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Introduction This photograph of Augustine Thomas Smythe is dated 1863. His letters of November 1863 and later mention having his photograph taken by Mr. Cook in Charleston. Courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society. 2 | Introduction On June 2, 1864, a young lance sergeant in the Confederate Signal Corps penned a letter filled with the timeless hope and frustration of youth. To a close relative he confided that his experiences in the nation’s bloodiest war, which had raged for more than three years, were a source of great disappointment and disillusionment. “Aunt Janey you know I am ambitious & it does gall me & cut me to the quick to hear of my companions rising in rank, while I remain here wasting abilities which I know to be naturally good & with no prospect of being any higher than I was when I entered the Corps over 18 months ago. . . . I am not satisfied here, nor am I satisfied with my part in this war, so different from what I hoped or planned.”1 Sergeant Augustine Thomas Smythe’s “part in this war” was different from that of his companions on duty in Virginia and undoubtedly different from anything he could have imagined when the war began. In fact, Smythe’s duty station in June 1864 was dramatically different from that of all but a handful of participants in the American Civil War. It was not a place of death or destruction , although it provided a bird’s-eye view of both. It was, instead, a place of stature and majesty. From the unique vantage of Smythe’s post, he could witness the Union siege and bombardment of Charleston, South Carolina: the city of his birth, his youth, and his home even during a time of conflict. As a sergeant in the Signal Corps, Smythe was destined to spend many days and nights in the 186-foot steeple atop St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. There he and a handful of soldiers would pass signals to other posts located around Charleston Harbor. The steeple, however, was more than a signal station. It was an aiming stake (or reference point) and target for the Union artillery bombarding Charleston. William Gilmore Simms made this the subject of his war poem “The Angel of the Church,” in which he envisioned the church and the city as under the protection of the archangel Michael. From his “lofty perch,” Smythe could observe Union guns located on Morris Island as they fired round after round at the city. He could discern the smoke of the cannon fire and then watch as each round lofted toward Charleston. Most veered to the right or left of the steeple, but some fell short. After serving in the steeple for some time, he could discern the eventual impact point of artillery rounds on the basis of their trajectory as they approached his post. Eventually he came to view the Union rounds in an almost detached manner, even as they crashed nearby or onto the homes of family and friends on Meeting Street below him. Smythe’s letters are significant for their depiction of an unusual wartime perspective on the bombardment and destruction of much of Charleston . Smythe’s viewpoint was the result of his service in the Signal Corps, Introduction | 3 a branch of the Confederate army that has received little attention in the seemingly endless trove of scholarship that historians have produced since the conclusion of our nation’s most destructive conflict more than 150 years ago. The Confederate Signal Corps played a vital role in the defense of Charleston and its environs, and Smythe’s letters, perhaps more than any other first-person account, detail the daily lives and service experiences of signalmen in and around the city during the war. The letters that Smythe sent to family members also are notable for the picture they painted of the bombardment’s effect on the city, in particular its lower sections and the society that dwelled there. One of the city’s oldest and wealthiest communities, Smythe’s neighborhood south of Broad Street was abandoned by the great majority of its residents for more than eighteen months. Smythe’s letters provide the reader with an almost postapocalyptic perspective of the often quiet and frequently lawless street where he resided before and during the siege of Charleston. More than one and a half centuries after they were first written, the letters of Augustine Thomas Smythe remain relevant for those who strive to understand our nation’s...


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MARC Record
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