Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wise, Rowland, w/ Spieler: "REBELLION, RECONSTRUCTION, AND REDEMPTION, 1861-1893: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 2"

[Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1893: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 2 by Stephen R. Wise & Lawrence S. Rowland w/ Gerhart Spieler (University of South Carolina Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:601/716. ISBN:978-1-61117-484-7. $44.95]

The middle part of an ambitious trilogy, Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1893: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 2 picks up where The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: 1514-1861* left off almost twenty years ago. Bringing historian Stephen Wise on board was an astute move on the part of project mainstay and co-author Lawrence Rowland, as Wise's Civil War in South Carolina expertise is a clear asset to Volume 2. With county boundaries shifting over time, the large geographical area under consideration in the book is better described as the Beaufort District. In general terms, the district encompasses the ground lying between the Savannah and Salkehatchie-Combahee rivers on one axis and between the 1878 Barnwell/Hampton county border and the sea islands on the other, with the societal transformations of the last comprising much of the volume's focus.

The breadth and depth of the portion of the narrative recounting military events that occurred within the district is rather astonishing. The treatment could work equally well as a standalone study of land and naval operations conducted up and down the South Carolina coast between the Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the sea islands. The book details the Confederate evacuation of the sea islands, the Union occupation and expansion of their coastal enclaves, the Confederate defensive arrangements for the Beaufort District, the 1862 Battle of Pocotaligo, the Combahee and Bluffton raids, the November 1864 Battle of Honey Hill, and the battles around Tulifinney's Crossroads. In addition to the more prominent military actions, innumerable lesser raids and skirmishes are described in the text. The study also offers an extensive treatment of the passage of William T. Sherman's army through the district during the last winter of the war. A well conceived Confederate mobile defense strategy protected the railroad and prevented inland occupation by Union forces for most of the war but the district was helpless to resist Sherman's blue tide.

Most scholars credit Robert E. Lee for designing a practical strategy for coastline defense in South Carolina after the Port Royal disaster in 1861, one that subsequent Confederate commanders used with great success before the arrival of Sherman's army in the district in early 1865, but the authors contend that Roswell Ripley deserves recognition for laying much of the initial groundwork. Overall, the military coverage is very comprehensive and the volume's account of the November 30, 1864 Honey Hill battle is the best in the Civil War literature.

Equally impressive is the book's historical treatment of the famous Port Royal Experiment, the government sponsored social program that sought to bring freedom, education and opportunity to thousands of South Carolina freedmen and their families. Following Union occupation of the sea islands, northern missionaries, teachers, nurses, government officials and observers flooded into Port Royal and Hilton Head, setting up churches, hospitals, and schools. Lessons in civics and free labor would prepare former slaves for a promised future as productive citizens. Federal revenue officers also arrived, tasked with enforcing newly imposed property tax laws. Thousands of acres of abandoned land were foreclosed upon and opened up for auction.

With successive Department of the South commanders displaying varying degrees of support for the Port Royal Experiment, Union general and military governor Rufus Saxon cheerfully assumed the position of primary protector of the welfare of freedmen. When northern speculators quickly grabbed up much of the available acreage, Saxton used his influence to ensure that some lands were set aside for ex-slaves. Black army recruitment (with Saxton moderating abuses in this arena, as well) and unit formation in the sea islands are also discussed at length. By mid-1864 half the combat troops in the Department of the South were black.

Beyond the general need for tighter proofreading, the book's most prominent flaw is the inadequacy of the map set. Some of the contemporary line drawings, along with maps borrowed from other sources like the atlas to the O.R., are fine on their own account but many are difficult to decipher in their shrunken form and none are associated closely enough with the text's descriptions of military operations to offer much in the way of material assistance to the reader.

The book concludes with a lengthy section examining the social, political, and economic changes in the district between 1865 and 1893. During this period of time, many freedmen gains with origins traced back to the wartime Port Royal Experiment would gradually be eroded. The authors point to Republican infighting, financial scandals, and skyrocketing taxes [mostly in the form of property taxes, which placed disproportionate burdens on cash-strapped small farmers, white and black] to pay for expensive and inefficient government as important factors contributing to Democratic resurgence. 

In their analysis, Rowland and Wise draw a clear distinction between the sea islands and mainland South Carolina. While black legislative majorities lasted eight years during Reconstruction in South Carolina, the power and influence of freedmen was sustained decades longer in the sea islands. Many black political leaders are profiled, but local civic leader, businessman, and long serving politician Robert Smalls (the freedman who became famous during the war after the Planter exploit) is the "indispensable man" of the narrative. On the islands, black land ownership was sustained and expanded post-bellum and the book documents many incidences of murder and violence instigated by both whites and blacks, the former seeking to regain lost properties and the latter equally determined to resist repossession.

According to Rowland and Wise, the postwar economic boon in places like the Beaufort District remains generally underappreciated in Reconstruction-era histories of South Carolina. The authors carefully document, among other things, the key roles that cotton growing, railroad expansion, and the timber and phosphate industries played in the increased prosperity enjoyed by the district's white and black residents. The deep water port facilities of Port Royal, brilliantly exploited by the Union navy during the war, also made the district attractive to maritime shipping, with growth and traffic increasing by leaps and bounds for both domestic and international trade. Finally, the book discusses the Redemption period and concludes with the 1892 election of the "People's Ticket." According to the authors, this last event marked the peak of fusion politics and also the real end to the district's ruling system that was forged decades earlier during Reconstruction.

If the scholarly depth and quality of the first and third installments of the series approach anywhere near the levels achieved in Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1893, the Beaufort District will have been accorded that rare type of magisterial local study that all regions of comparable size and importance to American history hope to attain. Indeed, the study's thematic reach in terms of societal transformation extends far beyond local concerns and the book is highly recommended reading for all students of the Civil War era.


* - The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: 1514-1861 by Lawrence S. Rowland, George C. Rogers, and Alexander Moore (Univ of SC Press, 1996). The final volume was released this month.

More CWBA reviews of USC Press titles:
* South Carolina Fire-Eater: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864
* A Confederate Englishman: The Civil War Letters of Henry Wemyss Feilden
* Promotion or the Bottom of the River: The Blue and Gray Naval Careers of Alexander F. Warley, South Carolinian
* Faith, Valor, and Devotion: The Civil War Letters of William Porcher DuBose and A Palmetto Boy: Civil War-Era Diaries and Letters of James Adams Tillman
* Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields: Letters of the Heyward Family, 1862-1871
* Never for Want of Powder: The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia
* Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War: Letters of the Anderson, Brockman, and Moore Families, 1853-1865
* Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio Jose Gonzales
* The Good Fight That Didn't End: Henry P. Goddard's Accounts of Civil War and Peace
* Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond
* High Seas And Yankee Gunboats: A Blockade-Running Adventure From The Diary Of James Dickson
* Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina

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