Book Review: Him On One Side and Me On the Other: The Civil War Letters of Alexander Campbell, 79th New York Infantry Regiment and James Campbell, 1st South Carolina Battalion (edited by Terry A. Johnston): CWT
Him On One Side and Me On the Other: The Civil War Letters of Alexander Campbell, 79th New York Infantry Regiment and James Campbell, 1st South Carolina Battalion, edited by Terry A. Johnston, Jr., University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 803-777-5243, 174 pages, $24.95.
Just when we thought that all the interesting Civil War letters were already in print, the University of South Carolina Press has published this unusual series of letters by James and Alexander Campbell, brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war and who faced each other on one battlefield.
The Campbell brothers emigrated from Scotland in the 1850s after their parents died. James, the elder by two years, settled in Charleston, where he found employment as a clerk. Alexander moved to New York City, where he worked as a stonecutter and eventually married. When war broke out, each enlisted in a militia unit that was mustered into service.
It is difficult to say which brother had the tougher war experience. Alexander’s regiment, the 79th New York, took heavy casualties at the First Battle of Manassas and was so ill-disciplined that it was stripped of its colors for a time. In October 1861, however, its colors restored, the regiment was attached to Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman’s force on the South Carolina coast near Charleston, where Alexander had a bird’s-eye view of Union Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont’s successful capture of Confederate-controlled Port Royal Sound. Du Pont’s ships poured out a thick cover of smoke as they steamed around in a circle, firing at the two forts that defended the bay. The Confederates returned fire with equal vigor for some time, but they could not continue their resistance.
The 79th New York landed on James Island, near Charleston, in early June. From a prisoner captured in a skirmish, Alexander learned that his brother was in the Confederate lines opposite him and that he had recently been promoted to lieutenant. On June 16, in the largely forgotten Battle of Secessionville, Federal forces that included the 79th New York regiment made an unsuccessful assault on Confederate defenses. After the battle, James somehow got a letter to his brother:
I was astonished to hear from the prisoners that you was colour Bearer of the Regmt that assaulted the Battrey at this point the other day…. I was in the Brest work during the whole engagement doing my Best to Beat you but I hope that You and I will never again meet face to face Bitter enemies on the Battlefield. But if such should be the case You have but to discharge your deauty to Your caus for I can assure you I will strive to discharge my deauty to my country & my cause.
James’s letter set the tone for their later correspondence: acceptance, without rancor, that each was caught up in forces beyond his control.
Later in the year Alexander was wounded in the leg at the September 1862 Battle of Chantilly, Virginia, and was discharged from the army. James was less fortunate. In July 1863, he was captured in the fighting at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and spent the last two years of the war in various Yankee prisons.
Most of Alexander’s letters were written to his wife, Jane, in New York. The majority of James’s letters were written from Northern prisons to his brother, usually requesting small loans that might help ease the rigor of prison life. “Watches and all other valuables was taken from us,” James wrote from Fort Delaware, “and we are only allowed to have one sute of clothes with a change of Under clothing.” Alexander appears to have sent money.
Both brothers survived the war and prospered afterwards. Paradoxically, it was James, in the defeated South, who became a landowner of consequence.
Editor Terry A. Johnston, Jr., has done a fine job of providing a connecting narrative that puts the Campbell correspondence into context, and many of his footnotes are informative. He is a zealous footnoter, however, explaining to the reader in one instance that the “Jeff Davis” mentioned in a letter was “Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.”
Although many readers will find this an engaging book, I am waiting for the grand opera, with Placido Domingo as James Campbell and Luciano Pavarotti as Alexander locked in mortal combat on the parapet at Secessionville.
John M. Taylor