The original site of the town of Abbeville was a spring used to supply a secured post, built by Andrew Pickens in the late 1760s. The town gained its name from the county in which it is located. In 1792 South Carolina placed its upcountry powder magazine and arsenal in Abbeville, and the town was incorporated in 1832. The early residents were lawyers, merchants, and planters, many of whom built elegant town houses in addition to their plantation homes. The Abbeville Bar was chiefly known for a distinguished member by the name of John C. Calhoun, who began his law practice in Abbeville and made his initial political speech there in 1807.
While uninvolved with the fighting during the Civil War, Abbeville nonetheless played a significant role in the conflict. On November 22, 1860, Abbeville hosted one of the first secession meetings in the state at a site later known as Secession Hill. J. Clark Allen, who was from Abbeville was killed accidentally on Sullivan’s Island on February 13, 1861, possibly the first casualty of the war. One of the most notable events in Abbeville history happened when Varina Davis, wife of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, arrived on April 18, 1865, followed shortly by a wagon train carrying the remainder of the Confederate treasury. For twelve days she was a guest of former congressman Armistead Burt, a family friend. On May 2, two days after she left Abbeville, her husband arrived with his remaining cabinet members and elements of five brigades of cavalry. Davis held the last “war cabinet” meeting in Abbeville, where the decision was made to abandon armed resistance to Union forces. Thus, as host to the “Secession Hill” gathering and the final meeting of the Confederate cabinet, Abbeville claims to be “the cradle and grave of the Confederacy.”
Most of the antebellum wealth of Abbeville disappeared with the emancipation of its slaves. Fires in the 1870s destroyed many antebellum houses and did permanent damage to public buildings and public records. In the 1890s, however, the town experienced an economic recovery, as Abbeville applauded the arrival of the Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad (which later became the Seaboard Air Line). The Abbeville Cotton Mill Company was organized three years later and commenced operations in 1897. The Seaboard later chose Abbeville to locate its shops for maintaining rail lines between Hamlet, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia.
In the twentieth century Abbeville created an industrial park that attracted medium-sized industries and for the duration of the 1970s and 1980s the town became best known for the restoration of its public square and opera house, which attracted tourists to peruse Abbeville’s antique shops and admire its well-preserved architecture.