‘Patriot’ Shootout in Abbeville, S.C.. Raises Questions About the Town’s Extremist Past
A 'Patriot' shootout kills two officers, shatters the peace of an Old South town and raises questions about an extremist past — and present
By Bob Moser
Once a Hotbed...
"The town was so quiet that night," says Karen Berney. "There was nobody on the roads, nobody out walking their dogs. When it happens in bigger cities, it's faces nobody's ever seen before. Here, it was people we'd all seen. You just can't forget that."
Nor can people like Berney ignore the unnerving questions raised by the Bixbys' murderous explosion over a paltry scrap of land. "Is this place a hotbed for this kind of activity?" she asks. "I know there's rednecks and rebels, but — I want to believe no."
It only takes a little digging into the upstate's past — and the past that isn't past — to come to a very different belief.
The first time shots in Abbeville rang out across the world, the ammunition was rhetorical. But the target was the same as the Bixbys': an interloping government. On Nov. 22, 1860, Abbeville staked its claim to be the Confederacy's birthplace when militia companies from across the state convened on a high spot in town, now known as Secession Hill.
It was the first mass meeting to call for secession — and to judge from the next day's account in the Press and Banner, it was a ringing call indeed. "[O]ne sentiment pervades the meeting," wrote the breathless correspondent, "and from the mountains to the sea the cry is echoed back: 'Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.'"
In an ironic twist, the Confederacy's cradle became its resting place five years later. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, fleeing south from Richmond with a couple of thousand haggard troops in tow, called together the remains of his cabinet in Armisted Burt's big white mansion, now a historic site near Court Square.
According to one first-person account, Davis gamely "urged that a stand should be made." But his cabinet members and the generals in attendance all agreed "there was now no use." The Confederacy's official papers were ordered burned by "Jim the butler," Secretary of State Judah Benjamin promised to toss the official seal in the Savannah River on his way out of South Carolina, and the largest organized rebellion in U.S. history was, for all practical purposes, dead.
But the spirit of secession was anything but moribund. Like President Davis, folks in the upstate had never much cottoned to the notion of surrender. The white people came from tough stock, Scotch and Irish mostly, and had spent decades fighting gory turf wars with the Cherokee Indians who used to command the region.
Their first big stand had been the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, when Irish bootleggers refused to pay federal taxes on their moonshine. After the Civil War, upstate South Carolina became a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan — so strong that, according to one Klansman in Abbeville, "nearly all" the town's Democrats were night riders in the wake of the war.
In 1876, many upstate rebels traded their white hoods for red shirts, becoming part of the "red shirt rebellion" that elected Democrat Wade Hampton governor, forcefully stripped white and black Republicans of their political power and precipitated a withdrawal of Union troops from South Carolina. The first Red Shirt rally was held in Anderson, the next county north of Abbeville.
Just this past year, the Red Shirt tradition was revived by the League of the South, which conducted "red-shirt pickets" outside both of South Carolina's Democratic presidential debates, holding signs that named each candidate and demanded: "Yankee Go Home."
'Our Little Birthmark'
By the time the Bixbys moved down from New Hampshire, the New South economic boom that began in the 1980s had only made some folks cling more fiercely to their twin strains of extremism — anti-federalist and white supremacist.
Upstate South Carolina remained a fine place for a family of extremists to blend into the woodwork. A fine place, too, to find fellow travelers whose distrust of the government was just as reflexive as theirs.
Soon after the Bixby standoff, the Intelligence Report has learned, the Abbeville sheriff's office had a surprise visitor: Anderson's Robert Clarkson, longtime rabble-rouser, rebel-flag supporter and organizer of tax-protest groups like the Carolina Patriots and the Patriot Network.
Clarkson claimed he wanted to offer "helpful information." Instead, officials say his visit only raised suspicions about the Bixbys' possible connections with other upstate "Patriots."
The Bixbys paid at least one known visit to the League of the South store, and there's plenty of merchandise that might have piqued their interest. Alongside the expected array of "Dixie Forever" t-shirts, shot glasses, pocket knives and pickled goods in Mason jars, the Bixbys would have been able to peruse Patriot publications like The Truth newspaper out of Toccoa, Ga., purchase a sepia-toned portrait of John Wilkes Booth, and delve into conspiratorial literature with titles like "The Empire Comes Back!" and "Our Guns/Our Rights/Our Future?"
Even the League's recruitment materials often read like militia propaganda. After recommending "self-defense through firearm ownership," one pamphlet warns, "Without the ability to force real and potential tyrants to honor our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we will fall into abject servitude, and our children and grandchildren will curse our memory as they toil under a godless, socialist regime. ... Join the League of the South and say, 'Not me, not my family, not my way of life. I choose to keep my rights and live free!'"
Lest this sound too incendiary, the pamphlet adds a disclaimer that seems darkly ironic after what Abbeville saw on Dec. 8. "Remember, it is only the tyrant who fears honest citizens with firearms. Responsible governments have nothing to fear from an armed populace."
The Bixbys' interest in the League — however serious or casual it might have been — has made some Abbevillians think twice about the storefront they're accustomed to looking away from. "The League of the South has always been our little birthmark," says Karen Berney. "It was here, but it didn't make us unhealthy. Now you wonder."
Nobody in Abbeville has more to wonder about than those closest to Deputy Wilson and Constable Ouzts. Deputy Wilson's fiancee, Verteema Chiles, spent Dec. 8 in an agonized wait-and-see mode with Wilson's sisters (two of whom also work in law-enforcement) and extended family. Wilson's National Guard unit was headed to Iraq in January, and he and Chiles were planning — Lord willing — to marry this summer.
"We kept getting bits and pieces from TV, from people in the community," she recalls. "Both officers are dead — no, just one. Danny's been rescued — no, he hasn't. It went on all day. We didn't know anything until late that night, when somebody called to tell us, 'They got Danny Boy, but he might be dead.' So we all bust out crying and consoling each other. And then the sheriff's office said it hadn't been confirmed, so we thought there was some hope left and drove over to the scene.
"And then to have this dude come out and say, 'It's been confirmed.'" She breaks off, momentarily overcome.
Once they knew the deputy was dead, his folks hoped they'd also learn how he died. "They led us to believe he died instantly," says Chiles, "and I want to believe that. But we didn't get to see his body that night — not until that Friday morning, right before the public viewing. It just made you wonder if the rumor was true about him being tortured. I saw a picture that showed bruises on his head. And they put handcuffs on him after they dragged him inside.
"Why would you put handcuffs on a dead man? They told me, well, they thought he could have been faking it or something. But you wonder what happened in that house. My only hope and wish is that he didn't see it coming."
The broader mystery, for the officers' survivors and everyone else in Abbeville, is why anyone had to be killed that day. "I just can't believe Danny died over a piece of land, a strip of land," says Chiles. "I can't rationalize it. Why?"