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A Scholarly Review of A Scratch with the Rebels

The South Carolina Historical Magazine,

Vol. 111, Nos. 3-4 (July--October 2010), pp. 184-186.

Carolyn Poling Schriber’s work A Scratch with the Rebels: A Roundhead and a South Carolina Cavalier successfully the gap in the historical record. Though Patrick Brennan focused on the battle in his book Secessionville: Assault on Charleston in 1996, Schriber sheds new light on this bloody encounter by utilizing the words of the soldiers themselves—taken from official records, local newspapers, and diaries—to “recreate the experience of one small theater of operations in one short period of time during America’s Civil War” (p. vii). Through her extensive narrative, which revolves around the experiences of two ordinary soldiers, the author provides an element that has previously been lacking in treatments of Secessionville. This history with a “personal touch” allows the reader to understand events as seen from the perspective of the common soldier in addition to the vast divide between the reality of official personnel and young men in the ranks. The two men singled out by Schriber, James McCaskey and Gus Smythe, came from similar Scots-Irish Presbyterian backgrounds,, but they were motivated to fight by very different beliefs. McCaskey enlisted in the One Hundredth Pennsylvania Regiment, commonly known as the “Roundheads,” and hailed from farmland in the western part of the state. Gus Smythe was a college student turned soldier from a wealthy Charleston Family who joined the Washington Light Infantry, part of the Twenty-Fifth South Carolina Volunteers. Schriber’s detailed exploration of the paths these men followed to the battle of Secessionville helps the reader make sense of the many factors that prompted regular men to leave behind family and friends to fight for a cause very few truly comprehended.

While Smythe and McCaskey are central, they are but two of the many voices that Schriber employs to tell the story of Secessionville. Her selections also include high-ranking Union and Confederate generals, southern women living in the Charleston area, fellow soldiers, and family members anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones. Schriber utilizes more Union Source material than Confederate, possibly due to her discovery of James McCaskey’s letters in her mother’s attic—a fortunate find that prompted the initial research for this book. Some may consider this northern slant a weakness in her analysis, but the author does an excellent job of portraying civilian life in Charleston and the impact of the battle and subsequent Union actions against the city on those who lived through them. . . .

 Overall, Carolyn Schriber presents readers with a unique analysis of one of the lesser known battles of the Civil War. As she states in the opening pages of A Scratch with the Rebels, it is through inexperienced eyes such as James McCaskey and Gus Smythe’s that historians can come a step closer to understanding with the American Civil War was really about.

Note: This journal does not permit the re-publication of an entire review. This is the most I could borrow and re-post.

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