Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Review - "The Civil War in the South Carolina Lowcountry: How a Confederate Artillery Battery and a Black Union Regiment Defined the War" by Ron Roth

[The Civil War in the South Carolina Lowcountry: How a Confederate Artillery Battery and a Black Union Regiment Defined the War by Ron Roth (McFarland, 2020). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:ix,157/196. ISBN:978-1-4766-7710-1. $35]

The pair of army organizations under consideration in Ron Roth's The Civil War in the South Carolina Lowcountry: How a Confederate Artillery Battery and a Black Union Regiment Defined the War are the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery (BVA) and the First South Carolina. Raised in and around the Beaufort District Sea Islands of South Carolina, the units shared a common geographical origin, but that is where the similarities ended. A prewar militia battery, the BVA was led by Capt. Stephen Elliott, Jr. (and from mid-war onward by Henry M. Stuart), and its ranks were largely filled with recruits from the wealthy and enthusiastically secessionist families of the Beaufort area. By contrast, the slave population of St. Helena Island and beyond would be a major source of manpower for the First South Carolina, the first black combat unit organized by Union forces during the war. Though they never confronted each other on the battlefield, the subjects of this dual unit history can certainly be regarded in many ways as symbolic representations of the war's opposing goals and ideologies.

The early parts of the book offer readers a vivid portrait of the polar extremes of Sea Island society during the decades preceding the Civil War. The lucrative cotton plantation economy, close familial connections, and extreme form of States Rights politics that produced the officers and men of the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery are informatively discussed, as are the Sea Island slave experiences that led so many of those men to eagerly volunteer for Union Army service with the First South Carolina.

Unlike many other Confederate South Carolina units that were sent off to faraway fighting fronts, the men of the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery had the good fortune to remain near their home district for almost the entire the war. Roth's text provides a fine summary and assessment of their military service, which ranged from a narrow escape from the Port Royal Sound disaster during their first major action to small hit-and-run attacks along the coast (including their 1863 ambush and capture of the USS George Washington) to pitched battles at Second Pocotaligo/Coosawhatchie (1862), Honey Hill (1864), and Averasboro (1865). The battery was a mainstay of the mobile defense of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad for much of the war, and it occupied key positions in the main Confederate battle line at both Honey Hill and Averasboro. After its guns contributed heavily to the repulse of superior Union forces at Honey Hill, the BVA was roughed up in the intense fight over the first of three Confederate lines at Averasboro. The battery was in reserve at Bentonville and surrendered near war's end with the rest of Joe Johnston's army at Bennett Place.

While recent publication of the first volume of John Saucer's exhaustive An We Ob Jubilee: The First South Carolina Volunteers* has stolen some of Roth's thunder, the books share common themes and this more scaled-down effort nevertheless provides a solid introductory history of the regiment's origins and participation in South Atlantic coastal operations. The First South Carolina's long, drawn-out 1862-63 path to official organization was demonstrative of the great difficulty in raising black troops without the full cooperation of higher authorities. Though the regiment did not fight in any major battles, it can still be recognized as an important pioneer. As Roth recounts, the First's solid performance in a series of amphibious expeditions and other small actions played no little part in raising the public profile of black troops and suppressing popular prejudice regarding their usefulness as soldiers.

Through alternating chapters the unit histories unfold in parallel. With the BVA and First South Carolina never meeting each other in the field, their narrative paths mainly intersect postwar. The book discusses at some length the permanent loss of plantations owned by former BVA officers and men, which were seized by the authorities on the pretext of failure to pay past taxes and auctioned off. Many of these plum agricultural parcels were purchased by freedmen, who also gained a measure of political power during early Reconstruction. Beyond that, the book lacks a discrete section that brings everything together and fulfills the title's promise of explaining precisely how these two units in particular "defined the war." Of course, many among the target audience can readily draw their own set of conclusions, ones that would more likely than not mirror the author's own. Nevertheless, it is a curious omission given the theme's prominent place on the cover. Then again, as is often the case in publishing, the author may not have been entirely responsible for the wording of title and subtitle.

While the bibliography is not particularly large, it does contain a favorable range and proportion of published and unpublished primary source types. The volume is well illustrated, and the battle maps depicting the BVA's position in each major action exhibit fine detail. In another useful feature, the appendix section includes name rosters for both units.

As indicated above, the BVA portion of the dual unit history is the more exceptional of the two, but the book as a whole is certainly worthy of recommendation as a useful contribution to the study of nineteenth-century Beaufort District society and Civil War history.


* - Saucer, John. An We Ob Jubilee: The First South Carolina Volunteers. Charleston, SC: America Through Time, 2019. In addition to Saucer's book, interested readers should also be referred to Wise, Rowland, and Spieler's authoritative 2015 masterpiece Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1893: The History of Beaufort County, Volume II.

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