Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review of Emerson & Stokes, eds. - "DAYS OF DESTRUCTION: Augustine Thomas Smythe and the Civil War Siege of Charleston"

[Days of Destruction: Augustine Thomas Smythe and the Civil War Siege of Charleston edited by W. Eric Emerson and Karen Stokes (University of South Carolina Press, 2017). Cloth, map, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:160/200. ISBN:978-1-61117-770-1. $29.99]

Established in 1860, the United States Army Signal Corps was the brainchild of Major Albert J. Myer. When the Civil War began just a year later, the usefulness of Myer's innovative system of flag communications by day (and torches by night) was immediately recognized by both sides. While the Confederate Signal Corps had a big moment early in the conflict, when E.P. Alexander famously spotted the Union column crossing Bull Run beyond the Confederate left on July 21, 1861, the U.S. Army Signal Corps enjoys more space in the literature. Most recently, a wonderfully edited edition of the memoir of USASC Captain Louis R. Fortescue was published*. Now, with W. Eric Emerson and Karen Stokes's Days of Destruction, the edited correspondence of Confederate signalman Augustine Thomas Smythe, readers are granted an inside view of the other side's Signal Corps, specifically the Charleston detachment.

Well-researched and generously fleshed out introductions add essential background and context to published memoirs and correspondence, and the one in Days of Destruction is particularly valuable. In it, Emerson and Stokes provide readers with a wealth of information, including Smythe's family history and a satisfactory discussion of young Augustine's early life. Augustine (or "Gus") was born in Charleston in 1842. His Irish-born father, Rev. Dr. Thomas Smyth (the 'e' was added later), was a Presbyterian minister and his mother, Margaret Milligan Adger, a teacher at the Charleston Orphan House. Smyth's sermons, articles, and books were popular, although some of his southern audience distrusted his northern academic ties and deemed his views dangerously close to abolitionist in outlook. In the end, the elder Smyth regretted secession, but did not oppose it.

Augustine shared his father's wider ambition, but not his spiritual career path, and he joined the South Carolina College Corps of Cadets when secession and war loomed. As a member of Company A of the 25th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, Augustine fought in the Battle of Secessionville on June 16, 1862. Four months later, he was transferred to the Signal Corps. Emerson and Stokes's introduction usefully outlines the history of this support branch of the service and briefly describes the kind of duties that a signalman like Smythe would have been asked to do.

The introductory narrative additionally delves into Smythe's personal life and post-war career. A successful lawyer and businessman, Smythe was equally devoted to civic pursuits, serving 14 years in the state senate and actively participating in numerous fraternal and social organizations. Essential to understanding the context of much of the familial friction exhibited in the letters, the editors also helpfully provide background information regarding Smythe's future wife, Louisa (they married in 1865), and particularly his prospective mother-in-law, whose reputation of free-thinking independence preceded her and worried Augustine's more staid mother.

Smythe's letters comprise a set of very detailed recordings of major military events (land and sea) that occurred in and around Charleston, all written from the unique perspective of a practiced observer. Passages describe the Battle of Secessionville (when he was still an infantryman) and the capture of the Union gunboat Isaac P. Smith on the Stono River. Smythe was one of four signalmen tasked with helping coordinate the ambush of the Smith, and their assistance was a significant factor in the operation's success. Also in 1863, Smythe provided ship-to-shore signalling from the ironclad CSS Palmetto State and was assigned for a time to Fort Sumter. From the fort, he witnessed firsthand the inexorable advance of Union siege batteries, their massive guns battering from afar both Sumter and the city of Charleston itself.

Centrally based at the saltwater bathing house at White Point Garden, Charleston's Signal Corps network operated from fourteen different stations strategically located around the harbor and surrounding islands. From his various assignments, Smythe witnessed many significant events. He was able to view the movements of the CSS Hunley as well as the operations of the CSS David torpedo boat that damaged the USS New Ironsides. He also personally observed the retaliatory 'human shield' practice of placing POWs in harms way, indignantly contrasting the alleged hotel-like treatment accorded Union officers in the city (their "prison" located in a part of Charleston that Smythe claims was hit by a Union shell only once every two months) with the crowded, open air stockade on Morris Island that confined the Confederate "Immortal 600."

Smythe's letters readily attest to the importance of the Signal Corps to the longevity of Charleston's defense. Signalman were essential to the rapid passage of military communications above, below, and inside the harbor. They provided an effective early warning system of Union movements while also frequently intercepting and interpreting enemy signals. In one letter home, Smythe rather indiscreetly mentions how his unit cracked the enemy code and were able to read Union Signal Corps messages for some time before discovery. There were also failures to go along with the successes. In 1864, when Sherman's army was closing in on Savannah, the Confederate Signal Corps (with Smythe himself attached) attempted to establish a line of coastal flag stations between Charleston and that place, but the effort was thwarted by the constant threat of surprise intervention by Union landing parties.

What stands out most in the Smythe letters are his numerous and meticulously rendered observations of the 1864-65 Union bombardment of lower Charleston. Perched high above the city in the steeple of St. Michael's Episcopal Church beginning in March 1864, Smythe was uniquely placed to witness and document the relentless shelling. In the exhaustive manner of an insurance inspector, Smythe describes in his correspondence the damage inflicted on many different homes, neighborhoods, and public buildings, often forensically tracing the path of single shells. Undoubtedly, much of this attention to detail can be traced to the fact that his own home, and those of friends and family, were located in the bombardment zone. Smythe accepted great risk by sleeping at his otherwise deserted home, which was constantly threatened by shell and robber. In fact, his letters provide readers with a vivid picture of the lawlessness of the city's many near empty neighborhoods, where thievery and vandalism committed by soldiers and civilians alike were widespread. Though his claims are unconfirmed, Smythe also seems to indicate that loss of life in the city was greater than commonly supposed, asserting by late 1864 that somewhere between one and three non-combatants were killed by enemy shells each day.

When it comes to the publication of firsthand Civil War accounts written by soldiers, the letters, diaries, and memoirs of those that served in the main armies (particularly the celebrated Virginia front protagonists) heavily predominate, and this volume constitutes a highly refreshing change from the norm. The edited correspondence contained in Days of Destruction comprises a remarkable and wholly distinctive record of the Siege of Charleston as witnessed through the trained eyes of a Confederate Signal Corps member. It is highly recommended.


* - Service with the Signal Corps: The Civil War Memoir of Captain Louis R. Fortescue edited by J. Gregory Acken (Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2015).

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