Review: Secessionville: Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan

Secessionville: Assault on Charleston. Patrick Brennan. Savas Publishing Company (1996). 394 pp. 23 maps.

This is a review and summary of Patrick Brennan’s Secessionville: Assault on Charleston. Secessionville is a detailed battle history focusing on the James Island Campaign of June 1862 and the resulting Battle of Secessionville on June 16, 1862. The author is not a professional historian. Instead, I was interested to learn, he is a musician by trade. Do not let this fool you as far as his qualifications for writing this book go. John S. Petersen’s Foreword makes it abundantly clear that Patrick Brennan is an avid student of the Civil War and has been for a long, long time. Union Generals David Hunter and Henry Benham landed on James Island just south of Charleston in early June 1862. After a period of fortifying their camps, the Union forces attacked the advanced left flank of the Southern line at the Tower Battery. Unfortunately for them, Henry Benham was not much of a leader, and the attacks failed after several hours. The author asserts that the Battle of Secessionville was important far beyond its small size. He believes Charleston would have fallen had the Tower Battery been taken on June 16. Brennan also points out that with Charleston as a base in 1862, vast inroads could have been made into the Carolina interior. Brennan also points out that the two Generals in charge, Henry Benham and John Pemberton, were removed not long after the operation took place. The book contains 394 pages and 23 maps, and as usual with a tactical history there are many endnotes and an impressive bibliography.

In late 1861, the Union had taken Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia, and they had landed at Port Royal and Beaufort along the Carolina coast. By the summer of 1862, General David Hunter and his Army of the South were looking to establish a way to attack Charleston, South Carolina with the help of Admiral Du Pont’s Southeast Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Hunter and his subordinate Henry Benham landed two Federal Divisions under Isaac Stevens and Horatio Wright Battery Island, Sol Legare Island, and James Island, just south of Charleston, in early June 1862. They spent the first half of June establishing and fortifying camps on Sol Legare and Battery Islands, separated from James Island by swamp. As the Union troops expanded their encampments, several sharp skirmishes took place. In the interim, David Hunter departed for Hilton Head and left Benham strict instructions not to attack.

Through some rules lawyering, Benham interpreted an attack on Tower Battery as a way to “secure” his camps. He ordered his two divisions forward in the early morning hours of June16, 1862, with Stevens leading the way and Wright bringing up the rear. Stevens attacked Tower Battery, but there was only really room for one regiment to assault at a time. The 8th Michigan led the way and reached the Battery, but Confederate reinforcements drove them out. Repeated attacks by Stevens’ regiments were repulsed. Stevens had no way of sending in more than one regiment at a time, and he regrouped at some hedge lines in a field fronting the Tower Battery. In the meantime, Wright’s Division came up on the left, but his brigades were repulsed as well. Henry Benham then reached the battlefield and decided to take charge. Isaac Stevens was about to launch his division a second time, but Benham ordered everyone back to camp. The angry Stevens and Wright thought Benham to be incompetent, and they believed he had uselessly slaughtered their men. It was a triumph against great odds for the Confederate defenders, who were outnumbered six to one.

The battle spawned controversy. Henry Benham tried to say that Stevens and Wright supported his decision to attack, when they definitely did not. Benham and Stevens engaged in a war of words that was still ongoing when Stevens was killed at the Battle of Chantilly on September 2, 1862. Brennan blames Benham, as did everyone from Lincoln down. The most appalling part of the situation was that Benham also accused Stevens and his division of cowardice. Brennan calls this nonsense. Pemberton, although he won the battle, was sent away not long after the battle. The South Carolina politicians and civilians simply did not trust the Pennsylvania-born commander. In the end, the Federals would not take Charleston until 1865, after several more failed attempts.

I enjoyed Brennan’s style. He explains things clearly and the maps are keyed to his writing for the most part, allowing the reader to understand events as they occur. Brennan liberally sprinkles in anecdotes from participants of the campaign. Especially poignant is the story of two brothers fighting on opposite sides during the battle. The goat of Brennan’s story is definitely Henry Benham. Brennan builds a case against the General using the comments of Benham’s contemporaries. He seems to have been universally disliked by his subordinates and superiors, at least at this stage of the war. Brennan also blames Hunter in part for leaving the scene of the action and placing someone as incompetent and ambitious as Benham in charge. The author seems more understanding of Pemberton’s actions throughout the campaign. While noting that Pemberton’s strategy to defend Charleston by allowing the Federals to occupy the coast while defending the interior was correct, he also says that Pemberton was unable to get along with the civilian authorities in South Carolina. “Shanks” Evans does not come off all that well either. Some on the Southern side were upset that Evans claimed he had led the fighting on their side, when in reality he observed the fighting from the second story of a farmhouse. Isaac Stevens and Horatio Wright from the North, and William Duncan Smith from the South receive favorable reviews. Stevens was a rising star at the time of his death later in 1862, and Horatio Wright eventually rose to command of the Union VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Smith was also a rising star, but died of malaria later in 1862.

There are 313 pages of text, followed by a regimental level order of battle. Though there are no strengths in the OOB, Brennan does mention regimental strengths throughout the book. Wargamers should be able to piece together a very serviceable and accurate OOB for use in scenario design. The maps are pretty well done, going down to company and individual gun level in some cases. However, there are no topographical lines on the maps. The biggest flaw, however, is no map scale. I had to estimate distances based on Brennan’s comments I the text. For instance, if he mentioned the distance between two key points was half a mile, I was then able to determine scale for the corresponding map. Still, it was a large enough flaw that it slightly took away from my enjoyment of the book. I’ve been told that this omission (along with the typos in the book) is a direct result of Savas Woodbury Publishing changing to Savas Publishing. This was the very last book done with that company calling itself Savas-Woodbury. The endnotes are numerous, and the bibliography contains many primary sources. I knew this to be the case even before browsing through the bibliography because of the numerous quotes from men who participated in the campaign. One interesting feature that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before was an interview with the author at the very end of the book. In it, Brennan explains his reasons for writing the book and provides some interesting tidbits, such as the fact that Secessionville was the largest battle ever fought in the state of South Carolina.

This is a well written, entertaining, and clear rendering of the Battle of Secessionville and the James Island Campaign as a whole. Brennan stresses that this battle, though not very well known, was extremely important due to the potential loss of Charleston. I saw no evidence that Brennan was an amateur from reading this book. It is obvious the author spent a lot of time on research of the subject. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Civil War campaign studies, and especially to those interested in the combined Army and Navy operations along the southeastern coast of the Confederacy.

394 pp., 23 maps.

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One response to “Review: Secessionville: Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan”

  1. Scott J Smith Avatar
    Scott J Smith

    My wife and I reside in the Ocean Neighbors community located at the junction of Fort Lamar Road and Old Military Road…It would be wonderful to see a modern day map with the battleground as on overlay.

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