Humble servant of God saves opulent Columbia mansion

Published: Mar. 2, 2013 at 10:51 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 16, 2013 at 2:17 PM EDT
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The Hampton-Preston Mansion
The Hampton-Preston Mansion
Ruins of the Ursuline Convent (Source: University of South Carolina Libraries)
Ruins of the Ursuline Convent (Source: University of South Carolina Libraries)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - They live their lives as humble servants of God, sacrificing all the wants and possessions of the world to do the Lord's work.  But one of the richest families in South Carolina in 1865 has them to thank for saving their home from the destruction of war.

The Hampton-Preston Mansion in Columbia survives to this day because of the authority a Catholic nun had over a fearsome general, known to southerners as a "monster."

"Sherman is outside Columbia," said noted historian Tom Elmore. "He's waiting for a pontoon bridge to be built over the Broad River.  He receives a note from Sister Baptista Lynch (Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent in Columbia). Sister Baptista taught Sherman's daughter, Mimi, in Ohio and sent a note saying 'I demand protection for my school.'"

Sherman is Union Army General William T. Sherman, whose army entered Columbia in February 1865 and started a fire that destroyed 1/3 of the city.

Sherman had befriended Sister Baptista's brother, Father Patrick Lynch, a Charleston priest later promoted to bishop, when he attended Catholic masses while serving in the Army at Fort Moultrie.

Although Sherman promised to protect Sister Baptista's convent and the properties of the Catholic Church, the fire got out of control.  The daughters of the region's wealthiest and most elite families attended school at the convent, including the Hamptons and Prestons.

Elmore chronicled Sherman's march through South Carolina in 1865 in his book A Carnival of Destruction. It describes how drunken Union soldiers, seeking revenge on the people of South Carolina for starting the secession movement, took their wrath out on the Palmetto State.  Nothing was safe from them.

"They burst into the Ursuline convent, which is located where the Tapps Building is today and started stealing the gold objects off the altar," described Elmore. "They start guzzling the sacramental wine.  The nuns realized Sherman's promise to protect their school is not going to be kept, so they tell the girls, 'Grab all your warm coats.' They marched down Blanding Street to Assembly Street to the cemetery behind St. Peter's Church."

"It was like the crash of doom," recalled student Sara Aldrich Richardson. "Drunken soldiers piled over each other, rushing for the sacred gold vessels of the altar, not knowing they were safe in the keeping of one blessed of God."

Once in the cemetery, the sisters and the girls spent the night in terror, watching the city burn around them.  That night, a Union soldier delivered a letter to his sister, who was one of the Ursulines, from their father in Rochester, NY.

"The next morning, Sherman comes to them and asks the nuns 'How are you doing?' and she just gives him a tongue-lashing like only a Catholic nun can give," said Elmore. "She just won't let up and finally he says, 'Okay, I'll tell you what.  You can have any house in Columbia you want to make up for your loss.'"

Sister Baptista told Sherman the homes were not his to give.  But when she learned the Union Army planned to destroy the Hampton-Preston house, she stepped in.  It was used as the headquarters for General John Logan, who wanted the house destroyed because of a political dispute.

"Logan had served in Congress with the Prestons and had a personal grudge against them," said Elmore.  "The Prestons were not Catholic, nor were the Hamptons, but had befriended the school, so the nuns said 'Okay, we're going to save their house.'"

Not a moment too soon, Sister Baptista told Sherman she wanted the house.  As the nuns and their charges arrived at the house, they found flammable material piled against the foundation, waiting for the torch.

Once inside, the sisters also found the Union soldiers had "redecorated" the families renowned art collection.

"The world-class art collection the Hamptons and Prestons had amassed in the house had been 'improved' by the drawing of mustaches and beards on the paintings and clothes painted on the nude statues," said Elmore.

The mansion was eventually returned to the Hampton and Preston families.  But eventually, it ended up in the hands of the nuns again when they bought it.

"Ironically enough, they later took possession of it for the school and the school eventually morphed into modern-day Cardinal Newman High School," said Elmore.

Currently the house is owned and maintained by the Historic Columbia Foundation and is open for tours.

No known photos of Sister Baptista Lynch exist.

Sources used for this story:

A Carnival of Destruction by Tom Elmore

South Carolina Women in the Confederacy: When Columbia Burned, by Sara Aldrich Richardson, provided by the archives of the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum

The Burning of Columbia, Blue and Gray Magazine, by Tom Elmore

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