Monday, December 19, 2022

Review - "Six Miles from Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell: The Battle of Secessionville, June 16, 1862" by James Morgan

[Six Miles from Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell: The Battle of Secessionville, June 16, 1862 by James A. Morgan (Savas Beatie, 2022). Softcover, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, appendix section, orders of battle, reading list. Pages main/total:xii,151/177. ISBN:978-1-6121-601-1. $16.95]

Conducted without the resources necessary to actually capture major port cities such as Charleston and Savannah, Union combined army and navy operations along the South Atlantic coast during the early-war period were primarily aimed at establishing secure bases for future offensives and coaling stations vital to maintenance of the expanding naval blockade. Some Union officers lobbied that a stronger effort be made to capture the reviled "Cradle of Secession," but little transpired beyond pinprick raids against enemy resources and transportation. It would be May-June 1862 before the first major offensive action against Charleston was undertaken, the culmination of which was the June 16, 1862 Battle of Secessionville. That resounding Confederate victory has already been extensively examined in Patrick Brennan's groundbreaking 1996 study Secessionville: Assault On Charleston, but new perspectives are always welcome. Revisiting the battle more than a quarter century later is James Morgan's Six Miles from Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell: The Battle of Secessionville, June 16, 1862, the latest volume in the Emerging Civil War series.

Morgan sets the stage well, ably mapping out for readers the geography of the sea islands and inland waterways south of Charleston and appropriately highlighting the strategic significance (and vulnerabilities) of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad that connected the two great cities. He also discusses the viability of the various approaches available to Union warships and/or landing forces considering a serious assault on the Charleston defenses, some knowledge of which was gained through conversations with Robert Smalls, the enslaved pilot who famously commandeered the steamboat Planter and turned vessel and cargo over to Union forces. Not having the resources to bully his way through Charleston's land defenses or breach its well-defended harbor, Union Department of the South commander David Hunter held little interest in discussing such operations. However, as later events would prove, district commander Henry Benham, a long-serving army engineer and now volunteer brigadier general, had his own ideas.

At levels of map and text detail consistent with what we've come to expect from the best battle books produced through this series, Morgan's narrative recounts the navy's clearing of the Stono River, the sea island landing of two Union divisions (those of Horatio Wright and Isaac Stevens), the June 3 clash at Sol Legare Island, and the larger failed effort by Confederate forces on June 10 to break up Wright's Grimball's Landing camp on James Island. At this stage of the game, Hunter, apparently spooked by the failed Confederate attack on June 10, lost what little enthusiasm he previously possessed for the army-navy operation. Attempting to rein in the ambitions of his district commander, Hunter wrote Benham on June 10 "You will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely reinforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect."

The battle fought nearly a week later, a disastrous Union assault on the Tower Battery at Secessionville, is often framed as a battle incompetently directed by a general who exceeded orders and paid the consequences (Benham would be relieved of command by Hunter and placed under arrest). Through his fine summary of the battle and its aftermath, Morgan sees it differently. He agrees that Benham was not fit to hold an important front-line district command, but the author doesn't believe that Benham, in fighting at Secessionville, disobeyed orders. This bold interpretation will likely inspire debate among readers who might reasonably consider a major attack on a fort defending Charleston (and made in the general direction of Fort Johnson no less!) to be an attack on the city itself, a violation of both the letter and spirit of Hunter's orders. Morgan cites additional support for his interpretation of the matter in the army investigation of Benham that exonerated and reinstated him (though he was stripped of his volunteer general's commission and reverted back to lieutenant colonel of engineers).

While Benham had difficult relationships with subordinate generals and naval officers with whom he was expected to cooperate, the Confederate command structure tasked with Charleston's defense had problems of its own. District boundaries and leadership were always in flux, and the man at the top, General John C. Pemberton, was unpopular among subordinates, state officials, and local citizens alike (the last two groups decidedly not in favor of Pemberton's continuance of Robert E. Lee's sage but unpopular departmental policy of abandoning undefendable outer positions and instead concentrating available troops to act as mobile response forces). The author reasonably cites these conditions as major contributing factors behind the less than ideal level of coordination on display during the Confederate response to the Union advance. From the author's studied viewpoint, an opportunity or two existed for the Confederates to deal a heavy blow to Benham's forces early on, but fractured command could not take advantage of them. The successful defense of the Tower Battery is reasonably attributed less to the generals involved (Gist and Evans) and more to the stubborn heroics of the battery's defenders and its commander, Col. Thomas Lamar, as well as timely reinforcements sent in by Col. Johnson Hagood.

As Morgan explains, though Secessionville was a bloody defeat for Benham's Federals, it involved clear moments of contingency when the outcome of the battle might have proved quite different. Had Benham succeeded and Union forces gone on to secure James Island, capture Fort Johnson from the rear, and fatally compromise Charleston's harbor defenses (none of which, in this reviewer's opinion, a victory at the Tower Battery would have guaranteed), Morgan speculates that that chain of events might have had impact enough to not only cause the evacuation of Charleston but reshape, perhaps even abort, the impending Confederate offensive at Richmond, which was dependent upon reinforcements from places like Charleston and other garrisoned points along the Atlantic seaboard. We can never know with any certainty how changing circumstances on the Charleston front might have affected those in Virginia, but they are interesting matters to contemplate.

An argument can be made that the ECW series is at its best when addressing military operations of this scale, and James Morgan's Six Miles from Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell is one of the strongest entries of that kind. This volume is both a great way to introduce new readers to a Charleston campaign still overshadowed by events of the following year and a refresher course of the highest quality for those who haven't revisited Brennan's enduring standard history of Secessionville since its late 1990s debut.


  1. Many thanks for this considered review, Drew. --Ted Savas

  2. I plan to but haven't yet read this work. I can say that Benham's report to the Adj. Gen. is a voluminous apologia. That said, there are moments where his arguments are convincing. His strongest argument relates to Secessionville (not his only moment of controversy), where he presented letters from members of some of the regiments who substantiated Benham's points. I thought it fairly good evidence in his favor. His book length report also has useful and interesting reading on Western Va. and Chancellorsville.
    Anyway, great review - Chris Bryan

  3. Drew: Thanks for this review. These ECW books "fit the bill" with reliable, succinct and up-to-date analysis by qualified authors, complete with abundant maps and tour guide information, etc. I routinely recommend them to folks who have the more detailed studies as excellent, inexpensive supplements.


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