Book Review: Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War

Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War. By Richard W. Hatcher III. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2024. Hardcover, 239 pp. $32.95.

Reviewed by Neil P. Chatelain

There is no scarcity of writing regarding Fort Sumter, with entire manuscripts about the bastion’s role in April 1861 and many more analyzing the fort’s impact on 1863 campaigns. However, there is a gap in scholarship covering the fort’s entire history, from planning and construction, as a military outpost, and as a national park. Richard Hatcher’s Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War addresses this gap, providing a readable, informative, and entertaining history of the island bastion from its inception to when it joined the National Park Service.

In the war’s aftermath, numerous works emerged from those stationed at Sumter, including Quincy Gillmore’s Engineer and Artillery Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston Harbor in 1863, John Johnson’s The Defense of Charleston Harbor, Samuel Crawford’s The Genesis of the Civil War, Abner Doubleday’s Reminiscences of Fort Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-’61, and A. Fletcher’s Within Fort Sumter. These works, like most secondary histories, focus on one element of Sumter’s history instead of the fort’s overall story. That is why Hatcher’s work is so refreshing, as it merged these numerous accounts into a whole picture, with Sumter itself serving as the main character instead of the mere setting. As the retired historian at Fort Sumter and Moultrie National Historic Park, there is no one alive with more insight, knowledge, or expertise than Hatcher to craft such a work.

Unlike most stories about Fort Sumter, Hatcher’s book begins before the fort existed. He documents the need for improved coastal fortification protecting Charleston, how Sumter fits into the coastal defense plan, and how construction began. Then follows the expected chapters on Sumter’s role in the Civil War’s commencement, followed by chapters on it as a Confederate position, including the host of 1863 bombardments and assaults.

What makes this book stand out further is that it does not end in April 1865 with Robert Anderson returning to raise the United States flag over the fort, symbolizing final Union victory in the conflict. Follow on chapters explore how the fort remained in a state of disrepair for decades before being manned in the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. There is a final discussion about how Sumter was deactivated as a military position, how it became a tourist attraction, and its final transfer to the National Park Service. Everything from well-documented assaults to obscure anecdotes such as how Sumter’s garrison mourned Stonewall Jackson’s death are detailed.

Besides telling a comprehensive history of the fort, there are a host of things that make Hatcher’s book distinct. As Sumter’s historian, Hatcher utilized a host of primary materials from soldiers stationed in Charleston before, during, and after the Civil War. The books mentioned earlier are examined profusely, but so are more obscure letters and primary documents written by common soldiers who may have only spent a few weeks there. As one might imagine, there is widespread use of archival material from the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park Research File.

There are many other surprises within Hatcher’s pages. He used many expected photographs, but there were others included that most Civil War enthusiasts have never seen before. He also showcases how enslaved laborers helped both construct and maintain the fort, often while under fire from US artillery. I especially enjoyed how Hatcher explored how members of the April 1861 garrison often participated in efforts to capture Sumter during the war and how Quincy Gillmore, after spending years bombarding the fort, spent many more fighting to rebuild it.

There were two shortcomings worth noting, and these may not detract readers at all. Footnotes, which many readers much prefer to endnotes were included, but were often spaced apart too much, making it occasionally difficult to determine where a quotation originated. Besides this, there was a noticeable lack of archival and primary documentation from naval sources. For a coastal island fortification under constant bombardment and assault by US sailors, Marines, and warships, a more thorough review of ship deck logs and letters from naval officers and common sailors facing Sumter would have added to the work’s overall excellence.

Richard Hatcher’s Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War is a welcome, thorough, but still approachable history of the Civil War’s most famous fortification. Hatcher has taken his expertise and years of firsthand knowledge and crafted perhaps the twenty-first century’s definitive history of Fort Sumter.

5 Responses to Book Review: Thunder in the Harbor: Fort Sumter and the Civil War

  1. Thanks Neil. Yes indeed, it is a masterpiece and the best study on the topic, but the man who knows the most about it’s history.

  2. I began reading your review with the thought that I wasn’t really interested in the subject. At the end of the review, I had changed my mind and look forward to reading Hatcher’s book!

  3. I just finished Mr. Hatcher’s book, it was great. There is too much information to make it easy to read, but all of the information seems to fill gaps that are often wondered but do not know who to ask.

  4. I am a descendent of John Washington of Virginia who was born in slavery and who, after the War, traveled to South Carolina in search of his sister who had been sold to an enslaver there. Apparently, there are multiple John Washingtons, but my great-grandfather settled in Barnwell, not far from Aiken, North Augusta, Williston, (New) Ellenton and Sleepy Hollow, S.C. Family lore has it that he married Lottie Bellinger, who gave birth to Elliot Bellinger — and later, married Joanna Johnson, who bore him Ossie, Della, Hattie and Eleanor before her death — whereupon he married my great-grandmother Katie [Williams{?)] who gave him two daughters — my father’s mother, Anna [who would later marry Belton Chitty, the son of Hamp Chitty and Sarah Duncan], and her sister, Ida [who would later marry Pink(ney) Charlton]. Great-grandma Katie passed on superb cooking skills to John’s granddaughters, Pansy Small (Ida), Gladys Chitty Barber (Anna), Nettie Clemmons (?) and Mary-Ellen Bowers (?) — but she was, perhaps, most renowned for her quilts (which we called “comforters”). By Equalla Duncan-Mabrey’s account, John Washington worked as an overseer on O’Sean Hagard’s S.C. Plantation. A religious man, John was a trustee at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Barnwell — which church has the same name as the one in Columbia, S.C. where my father, Jakie Chitty’s, funeral service was held in 1980.

    Having read several accounts of John Washington, the legendary former slave, my first thoughts were that this might be my great-grandfather, but as I read more, the story seemed to diverge more and more from my family history and ending up in the District of Columbia, rather than in South Carolina and sounding more like folklore than the life of a real person — and yet, I am intrigued by the possibility that I might also be related to Booker T. Washington (I attended Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, S.C.) and by the fact that much family history remains to be placed where it fits into the history of my family and of our nation. I would like to pursue a more fulsome examination of the ex-slave, John Washington.

  5. There is one thing I forgot to mention: As can be seen on the 1880 Census for Nancy Bellinger, she has four children, Emily, James, Elliot and Robert. EMILY’s father is Hamp(ton) Chitty, my great-grandfather. There is speculation that my great-grandfather, John Washington, is the father of Elliot, although that may not be so since children were often named after other living persons.

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