Secessionville, Part 8

by Brett Schulte on September 16, 2005 · 0 comments

Secessionville: Assault On Charleston by Patrick Brennan

I finished reading this one on Thursday night, but I’ve only now found time to write about it. The book, despite quite a few typos, was a very good battle history of this small but important battle that decided the fate of Charleston at a time when the South could ill afford to lose the city. I hope to have a review posted both here and at my ACW Books site some time this weekend.

Chapter 9

1. In Chapter 9, Henry Benham made his appearance felt, but not in a good way. He reached the field, and after reviewing the situation, he ordered both Federal Divisions to retreat. The men of Stevens’ Division, especially the men of the 79th NY and the 8th MI, were angered by the order. After setting up skirmishers to cover their retreat and collecting as many of the wounded as they could, the Yankees went back to their camps.

2. After his failed assault, Isaac Stevens had reformed his Division along the two sets of hedges in the cotton field fronting the Tower Battery. He fully expected Wright’s Division to provide support as he attacked again. He sent Signal Officer Lt. Henry Taftt over to Benham on the left to ask for support. Instead, Taftt listened in shock as Benham ordered him to ride back and order Stevens to retreat. Taftt, one of many officers to disparage Benham for his actions on June 16, referred to the General as “a badly frightened officer who was found sitting upon his horse surrounded by his staff, a full half mile away from danger”. Benham had decided to call the fight a “reconnaissance in force” as a way to cover up his actions.

3. Brennan concludes that the Confederates realized that “against tremendous odds” they had won “a tremendous victory of signal importance. The door to Charleston, one of the great ports of the Confederacy, had been slammed shut”. The Rebels, not knowing that the attacks were over for good, moved up even more reinforcements and strengthened their defenses.

4. To the 8th Michigan, Secessionville was their defining day. Brennan states that they lost 184 men out of 534 taken into action, or about 1 in every 3. He relates that the battle held such sway over the men that the 8th celebrated their reunions in later years on June 16th.

Chapter 10

1. This chapter was mostly about the aftermath of the battle and who blamed who on the Union side due to the slaughter in front of the Tower Battery. The Confederates realized the importance of their victory, given that they faced 6:1 odds during the fight. The fallout of the battle was mainly that Henry Benham was cashiered and arrested, though he did later regain a command as the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Engineer Brigade from 1863 to the end of the war. His arrest and subsequent begging for his job by lying about the actions of Wright and Stevens led to a war of words in official reports, letters, and newspapers among the three Generals. Benham generally came out looking bad, and Brennan agrees with that assessment. Benham actually had the gall to claim that Stevens and his Division were cowards, after they had done the vast majority of the fighting. Pemberton was also partially a casualty of the battle. Even though his methods had proven correct, he just seemed to rub politicians the wrong way, and he was removed in August 1862.

2. Two brothers fought against each other on June 16, 1862 in front of the Tower Battery. James Campbell belonged to the Confederate Charleston Battalion, while his brother Alexander was a member of the 70th New York Highlanders. After the fighting, James wrote his brother a letter to make sure he was all right. This was literally “brother versus brother”.

3. I found Benham’s “congratulatory” order after the battle to be grimly amusing:
We need only to say in conclusion what we all feel: We have met, we have examined the works of the enemy, and they shall be ours.

Needless to say Benham’s troops were not amused. A member of the 7th Connecticut replied:
Gen. Benham…calls it a reconnaissance in force: but if it was a reconnaissance, I would like to know what a battle is.

Chapter 11

1. The eleventh chapter goes over the longer term aftermath. The Federals strengthened their camps, but Hunter ordered them off of James Island in late June and they were gone by the first few days of July. The later battles in the newspapers and the reports of Benham, Stevens, and Wright are covered in some detail. Benham blamed Stevens for attacking too late and for behaving like a coward. Brennan calls this nonsense. Lincoln and pretty much everyone else involved backed Stevens. All of the major players of the battle are given some later-war and post-war biographies.

2. Brennan says that the Confederate victory at Secessionville was “part of a general resurgence of Southern hopes in the summer of 1862”. He also concludes that Pemberton’s strategy had proven correct, but that his friction with the South Carolina politicians cost him his command on August 29, 1862. He went from the frying pan and into the fire as he faced U.S. Grant later that year and into 1863 at Vicksburg.

3. James Island has apparently been lost to suburban sprawl and development. Even Tower Battery has a road running right through the parapet.

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Epilogue

1. According to the author, Secessionville was “the North’s last best chance to capture the city of Charleston”. He likened its potential capture to the actual capture of New Orleans in 1862. If Charleston had been taken, the North would have had a formidable base from which to launch expeditions inland. Brennan believes Wilmington, Savannah, and Columbia all would have been greatly threatened and that at least of few of these cities would have fallen as well. I tend to especially agree with Brennan on this point.

2. Hunter was “the wrong man for the job” in Brennan’s view. He stayed away from the James Island front for too long, either dallying with his wife or making excuses, and he exerted little if any influence. He has even less regard for Benham, who he says showed “poor management, faulty tactics, and blind ambition”.

3. The command problems crossed over to both sides. Some Confederates still wanted to see Pemberton fired after Secessionville and worried that he would lose the city for them. Brennan relates that Pemberton was too much of a bureaucrat, always shuffling generals for no particular gain or purpose. He also says that Pemberton was the “wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time”. Others were disgusted with “Shanks” Evans, who had stayed pretty far back from the fighting, and who they believed was always drunk. Brennan applauds W.D. Smith’s handling of the fight, saying “Smith’s strategy…flanked the Federal left and made possible the Confederate victory at Secessionville”.

Order of Battle

1. The OOB specifies how many companies were present in given regiments and battalions.

2. There were no PFD or effective numbers, although these are sprinkled throughout the book if you pay attention.

Other

1. Notes: 317-367. Many of the endnotes go into some interesting detail on various topics.

2. Bibliography: 368-375. Brennan uses many primary sources, including diaries, letters, and manuscripts.

3. Index: 376-389

4. Interview w/ Brennan: 390-394. A few more tidbits are added, but this was a nice little overview of the book. You might even want to read this first. Secessionville was the largest land battle in South Carolina. Brennan believes the most interesting men were Lamar and Stevens. Walking the ground is important to Brennan (maybe he should tell that to Sears!). He wrote the first draft of Secessionville with paper and pencil versus using a computer. He was inspired to do the research and write the book because Secessionville was “a story that had needed telling for a long while.

5. Maps: 23 maps. The maps had good troop detail, going down to companies and individual guns in some places. However, there were no topographical lines, and most surprising of all, the maps had no scale drawn on them. I had to take distances Brennan mentioned in the book to get an idea of how big James Island was.

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