Among the things I enjoy most about blogging is being able to tell a good story. It was one of my favorite aspects of journalism and it’s part of what I relish in writing for the magazine I put together for my employer.
Nearly four years ago, I got an opportunity to tell a bigger story, one that was approximately 150 years old but had never been fully laid out in print before.
It came to fruition last month when Broadfoot Publishing Co. of Wilmington, NC, sent me a copy of To Virginia and Back With Rutledge’s Cavalry: A History of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment, a 520-page work that took me more than three years to write.
First, I should note that writing anything about myself is about as enjoyable as having teeth pulled with a rusty pair of pliers. But it would be remiss of me not to at least thank those who have supported me over the past few years.
First, about the book, or rather the topic of my book:
The 4th S.C. Cavalry Regiment suffered the most battle casualties of any of South Carolina’s seven cavalry units. Nearly all its combat deaths came during a two-week period in the summer of 1864, when the 1,000-man unit was thrown into its first real action literally hours after arriving in Virginia.
Prior to reaching Virginia shortly after the start of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, the 4th South Carolina hadn’t suffered a single combat death since the start of the war. Within a couple of weeks, it had lost scores of men, with hundreds more wounded and captured.
The regiment, composed of a contrasting array of wealthy men from Charleston society, poor farmers from the Upstate and the Pee Dee regions of South Carolina, and many who fell somewhere in between, found themselves hurled into fighting on the bloody fields of Virginia as part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after spending more than two years guarding the South Carolina coast.
Between May 28, 1864, and June 12, 1864, the 4th South Carolina saw action at Haw’s Shop, Matadequin Creek and Trevilian Station. Its relatively inexperienced leaders and troopers felt the full brunt of their more-experienced Union counterparts, led by such men as Philip Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer.
As the summer wore on, the regiment continued to see action, serving as part of Matthew Calbraith Butler’s Brigade in Wade Hampton’s Division of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps.
By the end of 1864, as it became apparent that William T. Sherman was about to turn his wrath on the Palmetto State, the 4th South Carolina was sent home to protect South Carolina. It did its best to hold back Sherman’s troops, seeing action below Columbia and all through the middle and eastern part of the state into the early months of 1865.
The 4th South Carolina continued to fight on through the conflict’s final weeks, being engaged at Monroe’s Crossroads, NC, and Bentonville, NC, before Joseph E. Johnston surrendered in April 1865. Many members of the 4th simply headed for home without formally taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, choosing instead to melt away rather than face the ignominy of surrender.
In the century-and-a-half since the war’s end, two books were written about one of the 4th South Carolina’s units: Company K, also known as the Charleston Light Dragoons. The Charleston Light Dragoons were made up of the elite of Charleston society, with a number of members being relatives of men who had signed the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession.
Edward Wells, a member of the company who was living in the North at the war’s outset and slipped the Union blockade to join the Charleston-based company, wrote a work titled A Sketch Of The Charleston Light Dragoons: From The Earliest Formation Of The Corps in 1888. In 2005, Eric K. Emerson, now the director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, wrote Sons of Privilege: The Charleston Light Dragoons in the Civil War.
Yet, no one had penned a work looking at the regiment as a whole.
This was an interesting project for several reasons: the regiment suffered such a large number of casualties in a short time; the hardships detailed in the existing memoirs, such as digging up recently buried bodies in search of boots and other clothes in order to replace ragged accoutrements; and that three of its members, including its leader, Col. Benjamin Huger Rutledge, affixed their names to the SC Ordinance of Secession.
Writing To Virginia and Back With Rutledge’s Cavalry was a task I couldn’t have accomplished without the support of Mrs. Cotton Boll, my wife Katie. She showed amazing patience and tolerance during the many, many nights I sat in my office, poring over documents, writing and rewriting sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and being alternately discouraged and encouraged with my production. My efforts never would have come to completion without her inspiration and love.
I also owe a debt to my parents, who instilled in me a love of history, an understanding that the world is nuanced, rather than black and white, and that one is capable of whatever one is willing to work for.
Finally, I appreciate those of you who peruse this blog from time to time. The experience of writing approximately three posts a week for seven years and the positive feedback I’ve gotten from all of you played no small part in being able to proceed with and finish this project.
To all the dozen or so of you who stop by here regularly, I’m much obliged.
(Top: Charge of Confederate Cavalry at Trevilian Station, Virginia, James E. Taylor, 1896.)