Never Too Old to Learn a New Trick or Two
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Never Too Old to Learn a New Trick or Two

I just can't keep this little story to myself.  last week, I posted a "Civil War Friday" article containing some odd-ball facts about the Civil War. This was one of them:

"Did you know that several battles of the Civil War have two names? Was it Manassas or Bull Run, Elkhorn Tavern or Pea Ridge, Boonsboro or South Mountain, Shiloh or Pittsburgh Landing, Murfreesboro or Stones Mountain.  No, the names are not just designed to drive history students crazy. Historian Shelby Foote once speculated that the South named battles for the closest town because most of their soldiers came from rural areas and noticed signs of civilization.  The North, however, named battles for nearby bodies of water or other natural landmarks because they came from an urban environment and were attracted to nature."

Now, I had known that fact for a long time, but only because I protested to a college professor about the unfairness of battles having two names.  "It's bad enough to have to memorize the names of the battles," I complained, "without there being two right answers."  Knowing why the names were different didn't make them easier to learn, but at least I quit seeing them as a diabolical plot aimed at making me flunk history.

Late yesterday afternoon, I taught myself another lesson -- this one about applying what you know to the real world.  I "knew" battles could have two names.  Why, then, did it never occur to me that the ONE battle I knew really well might also be known as something else?

I suppose that needs a bit of background explanation. Those of you who have read my books know that A Scratch with the Rebels focuses on The Battle of Secessionville. Beyond All Price also uses Secessionville as a major turning point in the story of Nellie Chase. I've read almost anything  that has been written about that battle, although that's not saying a great deal.  It's an episode that history books frequently skip, both because it was such a hugely bungled debacle and because it had relatively little impact on the course of the war in general. Yes, it destroyed lives, and changed lives, and altered the nature of the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteers, "The Roundheads." It also delayed the Union plans to attack Charleston by denying them clear passage across James Island. In the long run,however, nothing was accomplished on either side. Even The New York Times dismissed it, saying it would probably be best to forget about the disgraceful affair.

So I never realized that the name "Secessionville" stuck to the skirmish of June 16, 1862 on James island, South Carolina, only because that's what the Confederate Army called it. The name was taken from a nearby summer resort town known as Secessionville. As far as I was concerned, the Union soldiers called it that, too, and in my books, I have them all referring to the event as Secessionville.

Until yesterday, that is!

I was leisurely reading a passage from Laura Towne's handwritten diary, in preparation for writing the next chapter of The Road to Frogmore. The date of the entry was June 22, 1862; the location was the army camp at Hilton Head Island, and specifically, the residence of General David Hunter, whom I have held at least partially to blame for the Union loss  "at Secessionville." Laura Towne had come to Hilton Head from St. Helena Island, accompanying some Philadelphia visitors who were headed home after visiting the Gideonites. She writes:

"Gen. Hunter asked us to dine and drove us out to the camp of the black regiment which he reviewed in our honor. After our return, we saw Mr. McK[im] and Lucy off, the steamer being crowded with sick soldiers and the wounded from the Battle of Stono."

Now, the presence of wounded soldiers did not surprise me.  I knew that 47 soldiers were wounded so badly that they were evacuated and transported to New York City aboard the steamer Ericsson several days after the battle. But "The Battle of Stono"?  That was news.

Yes, what I've been calling the  Battle of Secessionville was also known at the time as The Battle of Stono. Laura Towne could only have heard that name from General Hunter himself.  Why would he have called it Stono? Well, true to the rule, the Yankee general must have named it after the Stono River, where Union gunboats managed to break through the Confederate defenses and sail up the river to provide backup fire power for the Union assault on James Island. I suppose the name "Stono" didn't stick because northerners were not anxious to  talk about a battle in which they were thoroughly trounced.

In my little "Did You Know" column, I never addressed the issue of which name (north or south versions) becomes the accepted label for a battle.  In the light of this discovery, however, It seems that winners got naming rights, while losers looked elsewhere for conversation.