Walking with ghosts of Secessionville
JAMES ISLAND -- Randy Burbage is standing at the base of a hill that should not exist on this island, conjuring the ghosts of American history.
"This is where he was, Gus," Burbage said. "This is where the gun mount was, where my guy was. And your cousin came from that direction."
He's talking to Gus Patterson of Saginaw, Mich., describing the layout of an earthwork fort called Tower Battery, site of the Battle of Secessionville in the war between the states 149 years ago.
Burbage's great-uncle served in Company I of the 1st S.C. Artillery in the battle; Patterson's ancestor was in the 8th Michigan, which charged the Company I gun before dawn on June 16, 1862.
Burbage's great-uncle, Julius A. Shuler, would not survive the battle; Patterson's ancestor, William H. Aitkens, did -- a point lost on neither man.
"Yours could've shot mine," Burbage notes.
Today, Charleston and the rest of the country commemorate the beginning of the American Civil War 150 years ago with a series of events around the Lowcountry. It all begins with a fireworks burst over Fort Sumter, site of the war's first battle. The remembrance will continue for four years.
It is a time for the country to reflect on its most divisive, violent history, to honor the memory of those who fought and more than 600,000 countrymen who died in the conflict, many of them neighbors or even brothers.
Burbage and Patterson have been doing this for years.
They have traced their ancestors and found that the two -- one Confederate, one Union -- met on the battlefield that is now the Fort Lamar Heritage Preserve. The preserve is a small state park on a quiet road on this island. The remains of the earthworks are now grown over with trees, but it's not hard to tell that something happened here once.
"The feeling you get just being here, you can't put it into words," Patterson said. Yet, "people drive by here every day and have no idea what happened here."
Burbage has been fascinated by the war since he was a boy and it consumes much of his free time. He is a member of the state Hunley Commission, and has served as state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Patterson got interested in this history in 1985, when his father died. He found a letter among his dad's belongings that was written by a young man describing the time he landed on Hilton Head. With years of research, Patterson compiled a biography of his great-great-great aunt's son, William H. Aitkens.
"I've often said I wanted to re-trace some of his footsteps," Patterson said. "This is the first step."
He found Burbage's name on the Internet as part of a Secessionville re-enactment. Patterson called him, asked if he knew anyone who could show him where the old fort was.
"That would be me," Burbage said. When Patterson asked if Burbage could find someone who had an ancestor at the battle, Burbage said, "That would be me again."
On the eve of the Sesquicentennial, the two men rode together to the fort to study and remember it all.
The Battle of Secessionville came at a trying time for Charleston. The Union had blockaded the harbor and 50,000 or more troops had landed south of the city at Port Royal. The North desperately wanted to take the city where secession was sparked and the war began.
In June of 1862, the Union began landing troops on the far side of James Island in hopes of bypassing the formidable Fort Sumter and moving one step closer to the city. A series of smaller battles climaxed in Secessionville on the morning of June 16. Before dawn, 6,000 Union troops of the 8th Michigan charged the fort with orders to attack with bayonets; probably a decision meant to save ammunition. Some carried loaded weapons anyway.
The big artillery piece of Company I split the 8th. The 79th New York was supposed to back up the 8th Michigan, but they were late. Instead, the 22nd South Carolina showed up just as the men in blue attacked Tower Battery.
The battle fell to sloppy hand-to-hand combat in a hard-fought battle. The Confederates repulsed three waves of attacking Union troops.
Even the staunchest Southerners tipped their hats to the bravery of their Northern opponents that day, but in the end it was a Confederate victory, and an impressive one. Barely 2,000 Southern troops fended off 6,000 Northern soldiers. The South lost about 50 men, including Shuler; the North lost twice as many.
"It's one of the most overlooked battles of the war," Patterson said.
"If the Union had won, and it was so close they could have, it would have changed the war," Burbage said. "Charleston might have fallen sooner, and the war might have ended sooner."
Today, that is all history -- history that men such as Burbage and Patterson will not forget. For them -- like many people who study the war -- it is not a political issue, it is simply an important chapter in their families' past, as it is for so many others. And that is why so many will pay such close attention to the 150th anniversary of The War.
Today, the battlefield of Secessionville is quiet -- even peaceful, Burbage notes. We remember the Civil War so that it stays that way, he said.
"We all know it should have never happened, but it did," Burbage said, putting his arm around Patterson. "We're all Americans, and we need to stay that way."