in Williston that were spared the torch that night.
Walter Tate Willis became the fifth of what eventually were eight children. Walter also became a doctor and took care of the people in the area until his death in 1923. Walter had a son, also named Water Tate Willis.
A kind deed in a tragic four weeks of South Carolina's history. Lt. Tate’s impact on the family continued on.
The Town of Williston, SC
Official Records of the Rebellion
Historical Database Inc. P.O. Box 32, Duxbury MA