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In the decades before the Civil War, many of Beaufort's rice and cotton planters were rich enough to send their children to schools and colleges in Europe. The young men and women who stayed home had a respectable education in the schools of Beaufort, nonetheless. Beaufort College (building at 800 Carteret Street, Beaufort) had been chartered in 1795 as preparatory school, and opened as a college in 1802.
Beaufort was an exceptionally literate community. An 1857 report in The Charleston Mercury read that the Beaufort post office had distributed 3,460 magazines and 33,124 newspapers in just one year's time. In 1802, the prominent families of the town established the Beaufort Library Society, Beaufort's first public library (the State of South Carolina granted a charter in 1807). By 1860, the library's collection included more than 5,000 volumes, about half of which donated by Beaufortonians who had purchased them on voyages to Europe. The books covered many subjects, from government to sciences, from law to literature, and from philosophy to religion --as well as general works, like the Encyclopędia Britannica.
In November of 1861, however, Federal troops under General Isaac Stevens occupied Confederate Beaufort. The fleeing residents had abandoned homes, businesses -- and the town's library. Hazard Stevens, the General's son and biographer, reported that "guards were posted over a fine public library, which, however, had been thrown about in utter disorder." General Stevens added books from some private collections to the Library Society's inventory, opening the library to the Union soldiers. Stevens intended to restore the library collection to Beaufort's "inhabitants when they resumed their allegiance and returned to their homes" and rejected the demand of treasury agent Colonel William H. Reynolds for the books. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had issued the order to seize the books for auction, and not even General William Tecumseh Sherman would assume the responsibility of having that order revoked. So General Stevens had no choice but to surrender the books.
A total of 3,182 books (in 31 crates and one bundle) arrived at the New York Customs House in November of 1862. New York newspapers published the following notice:
"Monday evening, Nov. 17, at 6 1/2 o'clock, and the succeeding evenings of the week, Government Sale. Catalogue of an immense collection of library books in all departments of literature, arts and sciences, including very many important and scarce works, &c. to be sold at auction, by order and under the direction of Hiram Barney, Esq., Collector of the Port of N. Y. on Monday evening, Nov. 17, 1862, and the succeeding evenings of the week, by Bangs, Merwin & Co. at the Irving Building, 594 and 596 Broadway, sale to commence each evening at 6 1/2 o'clock precisely. Terms -- cash, in bankable funds. Gentlemen who cannot attend the sale may have their orders to purchase executed by the auctioneer."
On November 29, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly spoke for the press and public of New York City:
" A dirty deed prevented. Among the property abandoned by the rebels of Beaufort, S. C., was a considerable public library which was very properly taken charge of by the conquerors. A few days ago the public was astonished to hear that (the library) had been sent on to this city to be sold at public auction. Thanks to Mr. William H. Fry of this city who wrote at once to the President on this subject and to the daily press which raised an unanimous voice of reprobation, the sale was stopped, and the library will be returned whenever the cessation of the war will permit it to be done in safety.
"We are not ambitious of putting ourselves on a footing with the English who burnt the archives of the government in Washington, destroyed the museum of Kertsch, and shared with the French in sacking the palace of the Emperor of China, and in burning the records of an empire that was relatively civilized when the old Colts and Britons were savages."
It was Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln's Treasury Secretary, who immediately rescinded the order for public sale of the books. "The Union does not make war on libraries," said Chase. Secretary of War Stanton -- whose original order had started the controversy -- removed the books to the Smithsonian Institution in January of 1863. The collection occupied the upper room of the South Tower, thought to be the most secure area for storage. Indeed, the once-outraged editors of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly assured readers in on November 1864, that "the Beaufort library is still intact, so that on the restoration of peace it can be returned to its former location". On January 24, 1865, however, two years after their placement in the Smithsonian, the entire Beaufort library's collection burned when a stove started a fire in the South Tower.
After the Civil War, several officials attempted to repay Beaufort for the loss of its library. A joint resolution by a "Mr. Butler" to the Committee on the Library failed in Washington in 1893. In 1940, Senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina called for $10,000 "as partial compensation", but the House did not approve his measure. Beaufort Township Librarian Mabel Runnette went to Washington in the same year; after much discussion, she arranged for Beaufort to receive proceeds from the sale of duplicate volumes from the Congressional Library to used book dealers (the deal yielded $6,000 for the Township Library over fifteen years). A token restitution occurred at last in 1950, when the South Carolina State Library Board secured a token repayment from the federal government to the Beaufort Township Library, with the aid of Senator Burnet Maybank.