‘City of Ruin’ expands on Civil War series

Meeting Street, looking south toward the Circular Church, the Mills House and St. Michael’s Church, was left virtually in ruins after the 585-day siege of Charleston. Much of the rest of the city looked the same.

Although he grew up well away from the epicenter, way over the Smokies in Tennessee, Brian Hicks was not unaware of Charleston’s role in the Civil War. The tumult in 19th-century South Carolina on the eve of secession was nothing new.

The details of the period from 1860 through the fall of 1865, however, were another matter entirely.

Writing about the submarine H.L. Hunley gave him a grounding. Then came Hicks’ 20-part series on the war for The Post and Courier, which ran December 2010-April 2011. That story has been greatly expanded for his book, “City of Ruin: Charleston at War, 1860-1865,” to be published by Evening Post Books on Thursday.

As always with Hicks’ historical narratives, it was as much an education for him as for the reader.

“I actually lived on a battlefield in Chattanooga,” he says. “There was a cannon left over from the battle of Missionary Ridge across the street from my house. It was actually pointed at my front door, so I was staring down its barrel every morning. That will keep the war on your mind.

“Of course, it is nowhere near as pervasive there as it is here. But I’ve now lived in Charleston half of my adult life, and I’ve been writing about the Hunley for 14 years, so this fixation we have on The War just seems natural to me.”

No other city is “so inextricably linked to the nation’s defining drama” as Charleston, writes Hicks. It seemed the entire nation was transfixed by the Holy City during 1860-65. Yet that also presented the writer with a delicate problem beyond the provocative facets of some of his reportage.

“Fact is, Charleston was the most important location in the march to war and, of course, as the site of the first battle. But after that, the Civil War largely moved on, and the important battles — Gettysburg, Bull Run/Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam/Sharpsburg — all happened elsewhere. To be sure, Charleston was still important. It was the largest Confederate port after New Orleans fell, and it was vitally important that the South try to keep it open.”

Hicks says the biggest challenge in telling the story in book form is that it is very front-loaded.

“The huge national drama occurs in the first quarter of the book. After being the first state to secede and the site of the first shot of the war, the book shifts to a more local story. ... In the book, I have added more information about what was going on elsewhere because I had the room and it gives the story greater context. There were major battles here after Fort Sumter, but the book, which begins almost as a national story with a local focus, becomes the story of how one city deals with what it has brought on.”

In preparing to do the 20-part series, Hicks thought an epic story deserved epic treatment. A News and Courier series written by Arthur Wilcox and Warren Ripley in the 1960s provided a useful road map and context, but the linchpin of the tale — and “99 percent” of the book’s detail — was derived from “colorful” 1860s reports by the Charleston Mercury.

Hicks was surprised that 150 years later, those old newspapers might lend a fresh perspective to the telling. What surprised the author even more was the way the war was sold to the populace.

“These days a few people still argue over the cause — slavery or states’ rights — which many consider Southern apologism. I found it to be a bit more nuanced than that, and frankly it surprised me. I think a lot of people who study the war and revere this history are unfairly portrayed as slavery apologists. The vast majority of them realized what was going on, but they also know that while it might have been the politicians’ reason for the war, it wasn’t necessarily the cause of the rank-and-file soldiers.

“That is not to take away from the over-arching slavery issue. It was the heart of the problem, there is no doubt. But it is also way too simple to say that the hundreds of thousands of men who fought had a stake in the peculiar institution.”

Hicks says he has considerably more sympathy now for descendants of war veterans who say, “My great-grandfather didn’t fight to preserve slavery.”

“No, he didn’t. At least that’s not the way he saw it. He was fighting for some noble ideals that were basically propaganda. The rich have always duped the poor and middle class into fighting their battles, and this was no different.”

Slavery was almost exclusively the province of the very wealthy, Hicks writes, with 3 percent of the white population, the oligarchs, owning 95 percent of the slaves. These slave owners composed many of the state’s most powerful politicians. Hicks finds ironies upon ironies in their words.

“They wrapped their rhetoric about defending your homeland from oppression, never really specifying that it was only oppression of the rich to have cheap labor.”

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