Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review - "Morris Island and the Civil War: Strategy and Influence" by C. Russell Horres

[Morris Island and the Civil War: Strategy and Influence by C. Russell Horres, Jr. (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total:112/144. ISBN:978-1-4671-4173-4. $21.99]

Beginning with the Confederate bombardment and reduction of Fort Sumter in April 1861 and ending at the moment when Union siege batteries finally fell silent after the city of Charleston fell to General Sherman's advancing army in February 1865, Morris Island, South Carolina is one of those rare patches of ground that was involved in active military operations for nearly the entire span of the Civil War. This eventful history is the subject of C. Russell Horres's Morris Island and the Civil War: Strategy and Influence.

At the time of the Civil War, Morris Island, a barrier island with approximately three-quarters of a mile of water separating its northern tip from Fort Sumter, was less than four miles in length and approximately 1,200 yard across at its widest point. Because Sumter was well within the range of siege artillery placed there, Morris Island was continuously occupied throughout the war.

In a brisk narrative, Horres offers readers a fairly comprehensive overview of Morris Island's role in the conflict. The aforementioned Sumter crisis is recounted as are the island's contributions to the imposing array of batteries aimed at the fort in the harbor. After Sumter was forced into surrender with the assistance of the Morris Island guns, fortification efforts on the island switched to the seaward defenses. Disagreements arose quickly within and between Confederate military and civilian authorities on how best to defend Charleston and its harbor. These internal conflicts, which involved many generals and politicians over the course of the war, and how they affected Morris Island's defenses in particular are the subject of significant attention in the book.

In summer 1863, Union forces launched a major army-navy operation aimed at capturing Charleston. An amphibious landing on the south end of Morris Island was well executed, but the subsequent assault on the main Confederate position at Battery/Fort Wagner was turned back with heavy losses. This failed attack, of course, included the 54th Massachusetts. The book then describes the Union siege operations that eventually forced the Confederates to evacuate the island entirely.

The new masters of Morris Island then inaugurated the longest sustained bombardment of the entire war. Employing the latest siege gun technology, Union batteries repeatedly shelled Fort Sumter and the city of Charleston itself, reducing the former and much of the latter into rubble but failing to force their surrender. This 1863-65 pounding by massive projectiles only ceased when General Sherman's weakly opposed Carolinas Campaign approached Charleston from the landward side and forced the Confederates to abandon the city and its defenses.

Entire volumes, including Stephen Wise's excellent history of the 1863 harbor campaign and Chris Phelp's study of the bombardment of Charleston, have been devoted to many of the events serially highlighted in the book. Others such as James Hagy's Folly Island study and Patrick Brennan's account of the failed Union attack at Secessionville have addressed in great detail many closely associated topics mentioned in the book. Rather than incorporating large amounts of fresh information or exploring wartime Morris Island in unprecedented new detail, Horres provides a big-picture synthesis that is comprehensive in nature.

There is a tendency among authors of books of this type to overestimate the significance of their chosen subjects, but Horres joins many contemporary critics in questioning the wisdom of both sides in expending so much effort, lives, and treasure in the fight over Morris Island. In fairness though, this critical interpretation is largely formulated through the lens of hindsight. No one at the time could have predicted with certainty that Fort Sumter and the rest of the harbor fortifications could have held out under the rain of fire that they were subjected to for years on end. As Horres notes, the rapid reduction of Fort Pulaski in 1862 weighed heavily in the minds of both Union and Confederate strategists. The shocking event fostered widespread worry among Confederate authorities in Charleston over the range and offensive power of rifled siege artillery. At the same time, the success bred Union overconfidence in artillery technology quickly triumphing over fixed defenses.

However, as many other writers and historians have also maintained, Horres does see Morris Island as strategically influential in raising the national profile and acceptance (both within the military and among the general public) of black troops. While progress was made, the author does cite the mixed messages obtained from a post-campaign survey sent to commanders on the island seeking their impressions of black troop performance. The fact that some of the responses reinforced old prejudices and stereotypes (ex. black soldiers were less steady than white veterans under fire but were capable of more work and less subject to disease in the southern climate) showed that there was still work to be done and acceptance would be a process not a revelation.

Well formulated to carry out the local history mission of the publisher while also offering historiographical engagement, Morris Island and the Civil War provides readers with a finely told, highly accessible, and well-rounded discussion of the island's wartime history and significance.

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