Sunday, January 30, 2011

Crabb: "FACING SHERMAN IN SOUTH CAROLINA: March through the Swamps"

[Facing Sherman in South Carolina: March through the Swamps by Christopher G. Crabb (The History Press, 2010). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:168/191. ISBN:978-1-60949-015-7 $21.99]

Recent years have seen the publication of a number of excellent 1865 Carolinas Campaign related studies, although far more attention has been devoted to the later events in North Carolina.  Seizing on an opportunity to look into less well trodden ground, Christopher Crabb's Facing Sherman in South Carolina details the Union army's "amphibious" land campaign in the state, conducted between the Savannah River and the capital at Columbia.

Crabb's writing vividly recreates the awful terrain experienced by William T. Sherman's large army as it pressed northward into soggy South Carolina after capturing Savannah in late December 1864. The text is supplemented with numerous modern photographs of the swamps and waterways traversed by the army, impressing upon the reader the unexaggerated scale of the difficulties. After crossing the Savannah River, the bluecoasts had to traverse a vast number of swollen swamps, streams, and rivers, the most significant of the latter being the Salkahatchie, Little Salkehatchie, the north and south branches of the Edisto, and, finally the Combahee.  Roads were often flooded (as an example, a mile long stretch of one had to be bridged in six places) and, when the columns were able to take advantage of causeways, they were often opposed by entrenched Confederates on the far side of burned out bridges.

Opposed by weak Confederate forces, comprised of scattered mounted units, Lafayette McLaws's understrength division, and a stream of tattered Army of Tennessee remnants shipped into theater by rail, Union forces could only be briefly slowed. Crabb describes well the successful tactics employed by the federals, who generally fixed the fortified defenders in place with skirmishers and sought crossings above and below to take the enemy positions in flank or rear.  Regular Union volunteer infantry and mounted infantry units, as well as the specialist 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, were able to quickly corduroy vast stretches of road and erect temporary pontoon bridges and ferries in impressive fashion. With each crossing guarded by a late war sized Confederate brigade (only a few hundred effectives at best), the Union flanking maneuvers could not be thwarted. In this way, casualties for the swamp campaign were very light.  Undoubtedly, Confederate weakness in numbers and morale was also a deciding factor.  In addition to documenting the above military events, Crabb also covers the effects of widespread foraging and looting on area plantations. 

While the author's tactical and terrain discussions are noteworthy, his book does have significant weaknesses. The formatting of the endnotes is unorthodox, but the greatest fault lies in the decision not to include any maps. In this way, full reader comprehension of the often excellent level of detail rendered in the text, in terms of physical locations, terrain descriptions, and military movements, is lost. It's an unfortunate limitation of the book's usefulness, as otherwise the study is really worthwhile reading for those interested in the 1865 Carolinas Campaign..

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