- Two Charlestonians at War: The Civil War Odysseys of a Lowcountry Aristocrat and a Black Abolitionist by Barbara L. Bellows
Barbara L. Bellows's biography of two nineteenth-century Charlestonians stems from a single conversation her subjects shared in circumstances rich with historical irony: a free man of color, born in Charleston, South Carolina, and [End Page 458] now a Union soldier, guarding a member of one of the Lowcountry's leading white families, now a Confederate prisoner of war on Morris Island. Using that chance encounter as a starting point, Bellows crafts a personalized story of how two natives of the cradle of secession navigated different yet intersecting paths through disunion, Civil War, and Reconstruction.
Born a free person of color in 1823, Joseph Barquet worked as a mason in Charleston until the late 1840s, when he left for New York after serving in South Carolina's Palmetto Regiment during the U.S.-Mexican War. Barquet eventually settled in Illinois and became an outspoken advocate for abolition and equality for all black Americans. When the United States government allowed African Americans to volunteer for military service in 1863, Barquet joined the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, returning to fight in his native Charleston, including in the famed 1863 assault on Morris Island's Battery Wagner. After the war, Barquet was active in Illinois Republican politics but became frustrated and disillusioned as the party increasingly embraced the politics of white supremacy.
Barquet had returned to Morris Island to serve as prison guard in 1864, when he encountered Bellows's second subject, Thomas Pinckney. Born into one of South Carolina's most influential Revolutionary-era families in 1828, Pinckney studied as a physician but was more eager to manage the family's plantations along the Santee River than to pursue medicine. When war came, Pinckney, a skeptic of secession, captained an independent home guard unit that was later consolidated into the Fourth South Carolina Cavalry. After participating in the failed Confederate challenge to the Combahee River raid, Pinckney's regiment was ordered to Virginia, where he was taken prisoner and eventually transferred to the Union prison on Morris Island. Unlike Barquet, Pinckney remained generally aloof from Reconstruction politics and instead focused on establishing a new work order for the family's Santee plantations, bargaining with freedpeople and working with other planters to ensure continued white control of the post-emancipation world.
By her own admission, Bellows uses "old-fashioned storytelling" that prioritizes narrative over systematic analysis (p. 9). Frequently, she humanizes her subjects by ascribing thoughts or emotions that, however plausible, also go beyond the documentary record. Most such instances are well crafted and reasonable, while others test readers' patience, such as an unsourced description of Barquet being "mesmerized" (p. 31). Perhaps most frustrating is that only Pinckney's account of the two men's Morris Island encounter remains, a limitation that Bellows acknowledges. No single thesis fuels the book, though Bellows does argue that her subjects' lives illustrate the inherent contingency of history, as well as the more specific complexities of Civil War history. However true, more incisive insights probably would have resulted from an analytical approach that maximized the comparative potential of the book's dual biography format.
Regardless, that is not the book Bellows aimed to write, and what she has written is a fine example of southern biography that deftly weaves together military, social, and political history. Barquet's struggle for personal and communal security—before and after the war, and in and out of the South—provides a deeply personal glimpse of white supremacy's lasting and sprawling impact, the poignancy of which is amplified by Barquet's service in [End Page 459] perhaps the most famed African American military unit. Pinckney was committed to preserving that racist order, yet his story still possesses its own sympathetic threads. One of the book's most engaging themes is Pinckney's recurring failure to live...