Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review - "A South Carolina Upcountry Saga: The Civil War Letters of Barham Bobo Foster and His Family, 1860–1863" by Gibert Kennedy, ed.

[A South Carolina Upcountry Saga: The Civil War Letters of Barham Bobo Foster and His Family, 1860–1863 edited by A. Gibert Kennedy (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Cloth, 11 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pp:xxiv,384. ISBN:978-1-61117-924-8. $49.99]

Before the American Civil War and its aftermath brought them devastating personal, material, and financial loss, the family of Barham Bobo Foster prospered in the Spartanburg District of Piedmont South Carolina. Worked by 43 slaves, Foster's corn and cotton plantation  ("Foster's Tavern") was located in Glenn Springs just south of Spartanburg and near the railroad connecting the region with the rest of the state. Living with Foster were his wife, Mary Ann, and five children [sons Lewis Perrin and James Anthony "Toney", ages 23 and 22 respectively, and daughters Sarah Agnes "Sallie" (19), Eunice "Nunie" (15), and Jane Eliza (9)].

An ardent supporter of disunion and signer of the state's secession ordinance, B.B. Foster immediately offered his services to the state when war broke out and was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Third South Carolina infantry regiment. Both sons eventually served in the same regiment and both gave their lives on its firing line. Their many letters home from the front are collected in A South Carolina Upcountry Saga: The Civil War Letters of Barham Bobo Foster and His Family, 1860-1863, edited by descendant A. Gibert Kennedy.

The Foster correspondence is conventional in the sense that it contains many of the usual topics of conversation found in Civil War letter compilations. They speak of camp life, ordeals of epidemic disease, troubles getting properly uniformed and equipped, concern over the welfare of loved ones, complaints about the national mail system, and express common prejudicial views of the enemy's character and fighting ability. However, the Carter correspondence greatly exceeds the general run of Civil War letter collections when it comes to extensive descriptions of combat and other front line military experiences. While items of interest under their own limited personal purview predominate, the writers also occasionally offer astute critiques and observations of Confederate leaders and strategy. For example, the elder Foster condemns the Davis administration's dispersal of Confederate military strength, favoring instead a concentration of force even if that meant abandoning territory to the enemy. Modern historians have widely adopted this very same criticism of what would come to be known as Davis's "cordon defense" strategy.

After a brief training period in their home state, the Third South Carolina was sent to the main front in Virginia. The regiment was not heavily engaged at First Manassas, but its involvement in the afternoon pursuit is heavily discussed in the Foster letters. Even more detail is provided of the picket war in northern Virginia both prior to the Bull Run battle and for months afterward.

The letters of both B.B. and L.P. Foster (Toney would not join the army until the following spring) are strongly tinged with localism. Though the Fosters were Virginians themselves only two generations before they relocated to South Carolina, they question Virginia's late-to-the-game patriotism and capacity for bravery, though this distrust was softened after hearing about their Bull Run exploits. Curiously, the writers deplore the abundance of "Yankees" and lack of "true Virginians" found among the civilian population living in the northern part of the state (opinions shared 150 years later in some circles!). B.B. Foster also complains of cultural and political divides between Piedmont and Tidewater South Carolinians.

In January 1862, the Foster patriarch was forced to resign from the army due to his development of a severe case of chronic limb edema. Soon after Foster left for home, the army began its evacuation of northern Virginia in response to threatening Union movements. This period coincided with the expiration of the Third's original twelve-month term of enlistment and growing uncertainty in its ranks over the details of the soon to be enacted Conscription Act. Perrin faced indecision over whether to reenlist in Virginia or wait until the regiment returned to South Carolina after mustering out. As expressed in his letters, his fear was that he might be forced into general conscription (and perhaps be sent to another unit not of his choosing) if he waited too long. His letters show the widespread confusion in the army over how conscription would work for those already serving. Those not yet in the army were also uncertain, and Anthony eventually joined the 13th South Carolina, led by his cousin Col. Oliver Edwards, in advance of conscription as well. He soon after transferred to the Third, and his letters add another dimension to the book.

The Third missed the fighting at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks, but engaged in frequent skirmishing south of the Chickahominy prior to Lee's Seven Days offensive. These actions are recounted in Perrin's letters. Part of Kershaw's Brigade, the regiment's Seven Days exposure, at least in terms of significant fighting, was limited to Savage's Station and Malvern Hill. Both Perrin and Anthony Foster penned several useful accounts of the fighting on those days (particularly for June 29). Details are frequently repeated (as the writers retold the same events in letters sent to several different family members) but this is rather a plus to readers as each version offers additional pieces of information absent in the others.

Frequently sick with some ailment or another, Perrin took ill again with skin and joint disease after the Peninsula Campaign. During his lengthy recovery he missed both Second Manassas and Antietam, while brother Anthony was killed on September 13 during an assault on Maryland Heights. Numerous letters written by Toney's comrades to the family are reproduced in the book. They offer the Fosters condolences and provide the family with the particulars of his death and burial.

Perrin returned to the army in late October. His letters home over the following weeks describe the extended preamble to the Battle of Fredericksburg and the settling in of both armies on opposite banks of the Rappahannock. Tragically, on December 13 Perrin was shot in the head and killed near the Marye House when his regiment was ordered from its initial position near the Telegraph Road to reinforce the stone wall defenders.

With both Foster sons now dead, no more letters passed from the fighting front to the home front but Kennedy includes a number of other family letters expressing grief and sympathy. B.B. Foster briefly returned to the war as a militia officer and the war largely ruined his finances, forcing him into bankruptcy for unpaid property taxes during Reconstruction. Later, with the help of his family, Foster became a merchant of modest prosperity.

Kennedy does fine work editing the Foster correspondence, supplementing the material with letters written by friends and extended relations. In addition to penning a general family history introduction founded in fairly extensive genealogy research, Kennedy also includes a number of photos and a helpful set of maps. His footnotes are primarily focused on identifying individuals mentioned in the letters, but the editor's chapter introductions and bridging war narrative work well together in effectively contextualizing the letters.

Wounds and death constantly hover over the letters contained in A South Carolina Upcountry Saga. Their oppressive aura of tragedy, enhanced by the battlefield deaths of writers Perrin and Toney themselves, underscores in exceptional fashion the concentrated human devastation wrought by the conflict. With low-end Civil War mortality estimates of 25% of military-age southern white males, the Foster family's complete sacrifice of its male line to the Confederate war effort vividly reminds readers how deeply this scale of mass death infiltrated all levels of southern society. In addition to documenting one family's story of tragedy and loss, the correspondence also serves as a valuable firsthand resource for those researching the war service of the Third South Carolina over the first half of the conflict. Recommended.

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