On an early June morning in 1862, two brothers from Scotland were fighting for their lives and their adopted homeland on a South Carolina battlefield. They had come to America less than two decades prior, and each had come to love his new homeland. As they moved through the haze of smoke and bullets that day, they knew was the one time they didn’t want to see one another.
Alexander and James Campbell were fighting on opposite sides of the battle.
The Battle of Secessionville, 1862.
We hear a lot about how the U.S. Civil War pitted “brother against brother,” but at least in one case, such a fight actually happened. Alexander and James Campbell made the transatlantic crossing together from their native Scotland, but they didn’t settle in the United States together. Alexander stayed in New York while Joseph became a stone mason in Charleston, South Carolina. When fighting broke out between the states, the men each attended to their duties as citizens of their respective countries.
Alexander joined New York’s 79th Highlander Infantry Regiment while James enlisted into the 1st South Carolina Battalion. Each knew the other joined the enemy cause because they corresponded with one another regularly. The two exchanged letters for the duration of the war. They were still brothers, after all.
The forests and fields where the Battle of Secessionville took place.
Eventually, Alex and the 79th New York landed on James Island, South Carolina, just outside of Charleston. The Union Army was trying to make South Carolina pay for its rebellion and the attack on Fort Sumter the previous year. The Union troops captured a Confederate skirmisher who told Alexander that his brother was operating in the same area as the Federal Army. It wasn’t until after the battle of Secessionville that they learned they had been on opposite sides of the same battlefield. He wrote:
“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.”
Though the brothers were never engaged in dramatic mortal combat at Secessionville, it was the closest they would ever come. After the battle, the Union Army repaired back north, and Alexander was wounded in the Battle of Chantilly, in Virginia later that year. His South Carolinian brother James was captured at the 1863 Battle of Fort Wagner in his adopted home state, and sent to a federal prison, where he sat out the rest of the war in squalid conditions.
The two continued their correspondence throughout James’ incarceration as a rebel soldier.