by James A. Morgan III
El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2022. Pp. xii, 163.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $16.95 paper. ISBN: 161121601X
Hell at Secessionville
James A. Morgan, earlier the author of A Little Short of Boats: The Civil War Battles of Ball's Bluff and Edwards Ferry, examines a largely overlooked small battle that was the first effort by the Union to capture Charleston, an action overshadowed by major clashes at New Orleans, Corinth, Richmond, and elsewhere, yet which throws some light on the changing nature of combat at the time.
Morgan opens with some historical back-ground on the area and war, and the Union’s securing of a series of bridgeheads along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which constituted the Department of the South, to which Maj. Gen. David Hunter was appointed to command in March of 1862, with no definitive plans or guidance on what to do with his 13,000 troops. Inspired, Morgan points out, by Robert Smalls’ escape from slavery on May 12, 1862, by hijacking the Confederate ship on which he was an enforced crewman, a action that he covers in some detail. Smalls informed Hunter that many of the troops defending Charleston had been sent to Virginia to defend Richmond. Hunter decided to move against the city by capturing James Island, on the south side of the entrance to Charleston harbor. The result was the biggest fight in South Carolina during the war
Morgan covers local geography and the plans and preparations by both sides in some detail. He gives us profiles of the principal officers, command arrangements - which were somewhat complicated and affected by local politics and inter-service tensions, the forces involved, and preliminary movements, including the landings, well covered by the U.S. Navy, of Union troops on the Stono Creek - west - side of James Island, in early June. The following days saw both sides prepare for battle, with some skirmishes. Union troops even conducted a balloon survey of the defenses at Secessionville, about two miles inland from their bridgehead on Stono Creek.
The Battle of Secessionville proper takes up only a small part of the book. Beginning very early on June 16th, about 6,500 Union troops advanced against some 2,000 Confederates in well fortified positions. After much fighting, the Federals retreated, suffering almost seven hundred killed or wounded, against Confederate losses of perhaps 200, ending Union efforts to take Charleston for nearly a year.
Morgan offers a good analysis of reasons for the outcome. Hunter and his officers made a number of poor decisions during the battle, their communications were spotty, and some officers were very poor leaders. But he also argues, quite effectively, that perhaps their worst mistake was in failing to see that that moving and fighting across ground that was cut by creeks and partially tidal marsh was not going enhance their chances of winning. Morgan also offers some criticism of the Confederate leadership, plagued by poor organization, with too many generals with overlapping authority, which confused commanders, who failed to communicate during the fighting, and that many officers had little or no military experience or training, leading to many mistakes during the battle.
As with other volumes in the “Emerging Civil War” series, Morgan had included a useful guide for those interested in touring the sites associated with the battle.
An excellent look at an obscure battle, yet one that might have altered the course of the war through the capture of Charleston. Although marred by the lack of an index, this is an excellent read.
Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, and Lost Causes.
Note: Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell is also available in hard cover and e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium