- Resolute Rebel: General Roswell S. Ripley, Charleston's Gallant Defender by Chet Bennett, and: Days of Destruction: Augustine Thomas Smythe and the Civil War Siege of Charleston ed. by W. Eric Emerson and Karen Stokes
Both of these excellent books make significant contributions to our understanding of the slow strangulation of Charleston, South Carolina, during the Civil War. Resolute Rebel: General Roswell S. Ripley, Charleston's Gallant Defender focuses on the efforts of a Confederate general, long ignored by scholars, who seemed to never get the badly needed support of superior officers and politicians. Days of Destruction: Augustine Thomas Smythe and the Civil [End Page 702] War Siege of Charleston gives readers a sergeant's view of the destruction of his hometown from a 186-foot-high perch in the steeple of St. Michael's Episcopal Church.
The first book perhaps would be better titled "Besieged Rebel," because of General Roswell S. Ripley's skirmishes with figures such as Governor Francis W. Pickens and General P. G. T. Beauregard and his postwar problems with failed businesses and debt. The well-educated Augustine Thomas Smythe's informative letters document 567 days of bombardment, as the enemy tightened the noose around Charleston, damaging homes, churches, businesses, and human lives. He clung via correspondence to family and friends in his hope that the Union shelling would not rob him of his own humanity.
Chet Bennett, a graduate of Ohio State University College of Medicine and a descendant of Union and Confederate veterans, has written a much-needed biography of Confederate general Ripley (1823–1887). Bennett skillfully explains the complete life of Ripley, a complex Ohioan who fell in love with the South and served it, most notably, as defender of Charleston. Bennett's sources include the Ripley Papers at Yale University and collections from the South Carolina Historical Society, Duke University, the National Archives, the United States Military Academy, the Citadel, the Library of Congress, and the British Archives. Illustrations, maps, and copies of Ripley's postwar patents are also included.
Ripley, a West Point graduate, was transformed into a secessionist while stationed at Fort Moultrie in antebellum Charleston, where he married a southern widow, Alicia Middleton Sparks. Bennett provides a complete biography of Ripley, including attention to his financially unfortunate father, Ripley's service in the U.S.-Mexican War and the publication of his The War with Mexico (1849), his political ties to Democratic politicians, his artillery mastery, his Confederate service in Charleston and other battlefields, rumors of alcoholism, and his twenty-year exile in Britain.
It is the last part of Ripley's full life that allows Bennett to examine a man on the run—besieged—by debts, the ghosts of the Civil War, and political enemies. The author explains that Ripley was "oblivious to the animosity he generated" (p. 51). He quarreled with Beauregard, Pickens, Whig and Republican politicians, creditors, and those who questioned his strategy for defending Charleston. He was criticized by Confederate general Daniel H. Hill, who noted that the Ohioan "did not draw a trigger" (p. 128). Others were more kind. When Ripley returned to his defense of Charleston a month after Antietam, Confederate poet Henry Timrod wrote, "Thy deeds are written with a sword" (p. 147).
Of course, Ripley's "sword" had a dull blade. His defense of Charleston Harbor was conducted with insufficient support from his superiors. Interestingly, Bennett suggests that Ripley kept a sharp eye on his own personal resources, shipping cotton through the tightening Union blockade to England at a profit of $30,000. The general seemed, as the war wore on, to have "other sources of income" (p. 188). Bennett notes, however, "If … Ripley invested in blockade running, he spent some of his profits for the...