Sunday, August 24, 2014

Merchant: "SOUTH CAROLINA FIRE-EATER: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864"

[South Carolina Fire-Eater: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864 by Holt Merchant (University of South Carolina Press, 2014). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:205/271. ISBN:978-1-61117-349-9 $39.95]

South Carolinian Laurence M. Keitt is mostly recognized by Civil War readers as a second tier Deep South Fire-Eater who assisted Preston Brooks during the infamous Sumner caning incident and suffered a mortal wound at Cold Harbor leading a poorly orchestrated frontal attack. Concise, but well researched and offering a comprehensive portrait of Keitt's public career, Holt Merchant's South Carolina Fire-Eater: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864 is a compelling biographical treatment of a man supremely dedicated to disunion but, after achieving this cherished goal, could only watch as others seized the reins of the new Confederacy.

Before entering the national scene, Keitt was a lawyer and state legislator. According to Merchant, the records of Keitt's cases were destroyed during the war so it is not possible today to adequately assess his level of ability or his place in any important cases. Much like his later time with the U.S. Congress, Keitt's career as a state lawmaker was fairly undistinguished, his most important achievement apparently being to fireproof the state archives. History was often on his mind and he hoped to be a published author at some point.

Merchant's characterization of Keitt's political actions and ideology offers readers a clear sense of what made South Carolina Fire-Eaters a different breed from even other Deep South leaders of similar persuasion. In the 1850s, wherever there was a crowd that would listen, he delivered fiery speeches denouncing all political parties (Republicans, Democrats, and Know Nothings alike). Keitt wanted his state to have no part in national political parties. As a U.S. Representative, sectional deal making was of no consideration, his only concerns tied to limiting the powers of the federal government and maintaining a fiercely partisan defense of the interests of South Carolina and slavery. Disunion always seemed to be the ultimate goal. As long as men like Keitt held sway during the 1850s, Merchant offers the impression that no compromise that could have led to South Carolina remaining within the Union was possible.

Keitt's rhetorical skills undoubtedly had significant impact on the secession movement but any hopes of having a large role in shaping the creation of the new nation that he so tirelessly fought for were quickly dashed. Much of this was likely due to his ungovernable temper. Creating powerful enemies and almost entirely lacking in discretion, he was no statesman. As part of the South Carolina delegation in Montgomery, Keitt could only watch as others drafted the Confederate constitution and selected comparative moderates to high office.

Briefing serving in the Confederate Congress, where he was an outspoken critic of the Davis administration, Keitt resigned in 1862 to enter the army. Appointed to lead the 20th South Carolina, Colonel Keitt spent much of the war defending Charleston. Centering on Sullivan's Island, his area of responsibility was the northern flank of the harbor defenses, the most quiescent sector. Keitt first serious taste of combat occurred when he was sent to Morris Island. There he was praised for his stalwart defense of the island and skillful extraction of the Battery Wagner garrison. Keitt's first opportunity to direct units in the open field was in Virginia at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Inexperience, combined with an urgent desire to prove himself as a battlefield leader, led him to launch a poorly crafted frontal assault against entrenched Union cavalry that failed badly, with brigade commander Keitt mortally wounded in the process. As he does not attempt a detailed reassessment of this attack and Keitt's role in it, Merchant likely believes that no reason exists to contradict the conventional interpretation.

With notable breadth and depth of sources listed, the bibliography of South Carolina Fire-Eater has all the hallmarks of a well researched biography. Merchant uses the correspondence between Keitt and his wife to provide readers clues to Keitt's inner life. His letters to Sue often express genuine regret for those times when his temper got out of control. Curiously, in 1864, Keitt also became circumspect about how personally responsible he was for bringing about such death and destruction to his section, promising his wife that after the war he would devote himself to some form of redress. One wonders whether other Fire-Eaters expressed similar feelings. Still, it remains difficult to glean features of Keitt's personality, how he interacted with intimate friends and family, from the narrative.  The book does not liberally allow Keitt to express himself in his own words, with Merchant instead preferring to synopsize the content of letters and other primary sources.

Laurence M. Keitt is a Civil War era political and military figure deserving of a modern scholarly biography, and Holt Merchant's effort to provide one succeeds quite nicely. With its keen insights into Fire-Eater ideology, even those readers without a specific interest in Keitt himself will gain a deeper understanding of the political movement that, in its most extreme South Carolina form, came to be devoted to the destruction of the Union.

More CWBA reviews of USC Press titles:
* 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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