Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Review - " Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal South Carolina, 1861–1865 " by Michael Laramie

[Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal South Carolina, 1861–1865 by Michael G. Laramie (Westholme Publishing, 2022). Hardcover, maps, photos, tables, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,329/395. ISBN:978-1-59416-395-1. $35]

By the time the smoke settled from Fort Sumter's bombardment and surrender, it became increasingly clear to everyone that the fate of Charleston, South Carolina was far from decided. Combined with its clear strategic value, the port city's enhanced symbolic presence as the "Cradle of Secession" ensured that it and its harbor would remain high on each side's list of military priorities. Unlike North Carolina's coast, which, outside of Wilmington, was quickly seized by Union forces in 1862 and its most important posts securely held for the duration of the war, the contest for control of South Carolina's coast, and of Charleston in particular, lasted four long years.

The two largest attacks on Charleston's outer defenses are fully explored in Patrick Brennan's Secessionville: Assault On Charleston (1996) and Stephen Wise's Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston, 1863 (1994), both works being gold standard treatments of their respective subjects. A lone book-length treatment of the siege artillery storm directed at Charleston itself exists in W. Chris Phelps's The Bombardment of Charleston, 1863–1865 (2000). Additionally, the contested space between Charleston and Savannah, a maze of swamps, sounds, sea islands, and inland waterways, has been studied in numerous books and articles, and H. David Stone's Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina (2008) provides us with an unmatched recounting of the wartime history of the rail link connecting those two port cities. Of lesser strategic significance, coastal targets between Charleston and the North Carolina border received much less attention from Union occupation and blockading forces during the war. It's a history worth examining, though, and Rick Simmons' Defending South Carolina's Coast: The Civil War from Georgetown to Little River (2009) very ably documents what happened there. No single volume weaves together all of these threads to satisfaction, though E. Milby Burton's The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 (1970) went some way toward doing it. Michael Laramie's highly engaging new book Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal South Carolina, 1861–1865 represents the most comprehensive attempt yet.

Though his study is ostensibly a chronological overview of military events that occurred along the full length of the South Carolina coast, Laramie understandably focuses on operations at and below Charleston. Following an obligatory geography lesson and brief discussion of the Port Royal expedition that secured the first vital Union foothold in the area, the narrative examines, from both perspectives, the series of combined army-navy operations launched against Charleston. The 1862 Battle of Secessionville fought on James Island, a resounding Confederate victory that turned away the first major Union thrust toward Charleston, is recounted to satisfaction (though the most recent work on that battle challenges the traditional interpretation, repeated in this book, of Union commander Henry Benham's conduct). Explored at greatest length are the 1863 Union operations that eventually captured Fort Wagner and secured Morris Island for the establishment of Union siege batteries that pummeled Fort Sumter and the lower districts of Charleston itself. That series of chapters comprises the heart of the book. Blockade and fleet actions, including the U.S. Navy's 1863 ironclad assault that failed to unhinge the harbor defenses, are also suitably detailed and assessed. The role and impact (both offensive and defensive) of technological innovation, especially in the areas of mine warfare, ironclad warships, submersibles, and torpedo boats, in the Charleston blockade and siege are seamlessly integrated into the narrative.

Though 1863's flurry of events was followed by what might be best described as stalemate, active operations continued along the periphery. Laramie appropriately highlights many actions that have often escaped notice in broader histories. Coverage of General John Foster's 1864 summer offensive against the Charleston defenses and C&S Railroad, a little-known four-pronged attack conducted over a wide area that failed to produce any significant results, is provided. Later in the year, new Union operations against the C&S that were timed to assist General William T. Sherman's advancing army. These included a bloody Union repulse at Honey Hill in late November and a redirected approach in December that also failed to cut rail communications between Savannah and Charleston. Both operations are described well in the text. Ultimately, Charleston would be evacuated, it's final fall precipitated not by Union forces lodged on the coast but by the inland approach of Sherman's overwhelming host.

While central focus on Charleston and the network of sea islands between that city and Savannah is inevitable within a work of this kind, the coastal ground stretching northward to the North Carolina border (which produced the nation's most lucrative rice growing economy) is arguably worthy of more extensive coverage than the glancing attention given to it in this volume. As revealed in Simmons's aforementioned book, Union raids and Confederate blockade running activities occurred there with some frequency. In recognition of its value as an alternative haven when Charleston was under greatest threat, Winyah Bay was rather extensively fortified, and Georgetown was a significant deep water port in its own right.

The analysis portions of this book blend reinforcement of consensus views with the author's own sound commentary. Similar to what transpired in North Carolina, Union interest in exploiting early-war gains along the South Carolina coast waxed and waned throughout the war. Like other modern observers who have criticized Union war planners for not utilizing captured North Carolina bases to their fullest, Laramie sees significant lost opportunity in South Carolina. There, Union forces never were able to leverage superior land and seaborne capabilities enough to seriously interdict the Charleston & Savannah Railroad, even though the line vulnerably hugged the coast along much of its length. The text's presentation of the possible reasons behind this chronic failure—among them issues of leadership, opposing strategy (the departmental defense arrangement initiated by Robert E. Lee and expanded upon by his successors proved remarkably successful), interservice rivalry, and more—are convincingly outlined. Laramie's attempt to explain what factors lay behind the powerful USN's inability to break the Charleston harbor stalemate (even after heavy investment in ironclad development) is largely in agreement with persuasive analyses expressed elsewhere the literature. In considering the limited but tantalizing evidence of their capabilities and potential when it came to harbor defense and challenging the blockade, the author is intrigued by the what-if possibility of the CSN employing squadrons of lightly-armored torpedo boats as a better 'bang for the buck' alternative to investment in expensive, resource-consuming ironclad capital ships.

Throughout the book, map coverage of varying scale amply supports text descriptions of geography and events. One thing that does detract from the narrative's otherwise appealing immersion is the great frequency of misspellings, an unfortunate holdover from the 2020 companion volume Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865. There are also niggling factual errors sprinkled about (ex. Henry Heth was a Virginian, not a South Carolinian as stated on pg. 34, and the USS Kearsarge did not, as claimed on pg. 275, capture the CSS Alabama but rather famously sank it in action). While no archival research was involved in the project, the army and navy O.R.s and other government source documents are supplemented with enough newspaper, book, and article resources of all kinds to craft a military narrative that creatively balances top-down operational history with more ground-level human experiences and perspectives. Though notable omissions remain, there does appear to be an increased willingness in this volume, in contrast to the earlier North Carolina study, to engage with the more recent literature, an important part of any modern synthesis. As one example, Laramie's discussion of the effectiveness of the Union naval blockade of Charleston is heavily influenced by the recently published findings of Michael Bonner and Peter McCord. Also, though biomedical engineer and blast injury expert Rachel Lance's In The Waves: My Quest to Solve The Mystery of A Civil War Submarine (2021) does not appear in the bibliography and is unmentioned in the text, the author appears fully convinced by her thesis regarding what caused the demise of the CSS Hunley's crew.

In the end, though, these justifiable concerns over the editing flaws and quirky research practices involved in its creation are outweighed by the many positive features of Michael Laramie's Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal South Carolina, 1861–1865. It's a fine popular overview of the complex series of military events that occurred in the region. For those seeking a suitable first entry into the Charleston Campaign literature, Laramie's embracive examination of that large topic makes this a recommendable new alternative to Burton's aging classic.

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