Symposium Spotlight: Secessionville

Welcome back to another installment of our 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight. This week, Dan Welch previews his talk on the forgotten 1862 battle of Secessionville. Why has it been forgotten? What lessons came out of the engagements for Union and Confederate authorities? What can we take away from the battle today in 2019? These are just some of the questions Dan probes this week as he previews his August presentation.

Federal soldiers were woken from their fitful sleep at 2:00 am on the morning of June 16, 1862. Over the course of the next ninety-minutes two brigades of infantry, roughly 3,500 troops, worked their way into their order of battle per the Federal plan. The men were told to maintain strict silence, an order that was enforced. As the battle line shook out, the two Federal brigades formed along the advance Union picket line. Their proximity to the focal point of the pending attack was incredibly close. All that was left was the attack order to ripple through the chain-of-command to begin the assault.

Frontside of earthworks marking the extreme left of the Confederate line on the Secessionville battlefield. This portion of the line saw some of the heaviest fighting. (Image courtesy Mark Maloy)

The battle that was about to play out on James Island, South Carolina has long been overlooked and forgotten. Indeed the battlefield itself has been mostly lost to development. If Civil War historiography is any indicator as to where historians place emphasis and importance during the four year war, then the battle of Secessionville is truly a forgotten battle. The engagement has only received one book-length study and one magazine issue solely dedicated to it’s story during the twentieth century. Even memory of that fateful day was belatedly remembered in stone with minimal modern monuments.

Secessionville, however, was an important moment in Federal activity in and around Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 1862. Tower Battery, later renamed Fort Lamar, was a key set of earthworks and defensive positions guarding the cradle of secession from a southern approach. If Federal forces were unable to capture these works, a movement from that direction, or as part of a larger plan, would be impossible. The battle also had far-reaching implications in the high commands of both sides. For the Federal command structure on James Island, Secessionville unmasked the incompetence of several high-ranking officers that needed to be removed from command or sent elsewhere. Infighting, slandering within the ranks and the public press, and the necessary involvement of the Lincoln Administration in the controversy demonstrated even further the failings of this force operating in South Carolina. But what about the victors that remained in their earthworks after the battle?

John C. Pemberton

Despite the performance of the Confederate officers and men in defense of the southern approach to Charleston, strategic and tactical decisions from the recent campaign and battle were immediately “Monday morning quarterbacked” in one of the crown jewel cities of the South. Confederate General John C. Pemberton’s strategic recommendations to abandon the first victory of the war, Fort Sumter, and even Charleston itself received harsh criticism from the local populace and Confederate officials. It would take the return of the hero of Fort Sumter, General P.G.T. Beauregard, to calm local concern. Further easing the threat of Federal units operating against Charleston was Beauregard’s orders to rebuild and strengthen the city’s defense along it’s southern flank at Secessionville.

Beyond the larger lessons of the battle, though, Secessionville was important for other reasons. For one Federal regiment, the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, it was their baptism of fire. The regiment, which numbered approximately 400 men on the morning of June 16, learned invaluable combat experience but at the cost of twelve percent casualties. Col. Daniel Leasure, founder of the regiment but commanding a brigade during the battle, wrote to his daughter of the battle on June 24, 1862. Recalling an intense moment of combat and a close call, Leasure shared the horrific realities of combat. “One poor fellow dropped two feet behind me, when we dodged the discharge, and when I rose he was cut almost in two across the back by a large grape. He turned to me exclaiming ‘Goodbye Colonel, God bless you, go in’ gasped and was dead. Two struck him. The grape must have passed so close to my back as to have grazed me.” The 100th’s experience was just one of several Federal regiments, many with similar harrowing tales.

Col. Daniel Leasure, 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (Image Courtesy MOLLUS Collection)

Today, Secessionville has largely been forgotten and ignored. The preserved battlefield, through development and encroachment, is just a fraction of the killing grounds of 1862. Studies on the trying day for those soldiers involved the fight have been limited at best, further relegating this moment to obscurity. But placed within the larger context of the summer of 1862, Secessionville is an important watershed that historians would be wise to reassess and battlefield trampers to visit.

You can find out more information about the 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium by clicking here. Don’t forget to take advantage of our special rate for hotel accommodations in the area!

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