“I… urge the Government not to call these troops into the field….”: SC Governor protests militia requested for Charleston

File this under the tag “Not Army Enough.”  On June 2, 1864, South Carolina Governor Milledge L. Bonham entered his protest against the recent troop dispositions.  The transfer of infantry to Virginia and northern Georgia left the South Carolina poorly defended.  The only way to fill in those gaps was to use the state militia.  Writing to Secretary of War James Seddon:

Sir: I feel it my duty to the State to bring to the notice of the Confederate authorities some facts very important to be borne in mind at this time. South Carolina does not, as do Georgia and North Carolina, and perhaps other States, claim the exemption of militia officers and the ordinary magistrates of the country and some less numerous officials. The militia officers and magistrates alone would make some 2,500 exempts who are now bearing arms in the Confederate service. In the large States of Georgia and North Carolina there are probably from 5,000 to 7,000 militia reserved to those States from these sources alone. Moreover, I think I may safely say no State has sent more fully than this her conscripts into the field, and has so large a proportion of her arms-bearing population in Confederate service. You will thus perceive that the able-bodied laboring white population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in those districts having but few slaves, are almost to a man in the field. I had determined to bring this state of facts to your notice to-day, with the view of urging upon you again the propriety of furnishing at this juncture some troops from the South Carolina forces for the protection of the mountains, when I was informed that three regiments of the force, to be commanded by General Chesnut, are called for to repair to Charleston.

Notice the dispositions of the South Carolina militia mentioned here – troops detailed to the mountain districts of the state were called to Charleston.  And why were those militia troops needed in the mountains?  Seems there had been some “unrest”… or more properly, something shading between Unionist and anti-Confederate sentiment emerging.

Bonham continued, using that situation to base his complaint:

The statement I have made above shows you that in the districts having mainly white population, there is no one left but the small proportion of the citizens under eighteen and over forty-five to raise supplies for themselves and the people whose labor has gone into the service of the country. If these troops called “reserves” are now called out, there will be great suffering next year, and in view of the loss of upper Georgia, possible starvation. Even now many of the districts of this State have not the means of subsistence for the population, and have to be supplied from other districts.

Men sent to the defenses would translate to less crops harvested.  But there was more….

Another view: In this State much of the population under eighteen able to bear arms and between forty-five and fifty, in those districts where there is a large slave population and themselves or their parents owning slaves, have gone voluntarily into service, whilst in the non-slaveholding sections of the State, the conscription having taken those between eighteen and forty-five, the only classes left at home to raise supplies are of the classes first above mentioned, and these classes somewhat reduced by volunteering previous to the passage of the conscript act.

Here was, again, the particular issue facing the Confederate home front.  Now with conscription and other draws upon the manpower, there was a concern with respect to the slave population.

I therefore feel it my duty in the most earnest manner to urge the Government not to call these troops into the field, but to supply the wants of Charleston, if any wants actually exist, from the troops already-in Confederate service.
Very respectfully, yours,
M. L. Bonham.

Might seem a reasonable request, from the governor, to have some of his state’s troops return to defend the borders and coast.  But turn that around and consider the crisis point outside Richmond at that time, and a government facing the possibility of military defeat at its very doorstep.  President Jefferson Davis responded to Bonham’s plea a couple weeks later:

The views of the Governor would be readily accepted if the basis on which they rest was correct. It is because we cannot send troops from the army to protect the coast that we, of necessity, and I hope temporarily, call for reserves. Frequent reliefs of those furnished will diminish the evil, but, under existing circumstances, the use of the reserves to aid in the defense of the frontiers of South Carolina is a necessity.

Or in short – the Confederacy simply did not have enough men to cover all the necessary assignments.  Every man drawn into the vortexes in Virginia and Georgia left a vacuum somewhere else.  Like a balloon under pressure, something was going to give… eventually.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 519-20.)


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