Monday, July 29, 2013

City of Ruin: Charleston At War 1860-1865 by Brian Hicks

Review by Ed Macy
       Since the American Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, there have been approximately 75,000 books written on the subject. Some are all encompassing, like Shelby Foote’s beautifully comprehensive trilogy, while others have focused on strategic minutiae or one particular personality from within the chaos of the conflict. There have even been shelves of published books specifically about the cradle of secession, Charleston, and her role during the “great unpleasantness.” Some of these include eyewitness accounts of the unfolding drama and devastation, like the very personal annotated diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, while many get into deeply technical military approaches and chess-like strategies of the two armies who were sometimes within a stone’s throw of each other.
       City of Ruin: Charleston at War 1860-1865 began life as a 20-part serial from the pages of Charleston’s Post and Courier from December 2010 to April 2011 by columnist Brian Hicks. Hicks expanded the series by incorporating additional stories and giving the perspectives of people on both sides as Charleston evolved slowly into the political and military hotbed of the conflict.   The book details not only the military actions around the Holy City, but how the war touched the lives of residents highborn and low, business owners, slaves, freedmen and soldiers.

       City of Ruin begins by introducing the agitators from within the city, like fire-eating Charleston Mercury owner Robert Barnwell Rhett. Hicks expresses how furious and dedicated Rhett and his compatriots were about the political climate of 1860, and how the “rhetoric of secession grew more violent” as that contentious summer wore on, culminating in a showdown borne of pride and uncontrollable rage at the status quo.
       Like many events from the canon of humanity, this story needs no embellishment. From the aquatic board game that was the controlling flip flop of Fort Sumter, to the unparalleled bravery and tragic failure of the Hunley and her crews, Hicks portrays a city that, more so than her own state, created an uncontrollable beast that eventually scorched her soil and blackened her stately mansions. Hicks gives the uninformed reader the big picture: why the monster was unleashed and her legacy. To the Charleston reader, he provides images of fear, hunger, monotony and exploding shells, right within neighborhoods millions stroll through today with cameras at the ready. Not only does the reader see the conflicting ironies of important men like Rhett and the brilliant anti-secessionist James Petigru, but also the seamy underbelly of looters, deserters and riff-raff. No book on the subject has explained the devastating impact of the federal bombardment on Charleston: architecturally, economically and psychologically.
       To read and appreciate City of Ruin, one need not be a Civil War fanatic, a Charlestonian, a reenactor, or even a lover of history. The book is not about slavery, state’s rights or the southern apology. Hicks does not deny that even though the war started in Charleston, it’s most brutal and important battles happened elsewhere in the confederacy and beyond. The book is about the drama and tragedy that was a shining kingdom by the sea meeting her ruin wrought by hubris. Reading this epic story makes resident and visitor alike realize the true beauty of survival that is Charleston.


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