[The Battle of Port Royal by Michael D. Coker (The History Press, 2009). Softcover, maps, illustrations, photos, select bibliography. 128 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59629-665-7 $19.99]
With the opening of general hostilities between Union and Confederate forces, the latter struggled mightily to cobble together enough resources to even minimally defend its lengthy coastline. The entrance to Port Royal Sound, South Carolina was guarded by two earthworks mounting heavy guns, Ft. Walker on Hilton Head Island and Ft. Beauregard across the water at the tip of Bay Point. On November 7, 1861, a large U.S. fleet bombarded both into submission, forcing almost a wholesale Confederate evacuation of the sea islands. Michael D. Coker's The Battle of Port Royal covers this important moment early in the Civil War, as the Union army and navy gained secure bases for blockade enforcement and for conducting future amphibious operations along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts.
At 128 pages, Coker's work is a compact overview of the campaign, from its inception through the naval victory mentioned above and the capture of the town of Beaufort the following month. The text incorporates lengthy excerpts from primary accounts penned by reporters, military officers, and civilians. Sidebars, sometimes several pages in length, are interspersed throughout, providing additional background and biographical information. In places, the combination could be somewhat disruptive to the overall flow of the core narrative, but not excessively so.
In general, Coker's writing is less concerned with the tactical minutiae of the fleet's attack plan and the Confederate defenses, and more with conveying the experiences of individuals in their own words. This style choice achieves perhaps its best expression in the chapters covering the Union fleet's storm tossed journey south.
The volume is abundantly illustrated. In addition to numerous photographs of people and places, period drawings of the two forts were included as well as a pair of archival maps depicting the area of the naval attack.
The social project undertaken in the aftermath of the campaign that came to be known as the Port Royal Experiment is summarized, but discussion of the author's thoughts on the military options made available by the Union victory is largely absent [e.g. critics often take issue with the relative passivity of the Union army commander, General Thomas Sherman, arguing instead that he should have struck inland immediately and attacked either Savannah or Charleston]. While not an exhaustive treatment that shuts the door on others for the foreseeable future, The Battle of Port Royal is a well rounded popular account of a critical early war campaign that will appeal to a wide range of interested Civil War readers.