Less than a year after the secession, Union gunboats sailed up the Santee River and Winyah Bay and disrupted the rice plantations. Gunboats were a common sight on Georgetown's rivers. The Union Navy burned fields, looted houses, destroyed property and carried away slaves. For the remainder of the war, most Georgetown rice fields lay idle.
Until February, 1865, the Union confined their efforts to the river banks, but on February 17, Sherman took Columbia and General Quincy A. Gillmore accepted the surrender of Charleston and Georgetown. It was only a month and a half later that General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox and Jefferson Davis fled the Confederate Capital.
Georgetown residents began to find their way home. Georgetown's plantations had been ravaged and the war had crippled the economy, but the culture died hard... stumbling along for another fifty-five years before it completely collapsed.
Without the "benefit" of slave labor, the rice culture simply could not survive, despite the fact that Georgetown rice was considered the finest quality rice produced in the United States, even after Reconstruction began. It sold in for seven or eight cents per pound, twice its pre-war price, but plantation owners could not raise the money to pay workers enough to sustain them.
Efforts were made to attract foreign aid, but those efforts failed. The economy continued to decline. Some potential investors backed out because the soft muddy soil prevented the use of new machinery.
In fact, machinery delivered the next major blow to the Georgetown rice industry. While new technology developed and planters began to use new machinery in the Southwest, Georgetown held onto the "task system." By 1876, Louisiana began to reap more than South Carolina by a considerable margin, and Georgia's production steadily increased as well. Meanwhile, South Carolina's production of rice remained stagnate.
In 1903, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana produced 99% of America's rice crop. By 1909, Texas alone irrigated 286,847 acres of rice, while South Carolina's contribution to the production for export ceased to bear significance.
Other than labor problems and competition from mechanization, a series of environmental catastrophes sped along the decline of Georgetown's rice culture. In 1893, two destructive hurricanes hit the region. Violent storms continued the following year and again in 1898, 1906, 1910 and 1911.
During the spring thaw of 1906, 1907 and 1908, severe freshets developed, destroying crops and taking their toll on the land. Between 1893 - 1913, Georgetown's rice culture completely collapsed.
At the turn of the century, rice continued to lose influence throughout the Low Country. By 1913, the Georgetown Rice Culture ceased to be profitable. Some planters continued to plant rice for personal consumption, but not for national export.
The name "Carolina Rice"may still be found on bags of rice in your local grocery store, but no commercial rice is harvested in the Carolinas.
Over the years, rivers and swamps have reclaimed the rice fields. An opulent empire built on rice has fallen. Today, a visitor to the Low Country could find it easy to overlook the fact that a rice culture ever existed, but, if you take time to look closely, remnants of the rice culture are still there.
Along Highways 17 and 701, old roads that lead to the rivers. Down those unpaved roads, lined with giant live oaks planted ages ago, are old slave quartes, and later tenant, housing leading to the back of the site of the grand manor house.
These graceful old homes were the seat of the planter's personal empire, and many have survived.A cruise down the slow moving rivers uncovers half submerged rice barges and the remains of broken docks. At All Saints, Prince George Winyah and Prince Frederick Churches and graveyards, there are tombstones and family plots bearing the names of families and individuals whose affluence and influence have slipped into history.