Friday, March 23, 2018

Booknotes: Two Charlestonians at War

New Arrival:
Two Charlestonians at War: The Civil War Odysseys of a Lowcountry Aristocrat and a Black Abolitionist by Barbara L. Bellows (LSU Press, 2018).

With the most worthwhile dual biographies, the sum is greater than the parts. Sometimes they work and sometimes the connections drawn between the two subjects are arbitrary or forced. The meaningfulness of the pairing Barbara Bellows sets up in Two Charlestonians at War is more creative than most. It "trac(es) the intersecting lives of a Confederate plantation owner and a free black Union soldier," ... "offer(ing) a poignant allegory of the fraught, interdependent relationship between wartime enemies in the Civil War South."

From the description: "Recounted in alternating chapters, the lives of Charleston natives born a mile a part, Captain Thomas Pinckney and Sergeant Joseph Humphries Barquet, illuminate one another’s motives for joining the war as well as the experiences that shaped their worldviews. Pinckney, a rice planter and scion of one of America’s founding families, joined the Confederacy in hope of reclaiming an idealized agrarian past; and Barquet, a free man of color and brick mason, fought with the Union to claim his rights as an American citizen. Their circumstances set the two men on seemingly divergent paths that nonetheless crossed on the embattled coast of South Carolina."

In early adulthood, the free-born Barquet left his native Charleston to settle in the North. At a Morgan-Freeman-in-Glory-ish 40 years of age, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts. "His varied challenges and struggles, including his later frustrated attempts to play a role in postwar Republican politics in Illinois, provide a panoramic view of the free black experience in nineteenth-century America."

On the other side, Pinckney joined the Confederate Army, his wartime path eventually crossing with Barquet's while serving as an officer in the 4th South Carolina cavalry regiment. "After the war, Pinckney distanced himself from the racist violence of Reconstruction politics and focused on the daunting task of restoring his ruined plantations with newly freed laborers." "The two Charlestonians’ chance encounter on Morris Island, where in 1864 Sergeant Barquet stood guard over the captured Captain Pinckney, inspired Bellows’ compelling narrative. Her extensive research adds rich detail to our knowledge of the dynamics between whites and free blacks during this tumultuous era."

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