Friday, December 11, 2009

Simmons: "DEFENDING SOUTH CAROLINA'S COAST: The Civil War from Georgetown to Little River"

[ Defending South Carolina's Coast: The Civil War from Georgetown to Little River by Rick Simmons (The History Press, 2009). Softcover, maps, illustrations, photos, appendix, bibliography, index. 192 pages. ISBN:9781596297807 $21.99 ]

Not surprisingly given the city's real and symbolic importance, most book length military studies of the Civil War on South Carolina's coastline center on Charleston. Part of what makes Rick Simmons' new book Defending South Carolina's Coast so attractive and original is that it shifts the attention in the opposite direction, up the Atlantic coast from the Palmetto City. Why is the region between Winyah Bay in the south and Little River Inlet to the north worthy of study beyond local interest? Like many other areas, it's largely a question of economics and opportunity. Located up Winyah Bay, an inland waterway formed by the confluence of a number of rivers (Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Black, and Sampit), the deep water port of Georgetown, South Carolina was, according the Simmons, the center of the most lucrative rice producing region in the country. The Confederacy's Mars Bluff Naval Yard also was constructed nearby on the east bank of the Pee Dee River in Marion County. These facts were known to both sides (and the Confederates initially assigned 3,000 men for regional defense), but the attention paid to the area waxed and waned throughout the war, with Charleston and points elsewhere constantly drawing down the Confederate garrisons. However, with Charleston constantly under pressure by land and sea, the stretch of coastline to the north would become a significant haven for blockade runners. This in turn led to frequent Union coastal raids and naval attacks up the often vulnerable waterways.

Simmons's narrative does a fine job of covering these events in detail, from the construction of the Confederate earthwork fortifications on North, South, and Cat Islands near the entrance to Winyah Bay as well as those [Battery White, Fort Wool, Frazier's Point battery] guarding Georgetown itself, to the Union operations at Little River and Murrell's Inlet. Confederate troop movements in and out of the district are carefully monitored in the text. The author also devotes a chapter to the Mars Bluff gunboat C.S.S. Pee Dee, as well as the equally unfortunate U.S.S. Harvest Moon. At the end of each chapter is a site preservation summary. Numerous period and modern photographs, as well as some nice drawings, supplement the text. A bibliography and index were also included.

There are a few weaknesses. While the book's author is an academic [a professor at Louisiana Tech], he elected to take the popular history approach and dispense with footnotes. This will not bother most readers, but will disappoint those hoping to utilize the notes to learn more about the subject and the available source material. Although the archival maps sprinkled throughout help orient the reader to specific points mentioned in the text, one wishes Simmons had also included a large scale map of the region to bring it all together.

The above flaws aside, Defending South Carolina's Coast is my favorite entry to date from THP's burgeoning Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. Rick Simmons has crafted a useful, well written, and completely original contribution to the literature, one that will be valued by new and old students of the Civil War in South Carolina. Highly recommended.

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