A Review of
Secessionville, Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan
De Capo Press, second edition, (Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing Company), 1996, 408 pages, hardback, numerous maps and pictures, Order of Battle, interview with the author, detailed explanatory endnotes, comprehensive bibliography, index. Cover states that this is: "The second title in our acclaimed 'Battles & Campaigns of the Carolinas' series."
by Gene Kizer, Jr.
Patrick Brennan's Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, is an exceptional, exciting and thorough book that all people who are interested in the War Between the States should own.
It will also appeal greatly to those who love a good fight in which the underdog, outnumbered 6,600 to 500 at the beginning of the battle, outthinks his enemy and defeats him with ingenuity as well as guts.
The Battle of Secessionville was of major significance to the entire War Between the States. If the Confederates had lost, Charleston might have been lost in 1862 thus changing the course of history. The Southern victory kept the Yankees out of the city they wanted to capture or destroy worst than any other place in the country.
Charleston was symbolic to the North, but critical and symbolic to the South. Gen. Lee had said that Charleston was "to be fought street by street and house by house as long as we have a foot of ground to stand upon."
A resolution stated the same thing:
Resolved, That the governor and Executive Council concur in opinion with the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, that Charleston should be defended at any cost of life or property, and that in their deliberate judgment they would prefer a repulse of the enemy with the entire city in ruins to an evacuation or surrender on any terms whatever.
The battle began around 4:30 a.m. (would be 5:30 a.m. today) Monday, June 16, 1862 in light rain but because of the many units involved and the terrain of saltwater creeks and pluff mud, plus the brilliant Confederate defenses and the staggered Union attack, there is a lot to understand.
Excellent accounts of the battle have been written by many in more ranging works such as E. Milby Burton in The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865; John Johnson in The Defense of Charleston Harbor, 1863-1865; and former Confederate Major-General Samuel Jones in The Siege of Charleston, and the Operations on the South Atlantic Coast in the War Among the States.
And there have been vivid accounts of the battle by participants focusing on their units and experiences, as well as newspaper accounts and other primary sources, but all this wonderful material was widely scattered until the Northerner Patrick Brennan, with his love of Charleston and his Charleston connection, came along and gathered most of it up, organized it and put it in his book.
Brennan is a musician as well as a lover of history and the War Between the States. He was playing at Myskyn's on Market Street in downtown Charleston (nice place but I liked Cap't Harry's better!). Brennan writes:
I trace my interest in the Battle of Secessionville to a visit I made to Charleston in January 1990. I'm a musician by trade, and my band had been booked into Myskyn's, a music club in downtown Charleston. On the day I hit town, armed with Blue and Gray Magazine's tour of Civil War Charleston, I found Secessionville and the remains of Fort Lamar. Hurricane Hugo had recently devastated the area, and the fields looked like I had just missed the fight. Needless to say, I was tremendously moved. Standing on the right flank of the fort, I resolved to write something about the battle. So, as odd as it may seem, it was that performance of Dick Holliday and the Bamboo Gang at a club only five miles from the Secessionville battlefield that started the journey that ends here.1
When the book arrived at my house a week ago, I thumbed through it then turned to June 16, 1862 and could not put it down for 65 carefully read pages, until I had to leave to meet a friend.
The beauty of Brennan's book is that, inasmuch as any author can cover a complicated subject in a single work, he has everything in this book. He knows it is complicated so he strives to make it all understandable by using maps and a device often used in fiction: the use of informal sections within a chapter. One section might present Confederate action, and the next, Union action going on at the same time.
It keeps the material organized and clear.
Most of the maps are adequate though a couple are confusing, but that does not affect Brennan's excellent narrative. This is a well-written, clearly-written, well-organized book that took Brennan six years to write.
He gives the background in the Prologue, with the Union navy's victory at Port Royal, and Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River. He then focuses on Charleston.
There is a lot of behind-the-scenes tension, intrigue, jealously and rivalry among officers in both armies, some of whom are talented and do their jobs well, and some are not, just as in any human endeavor. Brennan explains all of this well.
There are 22 pictures of various commanders on both sides which greatly enhance the narrative. Most of the pictures are poorly reproduced. They are too dark and some a little blurry, but, again, this takes nothing from Brennan's outstanding writing. His short biographies and histories of the main participants along with the pictures tell the story well.
When he gets closer to the battle, Brennan gives us a daily account of all action starting with June 4, 1862, and running past the battle to June 21, 1862.
The battle date, June 16, 1862, covers 104 pages.
The "Cartography" includes 23 maps and Brennan has done a brilliant thing by having a full-page map every 10 minutes throughout the entire battle showing the positions of the various units engaged. You can see how the battle developed and who was in action and where. He starts at 4:30 a.m. with the first map, and the penultimate covers 5:50 - 6:00 a.m., then the last one is 6:00 - 8:30 a.m.
In Chapter Seven, "Positions, Places," under the heading Monday, June 16, 1862, Brennan writes:
With a lusty cheer the Michigan line charged forward, passing over a combination ditch and hedge that some of the men mistook for rifle pits. As the Federals drove forward, the front face of the Confederate battery erupted in a serious of fiery explosions. A deafening roar rent the air, then another, then a third. In one terrifying moment, the center of the Michigan line melted before a hissing spray of Confederate shell and canister. Broken and bleeding bodies shivered by the blasts littered the patchy cotton rows, while those still standing pressed forward into the metal storm. 'Every discharge of their old churn (as we called it) would pass through the ranks of our brave boys and mow them down like grass before a scythe,' recalled one veteran, 'but with dogged persistence they closed ranks and pushed on with the federal yell.' But even as the main line of the 8th Michigan was rocked by the artillery blasts, elements of the 'forlorn hope'---companies C and H---were covering the final yards fronting the battery.2
The section the above paragraph is in includes the following full-page map of the unit positions at 4:30 a.m., 16 June 1862.
In the next section comes the Confederate action. Three paragraphs into it, Brennan writes:
The sentinel roused the slumbering Colonel Lamar, who rose to see the distant blue formations gelling before his eyes. Already, the 150 cannoneers of the two companies that had slept along the parapet were being awakened by the shouts of excited orderlies. The colonel turned to a waiting aid and issued firm orders: Get Gaillard's and Smith's battalions from their Secessionville camps up to support the battery immediately, then find General Evans and inform him of the attack. Lamar then turned to Lt. J. W. Moseley at the Columbiad and ordered him to load the 8-inch gun with canister (a metal container holding dozens of small round iron balls). Lamar himself sprang onto the chassis and aimed the piece, setting the sights on the center of the surging Federal line. To the left of the Columbiad, Sgt. James Baggott swung his 24-lb. artillery piece into action, aimed it, and blasted off the fort's first response to the attack. Lamar, beaten to the draw by Baggott by just a few seconds, tugged the Columbiad's lanyard and sent a storm of canister screeching into the enemy's line. The battle was joined.3
After the battle, there were scenes of carnage everywhere. Brennan writes:
Similar scenes marked the fields north of the marsh. Once the Federals disappeared from that sector, small Confederate parties moved out from the slashing to investigate the ground that the enemy had held. Benjamin Sheppard from the Eutaw Battalion wrote his mother that although the battle was bad, 'The scene after the battle is worse than all. . . I saw men laying in all kinds of postures, some looked as though they were praying after they were wounded and died.' Augustine Smyth accompanied a squad that was detailed to gather arms from the Washington Light Infantry's front. 'Such a scene I wish never again to witness,' he wrote:
Twenty or thirty men lay stretched out on a small field, wounded, dying, & dead. One must have been in the Act of loading his gun when a grapeshot took out the whole of his back, for he lay dead with his hands raised, just as if he were even then loading. Another one lay close by with his leg entirely shot away, & only a piece of skin connecting his knee and his thigh. Many were in the water, dead, in a small creek between them and Secessionvillle, one poor fellow, wounded in his back and throat, lay in the water close to the bank, but unable to get out, while tide was up to his shoulders and continually rising. We helped him up and gave him water, & left him on the field for the litters to carry off.4
Later, when Union prisoners were taken into Charleston, Brennan writes:
A large crowd gathered at the Charleston wharf on the afternoon of the 16th to meet a tugboat bearing news of the morning battle that was waged just five miles away. Making a line from Fort Johnson, the tug docked around 2 p.m. Soon, a group of bedraggled Federals filed off the boat, greeted by 'shouts and the use of hard names,' remembered one. The Confederate guards moved forward to control the rowdy civilians, such was the passion of the moment. One not particularly charitable Charlestonian counted 30 prisoners and noted 'Nearly all of them have the appearance of veritable cut-throats, and they are, evidently, the scum of the communities from which they were recruited.' Someone recognized one captured Federal as Napoleon Mayo, an entertainer who had appeared in Charleston as member of 'Matt Peel's strolling Negro troupe.' With catcalls echoing in their ears, the Northerners marched down East Bay to Broad Street where they entered the Guard House to spend their first night in captivity.5
There were two brothers in the battle, one Confederate, one Union. Brennan writes about Union troops when they were back in their camp:
Most of the Union troops were too spent to record their thoughts immediately, but within a few hours, one Northerner fought off his exhaustion to write a letter to his wife. The Highlanders' flag bearer, Alexander Campbell, began, 'I am all safe. . . we are very tired,' then went on to describe in some detail his role in the battle. In mid-letter he revealed a startling bit of news: 'Brither James was in the fort.' Campbell spoke of a wounded Confederate who told him that his brother was a lieutenant in the Union Light Infantry of the Charleston Battalion, a unit that had fought on the fort's right flank. Campbell concluded, '[P]erhaps he is Killed for our guns shelled them terrebly (sic),' but he determined to find out his brother's fate. . . . 6
I take issue with one thing Brennan said. In the Prologue, page XII, he said: "Abraham Lincoln's November election provoked Carolinian leaders into elucidating a uniquely Southern view of states' rights. In December of 1860, they invoked what they saw as their constitutional prerogative and voted to secede from the Federal union."
Seceding from the Union is not a "uniquely Southern view of states' rights." New England states threatened to secede five times in the antebellum era over the War of 1812 (treasonous Hartford Convention), the Louisiana Purchase, the admission of Texas, and at other times when they felt their political power was being diluted. Nobody questioned the right of secession back then, and it was certainly a right.
Before acceding to the Constitution, three states specifically reserved the right of secession: New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Because all the other states accepted the reserved right of secession of New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia, the other states had it too because all states entered the Union as exact equals.
For ten years the North used hate against the South to rally votes so they could use their larger population to take over the government. Their goal was to continue their economic rape of the rest of the country with their bounties, subsidies, monopolies and tariffs that resulted in the South paying around 85% of the country's taxes while 75% of the tax money was being spent in the North.7 Southerners were fed up.
The main thing that triggered secession was that Northern hate. Southerners saw Northerners promote terrorism against them by financing John Brown who hacked pro-South settlers to death in front of their families in Kansas, then be martyred in the North when he was brought to justice. Southerners were not about to accept as their rulers, people who hated them.
They had the right to secede and they exercised it property. Like the Declaration of Independence says, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and there was no consent in the South in 1860-61 to continue in the Federal Union.
I take issue with another point Brennan made. He said that Brig. Gen. Isaac I. Stevens had been slandered by a William Lilly: "Old charges that Stevens was questionable on the slavery issue, a charge that most Democrats had to face at one time or another, combined with Lilley's fabrications to hold up Stevens' confirmation."
That's an odd point for Brennan to make because the one thing you can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt is that the North did not go to war to end slavery. Brennan did not footnote his comment so there is no way to know exactly what he was talking about.
The War Aims Resolution of the Northern Congress (the war is about Union, not slavery), and the Corwin Amendment (leave blacks in slavery forever, even beyond the reach of Congress, where slavery already exists), passed overwhelmingly in the Northern Congress and was ratified by several states before the war made it moot. They prove the North's true feeling about slavery.
There is other irrefutable proof such as the six slave states that fought for the Union the entire war, three of which had slavery months after the war, until the second Thirteenth Amendment finally freed them. The first Thirteenth Amendment was the Corwin Amendment.
The North was interested in its money and power, not ending slavery. They brought most of the slaves here. They damn sure did not want them to move North and be job competition. That's why so many Northern and Western states had laws on the books forbidding free blacks from even visiting, much less living there, including Lincoln's Illinois.
Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 states clearly "hereafter, as theretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation" between the U.S. and seceded states i.e., the Union (emphasis added). There is no mention of slavery.
Lincoln also states in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that efforts would continue to find a place to send blacks to in the future such as back to Africa or into a place they could survive. That was Lincoln's view his whole life. See Colonization After Emancipation, Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, by Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011).
The actual Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 deliberately did not free any of the thousands of slaves in Confederate territory already captured by the Union. They were specifically exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and were left in slavery as were all the slaves in the six Union slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and West Virginia. West Virginia had come into the Union as a slave state, ironically, within weeks of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln's own secretary of state, William H. Seward, and others such as Charles Dickens made fun of Lincoln for issuing such a ridiculous document that freed slaves where he had no control, but left them in slavery where he could have freed them easily.
Another excellent review on this book was done by Brett Schulte and can be found at: Review: Secessionville: Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan — TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog (brettschulte.net)
The famous drawings of the Battle of Secessionville that are used for the cover of Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, come from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the July 12, 1862 edition. It can be viewed here with the original captions: The battle of Secessionville, James Island, S.C., bayonet charge of union troops, commanded by Brigadier-General Stevens; Repulse of the rebels at James Island, near Charleston, S.C. - South Carolina and the Civil War - UofSC Digital Collections.
Those drawings were made by Frank Leslie's artists from sketches sent to Leslie by a Union officer in the battle. They are from the Northern perspective and are not completely accurate.
We need some Southern artists like Bob Graham of Bob Graham Fine Art here in Charleston to do some great artwork of the Battle of Secessionville from the Confederate perspective! Bob's gallery includes several beautiful works from the war as well as western subjects and American Indians: http://bobgrahamfineart.com/.
Patrick Brennan's Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, is an exceptional, enjoyable, valuable book about an important battle.
As distinguished historian John Lukacs said, the best history in the future will be written by independent historians like Brennan. It certainly will not come from politicized academia, which cares nothing for truth.
1 Patrick Brennan, Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, Acknowledgments, II.
2 See Note 30, page 346, for the primary sources listed for this paragraph. It comes from Brennan, Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, 171.
3 Brennan, Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, 172.
4 For the primary sources quoted here, see Chapter 9, Note 40 in Brennan, Secessionville, Assault on Charleston. Both paragraphs come from page 260.
5 For primary sources, see Chapter 9, Note 52. This comes from Brennan, Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, 265.
6 For the primary sources, see Chapter 9, Note 54. This comes from Brennan, Secessionville, Assault on Charleston, 266.
7 Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., It Wasn't About Slavery, Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2020), 103.