At the beginning of the Civil War, a palmetto tree was added to the crescent moon-on-blue banner that was used by South Carolina troops during the Revolutionary War. This new flag was flown above South Carolina after it seceded from the Union. The tree gave name to the first ironclad gunboat of the confederacy and its symbol was seen both in the sky and on the land during and after the conflict. In the midst of this iconic progression was Summervillian Susan Lining Gelzer.
Today, this daughter of a Flower Town planter would be called a development officer. By her single action, personal commitment, and private courage, she launched a successful drive to fund an ironclad gunboat to help break up the federal fleet of wooden vessels that was blockading Charleston Harbor in the second year of the War Between the States. (The private courage stemmed from that dayís taboo which held that a ladyís name was never published except upon her marriage and/or death.) Miss Sue didnít have the 21st century tools of corporate sponsorship or private moneyed donors to help her efforts. She did it with $5 and a letter to the editor.
Just 146 years ago this month Miss Sue, according to author Marguerite Steedman, wrote a letter to the editor of the Charleston Daily Courier that sparked the effort. An article she read in the paper about ladies of New Orleans who had given an order for a gunboat, suggested to Miss Sue that South Carolina ladies could do the same. She sent in her $5 ìmiteî and suggested that ìif every true woman in our beloved State would contribute the same amount we would soon be able to give an order for more than one gunboat.î She proposed that editor Richard Yeadon open a list of contributions and inform the public through his columns.
Yeardon backed her letter with ìenthusiastic editorializing,î under the heading, ìThe Gunboat to be Built and Equipped by our Patriotic Women of South Carolina.î His idea was that if every daughter of the Palmetto State ñ the suggested name of the first boat ñ sent one dollar, they could fund a fleet of gunboats.
The ladiesí response matched Yeadonís fervent plea. Not only dollar contributions but treasures of all descriptions flooded in. These included French china raffled off at $1 a chance, which raised $200; jewelry; pincushions; wax fruit; embroidered linens; crocheted and tatted tidies; china vases; saddles; books; paintings; and silver, silver, silver. So much silver, in fact, coming not only from this state but from Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, that to this day it is referred to as ìgunboat silver.î The ladies also offered skills, such as making gunboat flags. They helped sponsor money raising projects, like a Gunboat Fair in Columbia which netted several thousand dollars. The fair featured hand-made needlework, baked goods and silver and jewelry sold or raffled at decorated balls. These occasions must have resembled the fictional hospital benefit bazaar where the widow Scarlet OíHara Hamilton scandalized Atlantans by dancing with Rhett Butler while she is still in mourning.
Only 215 days after her March 1862 letter, $30,198.53 had been collected, more than enough to pay for one gunboat. In October Miss Sue stood on the deck of the ironclad, broke a bottle of champagne over the shipís prow and christened her the Palmetto State. Her sister ship, the Chicora, still in construction, was cheered later that day. The twin ships went into service late that same year and on January 31, 1863, first attacked the federal squadron blockading the harbor. For 12 hours these gunboats, powered by ancient engines, stood off 10 modern naval vessels. Because they didnít have enough power to go out to sea, the boats continued routine patrol successfully for many months.
However, the following year, with Shermanís march beginning in November, the end came for both the Confederacy and the ladiesí gunboats. The Palmetto State was blown up on the river at the foot of Calhoun Street about 11 am on February 20, 1865. Written reports say the concussion was ìsharp over the whole city. A volume of smoke rose above the sinking ship. It gradually disappeared until, in broad relief on the blue expanse of heaven, stood in the perfect form of a palmetto treeÖî
Just over 100 y ears later, when a magazine chronicle of Miss Sueís gunboat efforts was published, her final resting place in Charleston was marked by a surge of natural history ñ a young palmetto tree growing up through her grave. This was fitting tribute to a daughter, both of Summerville, and the Confederacy.