“Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls”: Grim assessment from Governor MacGrath

Andrew Gordon MacGrath was among the leading secessionists in 1860.  Having resigned his position as a US District Court Judge after the 1860 elections, he played a role in the South Carolina secession convention.  Later he served briefly as the state’s Secretary of State.  And when the Confederacy was formally established, MacGrath was for all practical purposes re-instated to his judgeship, though for a “C.S.” instead of a “U.S.” district. At a rather ominous moment in the state’s, and the Confederacy’s, history, on December 18, 1864, the South Carolina General Assembly named MacGrath the Governor of South Carolina.

Within days of MacGrath’s assumption of the office, Savannah fell.  And the Federal forces there were poised to move into South Carolina next.  As his predecessor, MacGrath appealed to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond for assistance.   On Christmas Day, 1864, he sent a lengthy letter, by way of Colonel Henry Buist, to the Confederate president.  After opening pleasantries, MacGrath put in perspective what the loss of Savannah meant to South Carolina:

The fall of Savannah has, of course, very much affected the people of this State. The question which naturally presents itself is, why the force which penetrated Georgia cannot penetrate South Carolina. And at this moment it is not an unwillingness to oppose the enemy, but a chilling apprehension of the futility of doing so, which affects the people. I am endeavoring, and I will remove that chill and dispel that apprehension; but upon you must I rely for that material aid which will assist the people of the State to make good their determined opposition. As rapidly as it can be done I am reorganizing the militia; its effective force I cannot yet estimate–I hope larger than has been supposed. If you will send us aid (although for the moment it falls short of effectual aid), if it be that aid which now foreshadows other aid to come, that spirit can be vitalized which when aroused to a certain extent supplies the place of numbers, and is of itself strength.

So, after over three years of war at its doorsteps, South Carolina’s militia was still unorganized for defense of the state?  Recall the correspondence from the previous winter in which authorities in Richmond called into question the state’s practices in regard to conscription and recruiting for state regiments.

Having explained the measures he would take, MacGrath then requested support from Richmond.  Specifically he wanted the South Carolina brigade from the Army of Northern Virginia, and if possible the services of Major-General Joseph Kershaw.  But MacGrath knew the release of those troops was contingent on the list of priorities.  So he advanced is argument that Charleston was the most important of those priorities:

You, of course, are much better informed of the number of troops on our coast and in the city of Charleston than I am. You are also aware of the necessities at other points which may control you; but it is considered that the force on the coast is not sufficient to make effectual resistance to General Sherman. If that is so, Charleston falls; if Charleston falls, Richmond follows. Richmond may fall and Charleston be saved, but Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls. If now I urge upon you the concentration of all available strength for the defense of Charleston I will be acquitted of all selfish consideration when I venture to remind you that two years ago, when it seemed as if then a necessity was about to arise in which you would be forced to decide between Charleston and Richmond, I gave you then the assurance of my support, however feeble, in sustaining you in the destruction of Charleston if it would accomplish the end we then desired. Now, however, I presume that, as between these places, there is no doubt that, if unable to save both, Charleston is that which from every consideration we must prefer to save.

Tastes like a cold cup of coffee in the morning for those who’ve grown fond of “Lee’s Lieutenants.” The notion that Richmond was not the cornerstone of the Confederacy?  That it could be sacrificed?  What a difference perspective makes!

MacGrath again pressed for men to defend South Carolina:

To save it we must have troops. It is in this connection that I must bring also to your attention the vital consequence of attending at once to Branchville as a place to be fortified and to which troops should be sent. Its strategic importance I am sure is too manifest to require from me any urgency in bringing it to your notice. There are no works there which are of the slightest consequence. I understand surveys are now making; it is difficult to understand why they were not made before this time. You will not understand from this that I wish to indulge in censure or criticism, but to indicate to you that a position of the utmost consequence is not prepared for resistance to the attempt which may be reasonably supposed will be made to possess it. If that attempt should be successful our future will be greatly clouded.

From that point, MacGrath also picked at an “interfearance” of the Confederate government into the state.  Specifically he noted the number of “detailed men” working in important positions supporting the war effort, and thus except from militia service.

It matters little how they may be, except in this respect: that their absence from all appearance of military service by so much diminishes the influences with which I am now attempting to quicken and excite our people not only to effective resistance, but to that confidence in the success of that resistance which will assist me in my efforts and sustain them in their conduct.

MacGrath asked for a “show.” He wanted the detailed men to appear on public parade so their service was clearly shown to the people.  This, he felt, would undercut criticism and demonstrate no favoritism was in play.

Closing, MacGrath wrote:

These suggestions I make to you with the conviction that you will assist me in every way to develop now all of our resources to aid you in the task that is before you and us. There are other matters concerning which I will at an early day communicate with you.

MacGrath had inherited a problem.  And the nature of the problem was not altered as the office-holder changed.  There was little he, or Davis, could do to forestall the advance that would step forward from Savannah.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 986-8.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on ““Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls”: Grim assessment from Governor MacGrath

  1. One could utilize Governor McGrath’s compellingly well-crafted missive to define and illustrate the word, “desperation.” And certainly President Davis’s morning coffee must have indeed turned cold when considering the impact of the “greatly clouded” future presciently forecast by the new South Carolina governor. One major Southern city after another had fallen and of course it was not lost on former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis that his own Magnolia State was beyond recovery to the Confederate cause.

    What could he do for the woefully beseeching, Governor McGrath?

    It must have deeply pained President Davis to realize there was nothing whatsoever he could do for the conscientious Governor Andrew McGrath.

    And Craig, you really should have a t-shirt lettered up to announce, “Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls!”

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