The search for universal truth often begins with a focus on a particular situation; indeed, generalizations are frequently grounded upon individual fact. A new book written and edited by Aiken resident A. Gilbert Kennedy offers ample evidence of the validity of this contention. Within the pages of “A South Carolina Upcountry Saga,” the reader finds the tale of one Spartanburg-area family whose fate reflects that of many South Carolinians of the planter class during the Civil War period.
At the book’s core is a stash of letters preserved by Kennedy’s great-great grandfather, Barham Bobo Foster, and handed down through three generations of his family. The correspondence links Foster and his wife Mary Ann with their two sons, Lewis Perrin and James Anthony (Tony), all of whom cast their collective lot on the side of secession and paid a high price for that decision.
The book’s eight chapters and short epilogue follow the family’s fate from the patriarch’s decision to sign the Ordinance of Secession in December of 1860 to his death in June of 1895. The bulk of the book, however, is given over to the letters Foster’s two sons sent home from the battlefield, offering detailed, first-hand accounts of engagements at the first Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsula, the Maryland Campaign and Fredericksburg. Meticulously researched – Kennedy offers ample contextual information both in the text of each chapter and in footnotes related to each letter – the book provides a vivid picture of those on the front lines, both in battle and in camp, and those who kept the home fires burning and worried about the fate of their relatives in arms.
I found the elder son’s missives the most compelling; a thoughtful and articulate 23-year-old graduate of South Carolina College (now USC) when he enlisted in the Third South Carolina Volunteer Infantry in 1861, Perrin Foster bears witness to the lofty idealism that marked many young Southern males of his social class at the outbreak of hostilities: “I consider that I am engaged in one of the noblest works that man ever engaged in and feel that I would be not only committing a sin but disgracing myself and family did I not go and fight the battles of my country.”
However, by the second year of the war, following the death of his younger brother Tony, shot while reloading his rifle at the Battle of Maryland Heights in September of 1862, Perrin ruminates on the privations of a soldier’s life and the mounting casualties, both in combat and in the camp where disease is rife: “Truly the scourge of Civil War is awful.” Ten days later he too would be dead, shot through the forehead at Fredericksburg.
Barham Bobo Foster survived, discharged from his commission due to an edema of the legs; with the death of his two sons and the loss of his tax-burdened property after the war, he depends more and more on the emotional support of his wife and three married daughters. Theirs is an all-too-common story for the members of the planter class who, as Perrin himself wrote to his father near the end of his life, answered the clarion call of “parades and patriotic buttons.”
Despite the tragic trajectory of this particular Upcountry story, readers will find, especially in the letters of Perrin and Tony, many fascinating details relevant to the common experience of those who enlisted to fight on both sides of the conflict. Prior to his enlistment in 1862, for example, the 22-year-old Tony had never ventured beyond the Piedmont; suddenly he finds himself assigned to a garrison on the Carolina coast, describing to those back home a landscape, including the flora and fauna, heretofore unknown to him. His travel experience is matched by countless other young people during this period; at least at the outset, they are caught up in what seems to them a great adventure, full of new sights and new experiences.
In my own perusal of the book, I must confess to checking the index to see if Aiken figured in its pages, and I am glad to report that readers of this paper familiar with the biography of Francis Pickens, whose former residence Edgewood is now part of the architectural fabric of the USC-Aiken campus, will find particular interest in references to how the Foster boys regarded our state’s governor during the first two years of the war. When news arrived in Northern Virginia that Hilton Head, Port Royal, and Beaufort had fallen into enemy hands in November of 1861, Perrin, along with so many of his compatriots stationed far from the Palmetto State, longed to defend his home soil. He characterized Pickens as a “great fool” and claimed that instead of defending the coast, the Governor had kept troops in Columbia and Aiken “to frolic and drink whiskey.” One could debate the accuracy of that charge, but there is no denying the outrage of a young man who traveled hundreds of miles to defend the Confederate capital only to find his own metaphorical backyard occupied.
Available from the University of South Carolina Press, “A South Carolina Upcountry Saga” makes engrossing reading for anyone interested in the history of our state. For more information, one can visit www.sc.edu/uscpress.