A Review of States Rights Gist: A South Carolina General of the Civil War, by Walter Brian Cisco, Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1991.
“So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”-Psalm 90:12 (KJV)
Of all types of literature, I enjoy reading biographies. As a man, I profit from biographies of men whose lives contain lessons and wisdom that I can apply to my own life.
I have greatly benefited from reading Walter Brian Cisco’s States Rights Gist: A South Carolina General of the Civil War. It has not only taught me more about my beloved South Carolina and those remarkable times that we who follow the Abbeville Institute are seeking to better understand, but it has introduced to a man in his forties a hero who lived to only thirty-three.
I chose for the title of this review a quote by famed diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut because it sums up my journey in coming to know States Rights Gist. Like Chestnut, I had heard of the “odd name” but have since to come to know him as “a real personage”.
Gist’s father was the source of “the odd name”. He believed so much in the doctrine of state’s rights that he named his son after it. States Rights inherited his father’s convictions and was thoroughly educated in them at South Carolina College (present day University of South Carolina) which was at the time in 1847 “becoming the seedbed of secession”.
After graduating from South Carolina, Gist went north to Boston to study law at Harvard University. This was in keeping with a tradition of the time where sons of the South sought an education in the North. Cisco notes that these sons often returned home from their experiences among the Yankees further resolved in their convictions and beliefs. He also notes that no fewer than 275 Harvard men would fight in the Confederate Army with three becoming future generals. This would no doubt drive the leftist zealots crazy if it was better known and perhaps apoplectic when coupled with the fact that not only was South Carolina College the “seedbed of secession” but it was also where one received a Christian education.
In May of 1853, Gist was deemed qualified to become an attorney and began his career as a criminal lawyer. Of interesting note, his profession at the time required that he take an Oath of Allegiance to the State of South Carolina. Around the same time, Gist became a captain in the state militia and it was with the militia that he began to earn the reputation that would carry him leading up to and during the War for Southern Independence.
Gist was not a professionally trained soldier. Instead, he applied himself to studying the subject. In a time when many did not take the Militia seriously for varying reasons, Gist took it very seriously and he began to make a difference. As a brigade commander, Gist made sure his men had what they needed and he continued to do this as a Confederate brigadier-general. As he continued to gain experience through his various responsibilities, his star began to rise. Later in the war his name was continually mentioned for promotion to major general but this was never to be. President Jefferson Davis had a policy that promoted, with few exceptions, only those who were professionally trained. He would on at least two occasions have temporary divisional command, but would not rise above the rank of brigadier-general.
Gist would die on the battlefield at Franklin, Tennessee at the age of thirty-three but his brief life contained many examples for us to follow today. He took his duties seriously when others did not. He applied himself at everything he did. He continually remained focus on his duties even when faced with disappointment at being passed over for promotion, and at a time when there were rivalries and grudges in the Confederate command, Gist did all he could to remain on good terms with everyone involved because he had no use for pettiness. He also looked after the needs of those within his care and made sure they had what they needed even when it came to their spiritual needs. As the psalmist said in the verse I included, States Rights Gist truly numbered his days and applied his heart to wisdom.
This is a truly tremendous book and not only does it present the life of this young man but it presents as a frame the extraordinary times in which he lived. The reader will learn more about the days leading up to South Carolina’s secession including a perhaps little-known role that States Rights Gist was involved in at the behest of his cousin, South Carolina Governor William Henry Gist. There is also the account of South Carolina’s attempt at negotiating for the payment to Fort Sumter and other federal property in South Carolina as well as other intriguing events in the exciting and often confusing days in the Palmetto State which saw it transition from one of the United States to one of the Confederate States with a very brief existence as an independent republic.
The reader will cross paths with, among others, James and Mary Chestnut, Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Benjamin F. Perry. I found Perry particularly interesting. He was a staunch Unionist and yet when South Carolina seceded he attached his fortunes to hers. Of note was Cisco’s account of Perry’s denouncement of Lincoln and the Federal government for “trying to reverse the principles announced in the American Declaration of Independence and their attempt to subvert the basis of self-government by our subjugation…”. He would further denounce Lincoln’s war as “the most diabolical national crime ever committed by a civilized and Christian people”.
There is much to be gleaned and learned from the life of States Rights Gist and indeed the times in which he lived. I trust that this review has done some justice to this tremendous book and I enthusiastically recommend it to the Abbeville Institute community.