Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Crooks, Jr. : "Lee in the Lowcountry: Defending Charleston & Savannah 1861-1862"

[ Lee in the Lowcountry: Defending Charleston & Savannah 1861-1862 by Daniel J. Crooks, Jr. (The History Press, 2008). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, bibliography. 128 pages. ISBN: 9781596295896 $19.95]

Lee in the Lowcountry is a broad survey of Robert E. Lee's state and Confederate military service in the year plus following his resignation from the U.S. army, beginning with Lee's organization of Virginia's defenses through his appointment as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862. As the title suggests, the main focus of Daniel Crooks's study is the general's brief but active tenure as commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Crooks outlines Lee's preparations for the defense of Charleston, Savannah, and the vital communications link between the two port cities -- the aptly named Charleston & Savannah Railroad. Much of the story is told in the words of the participants. Lengthy excerpts from private and official correspondence (much of it from Lee himself) are inserted into the narrative. This is fine, but I wished for a more critical assessment of Lee's defensive strategy for his department, more specifically an examination of whether a large scale abandonment of the sea islands between Charleston and Savannah was a wise move or an overreaction to the perception of unstoppable Union naval might and amphibious operations ability post-Port Royal.

The Union perspective, mostly from the viewpoint of Lee's ranking opponent, Brigadier General Thomas Sherman, is not neglected. The Rhode Island general successfully placed his command in a position to threaten multiple points, but was unable to exploit his early gains by capturing Charleston or Savannah, or, absent that, severing their rail link. However, there does seem to be a question as to what Sherman was expected to be able to achieve with the relatively small force at hand.

With a bibliography almost entirely composed of secondary and published primary source materials, Lee in the Lowcountry is a work of synthesis. Considering the large gap in the literature covering this period of Lee's military career, the lack of fresh material comprises something of a missed opportunity. However, while the lack of footnotes and sparse detail will likely not satisfy scholars or serious students, beyond a few typos there is nothing particularly wrong with Crooks's account. As is the custom from this publisher, the volume is appealingly presented, with a liberal sprinkling of photographs and other illustrations. History minded area residents and interested general readers -- likely the book's intended audience -- will get a straightforward, lively, and broadly accurate summary. A part of the publisher's Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, Lee in the Lowcountry can certainly contribute to captivating and reawakening interest in local South Carolina Civil War history and hopefully will inspire many readers to dig even deeper.

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Other History Press titles reviewed:
* South Carolina Military Organizations During the War Between the States: Statewide Units, Militia & Reserves
* Andover in the Civil War: The Spirit & Sacrifice of a New England Town
* Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation

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