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Confederate Phoenix$

Edmund L. Drago

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780823229376

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: March 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823229376.001.0001

Introduction: Les Enfants de la Guerre

(p.1) Introduction: Les Enfants de la Guerre
Confederate Phoenix

Edmund L. Drago

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter sets out the purpose of the book, which is to examine the rebel children and their families in South Carolina, where the Civil War erupted. Composed of a black majority, South Carolina earned a reputation as the most militant Confederate state. Fierce fighting took place along the coast. In 1860, South Carolina leaders urged their people to war and gambled with the future of the children of their state, and lost.

Keywords:   rebel children, war, South Carolina, Confederate state, fierce fighting, Civil War

“Like previously unseen ghosts,” James Marten saw, “children peer out from Civil War photographs.”1 His pathbreaking book brought them back from the unseen world by showing how the war reverberated through all aspects of their lives.

What happened to children on the state and local level, however, remains relatively elusive. I have chosen to examine Rebel children and their families in South Carolina, where the war erupted. Composed of a black majority, South Carolina earned the reputation as the most militant Confederate state. Seceding first, it was home to some of the region's most influential politicians. Charleston, its chief port and most populous city, spent much of the war under siege. It became the symbol of Southern resistance. Fierce fighting took place along the coast. During Sherman's march, the state capitol in Columbia went up in flames. White South Carolinians did more than their share of fighting and dying.2

When South Carolina leaders urged their people to war in 1860, they encouraged a commitment with consequences unimaginable at the time. They gambled with the future of the children of their state and lost. In January 1864, a woman from Cottage Home captured the people's angst with the lament: Had they foreseen the present “list of the precious youths that have fallen, it would have chill[ed] our hearts. Thousands have passed away—many more are passing. The wail of orphan and widow reach our ears from all parts of the Confederacy. Sisters mourning the loss of precious brothers—while parents, are weeping for their children.” In a state that prided itself on a military ethos that had God's blessing, such sacrifices could not have been in vain.3

The late dean of South Carolina history, George Rogers, captured and reflected why Carolinians felt compelled to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors in the Lost Cause. In the 1990s, he explains, “Families were shattered. Mothers lost one, two, even three sons in a single battle. A grandfather, a father, a brother disappeared at a crucial moment in life. All were models of virtue and honor to those left behind to mourn their passing. They were worthy of remembrance. Their motives came from within, from what they had been. They had believed that life was God's will. They could not shirk their duties. There were no excuses. They admired their leaders. They were part of a world that is (p.2) no more.”4 Thus, some white South Carolinians are offended by those who brand their ancestors' efforts as immoral.

South Carolina Rebel children played a critical role in the Civil War drama. Children under the age of fifteen composed more than 40 percent of the state's white population. Boys and girls engaged in activities once reserved for adults only. They made their patriotic presence felt. They relished their contributions. Lee Cohn Harby, born in 1849, told a Sumter gathering of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1901 that scenes from her childhood were burned into her mind. Her playmates passed quickly from play to war. Each week was full of emotions and stirring events. It seemed the children were aging a year each month. Fourteen-year-old boys took up arms; little girls assumed the responsibilities and tasks normally assigned to grown women. Perhaps like children in other wars, Harby and her friends integrated war into their make-believe world of play. Scholars would call Harby's mindset “a children's world.” At times their activities were destructive. In their play, boys at the Charleston Depot killed more civilians in South Carolina than Sherman's troops. Children were also victimized. Their households were wracked, if not shattered, by disease, death, and deprivation. Thousands of fathers and brothers died in the conflict or returned home maimed.5

“Phoenix” is a fitting metaphor to describe how white South Carolinians viewed their efforts to preserve their ideal of the good society. The vision entailed states' rights, low taxes, and a subordinate role for blacks. A pristine republic, born in 1860, would rise out of the fire and ashes of the war and Reconstruction. Fire was seared in the collective memory of white South Carolinians: the Charleston fire of 1861, the hurling of Greek fire on Charleston, the burning of Columbia in February 1865, and the mammoth explosion of the Northeastern Railroad Depot in Charleston that very month. “Phoenix,” implying resurrection and immortality, has remained ubiquitous in the rhetoric of white South Carolinians as they faced such threats to their core values as the Emancipation Proclamation, federal intervention, the depression of the 1890s, the civil rights movement, and the Cold War. The Conservative Revival (1980–2000) is a testimony to the strength of their vision.

Scholars have thoroughly documented the role black Carolinians played in the Civil War saga. Black children also suffered hardships, deprivation, and dislocation. Many of their fathers and brothers were forced to work on fortifications; others went off to war as body servants. Children and women replaced them in the fields. Carolina slaves contributed to the demise of slavery and hastened their liberation; they ran away singly and in groups. Some youngsters donned blue uniforms and returned to fight for their freedom. In freedom, South Carolina blacks sought a better life for themselves and their children. (p.3) They reunited with long-lost relatives and formalized their marriages. They established their own churches and schools. From the collective memory of black South Carolinians came a liberationist legacy.6

Emancipation affected the entire society across race and class lines. Slavery tied white and black Carolinians at the hip, with whites maintaining the upper hand. It would take emancipation to alter the relationship. The life of Robert Smalls illustrates this point. A favored slave, born in Beaufort, Smalls was allowed to hire himself out as a stevedore in Charleston. His work ethic impressed his owner and other influential whites in the city, so much so that they allowed him to purchase his wife and set up a residence in the city. He eventually became a skilled pilot, navigating ships through Charleston Harbor. Such largess did not end glaring injustices. Smalls was not allowed to learn to read or write, his marriage was not legally recognized, and most of his pay went to his owner. Chafing under these and other restrictions, Smalls with a group of like-minded friends and relatives seized a Confederate ship, The Planter. They constituted a “family of liberation.” The North was electrified; the South was stunned. The enterprising pilot was made an officer in the Union army, further enraging Southerners.7

Smalls helped the Northerners probe for weaknesses in Charleston Harbor's defenses. Likewise, he piloted the black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment to Morris Island, where they demonstrated their fighting tenacity at Fort (Battery) Wagner on July 18, 1863. When the war ended, Smalls allowed the wife of his former master to remain in her former home at Beaufort, which he had purchased. The freedman thrived in the milieu that emancipation and Reconstruction provided. He learned to read and write. He became one of the state's premier politicians. In Congress he called for federal intervention to stop Ku Klux Klan violence in the state. He remained in the U.S. House of Representatives for decades. For blacks, Smalls represented the potential of emancipation. For many white South Carolinians, he symbolized their fears of black Republican rule.8

Black Republicanism, imminent with the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, aroused the farmers of the Upcountry and the rest of the Upstate to close ranks and to shelve temporarily their common dislike of the planter aristocrats of the Lowcountry coastal districts. Stirred up by their evangelical preachers, these yeomen went to war to defend their families and communities. Upcountry households bore the brunt of the casualties. Many of their men died outside of the state.9

South Carolina white women instinctively realized the revolutionary potential of emancipation on their households and status. For decades proslavery propaganda proselytized that mayhem would be the logical outcome of abolitionism. (p.4) During the war, white women saw the society gradually coming apart; their personal security seemed threatened by runaway slaves and invading Yankees. With slavery abolished, women and children in farming households worked harder, while their men found themselves competing with black laborers, sharecroppers, and landowners.10

The war and Reconstruction encouraged parents to cooperate in the raising of their children. The society was not immune to modernization. The patriarchy had already been undergoing changes in the decades before the war. Younger planters were more inclined to accept a kinder, gentler patriarchy. They as well as their wives were more open to progressive ideas about childrearing, which were emanating from the North and Europe. Evangelical seminaries for females encouraged elite women to become agents of change. Likewise, consumerism subtly undermined traditional childrearing; children wanted the newest fashions, toys, and gadgets, and their parents tended to indulge them. Yeoman families were probably less inclined toward progressive childrearing than their more affluent urban neighbors. Despite serious challenges to patriarchal authority posed by these outside influences and the war, the patriarchal ideal prevailed. A crushing and humiliating defeat thwarted the modernization process. Elite women placed the prewar patriarchy on a pedestal in their “Lost Cause” rhetoric. In the process they enlarged their own spheres of influence.

Conflicting legacies as symbolized by the Confederate flag and the Emancipation Proclamation bedevil the state still. Carolinians are not of one mind when it comes to the issue of legacy and what they should tell their children about the war and its aftermath. Collective memory is never static but constantly changing as groups reevaluate their past to explain the present and shape the future. On one hand, most white South Carolinians perceived in 1865 that their state was conquered and occupied by Northerners, who proselytized Black Republicanism. On the other hand, most black Carolinians saw the war and Reconstruction as liberating. Memories of the past still follow these fault lines as the state debates symbols of the war, particularly, at this time, the Confederate flag and its place in the public sphere. In 2007, when a black minister was confronted with evidence of black Confederates and slaveowners, he noted, “It doesn't change the fact you did wrong.” Confederate Phoenix unfolds the struggle of South Carolinians coming to grips with the legacy of a destructive war.11


(1.) The “New Children's History” emphasizes family, resiliency, and agency. Since the publication of Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), studies of children and childhood have proliferated. The field has become increasingly interdisciplinary. See Paula S. Fass, ed., Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 3 vols.; N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes, “History of Childhood United States,” is at 2:426–430. Hawes is one of the founders of the Society for the History of Children and Youth. Its program, “Children's Worlds, Children in the World,” for its biennial meeting in Milwaukee in August 2005 shows the breadth and scope of the current scholarship. Attending the conference was Steven Mintz. In Huck 's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), Mintz divided the history of American childhood into three eras: premodern (colonial to mid-eighteenth century), modern (1750 to 1950), and postmodern (1950 to 2004). In the premodern era, children were seen as adults in training, while in the modern period they were viewed as innocent but capable of being molded.

Scholars like Mintz have demonstrated that age as a category of analysis poses problems. James Marten offered a flexible definition of children as “girls and boys who acted like children” as well as those who reached a majority. He also allowed the subjects to define themselves. See Marten, The Children 's Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 244 n. 5. Unlike Marten, I also see underage soldiers as boys and children because that was how the society viewed them. In Huck's Raft, viii, Mintz defined childhood as infancy to eighteen. Most of my evidence deals with boys and girls under eighteen. For a stimulating discussion of girlhood in Western Europe, see Mary Jo Maynes, Birgitte Soland, and Christina Benninghaus, eds., Secret Gardens, Satanic Mills: Placing Girls in European History, 1750–1960 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); the authors perceive marriage as a marker ending girlhood.

(2.) Determining how many soldiers died in the American Civil War is problematic, especially for the Confederacy. In South Carolina, thirteen thousand to eighteen thousand of its white male population over the age of fifteen in 1860 died (i.e., 15–21 percent of 84,157). In York District alone, 18 percent of its entire white male population might have died; this is a figure comparable to the losses Germany suffered during World War II. Marten, Children's Civil War, 5; Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2008), chapter 8; Randolph W. Kirkland Jr., Broken Fortunes: South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors and Citizens Who Died in the Service of Their Country and State in the War for Southern Independence, 1861–1865 (Charleston, S.C.: SCHS, 1995), vii, 412; Population of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior, by Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Superintendent of Census (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 448–452; Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, trans. Jefferson Chase (New York: Henry Holt, 2003), 37–38; Francis Butler Simkins and Robert Hilliard Woody, South Carolina During Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932), 10.

(3.) Walter Edgar, South Carolina: A History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 376; Confederate Baptist, Columbia, January 20, 1864; Daniel E. Huger Smith, Alice R. Huger Smith, and Arney R. Childs, eds., Mason Smith Family Letters, 1860–1868 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1950), 52, 130–138.

(4.) UDC Recollections, vol. 9, “What They're Saying About the Series.”

(5.) Population of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior, by Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Superintendent of Census (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 448– 452; United Daughters of the Confederacy, South Carolina Division, South Carolina Women in the Confederacy (Columbia, S.C.: State Co., 1903, 1907), 1:156–158; Edmund L. Drago, “Confederate Children and the Commonality of the War Experience: South Carolina as a Test Case,” paper, Society for the History of Children and Youth, Marquette University, Milwaukee, August 6, 2005. The title of one of the sessions was “A Children's World.” For insight into their world of play, see Howard P. Chudacoff, Children at Play: An American History (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

(6.) Wilbert L. Jenkins, Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002). Since the 1960s, scholars have produced a plethora of fine works on African Americans in South Carolina. Charleston has been blessed with two monographs: Wilbert L. Jenkins, Seizing the Day: African Americans in Post–Civil War Charleston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), and Bernard E. Powers Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1865 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994). There is also W. J. Megginson, African American Life in South Carolina's Upper Piedmont, 1780–1900 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006). See also Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979); Ira Berlin et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982–90).

(7.) Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1989); Andrew Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 28, 42–47, 51–52, 61.

(8.) Billingsley, Yearning to Breathe Free, 78, 84, 103, chapters 9–12.

(9.) The best discussion of the historical, cultural, and economic divisions is Lacy K. Ford Jr., Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), preface, chapter 2, 371–372. Ford defined the Upcountry as the thirteen districts north and west of the state's fall line. In 1850 they produced 56 percent of the state's cotton while containing only 36 percent of the state's black population. Ford further divided the Upcountry into the Upper Piedmont (Anderson, Greenville, Lancaster, Pickens, Spartanburg, and York districts) and the Lower Piedmont (Abbeville, Chester, Edgefield, Fairfield, Laurens, Newberry, and Union districts). The Lower Piedmont was more involved in the cotton economy; whites composed only 41.3 percent of the population while the Upper Piedmont was 65.5 percent white. The Upcountry was overwhelmingly evangelical; most of the farmers were yeomen. The historical antipathy for the elite living in the coastal districts of Beaufort, Charleston, Colleton, and Georgetown was shared by other persons living in the Upstate, north of the state capital at Columbia. Upcountry and Upstate became synonymous. Sometimes yeomen in the Lowcountry were simply called country people.

(10.) Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Stephanie McCurry, “The Politics of Yeoman Households (p.145) in South Carolina,” in Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, eds., Divided Households: Gender and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 22–38.

(11.) David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2; Edmund L. Drago, Hurrah for Hampton! Black Red Shirts in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998); W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). The African American experience was a diverse one, but a certain commonality existed. See Charleston Post and Courier, May 22, 2007.