America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March toward Civil War



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In 1863, Union forces surrounded the city of Charleston. Their vice-like grip on the harbor would hold the city hostage for nearly two years, becoming the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. But for almost two centuries prior, a singular ideology forged among the headstrong citizens of Charleston had laid a different sort of siege to the entire American South–the promulgation of brutal, deplorable, and immensely profitable institution of slavery.

In America’s Longest Siege, Joseph Kelly examines the nation’s long struggle with its “peculiar institution” through the hotly contested debates in the city at the center of the slave trade. From the earliest slave rebellions to the Nullification crisis to the final, tragic act of secession that doomed both the city and the South as a whole, Kelly captures the toxic mix of nationalism, paternalism, and unprecedented wealth that made Charleston the focus of the nationwide debate over slavery. Kelly also explores the dissenters who tried–and ultimately failed–to stop the oncoming Civil War.

Exhaustingly researched and also compulsively readable, America’s Longest Siege offers an insightful new take on the war and the culture that made it inevitable.

Overlook Press, 2013

2 thoughts on “America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March toward Civil War

  1. I picked up your book, America’s Longest Siege a few weeks ago, and I’ve found it utterly fascinating. I’m a white guy who’s lived in the South for 42 of my 49 years, and since the Confederate flag debate became a prominent topic of discussion after the horrible shootings, I’ve been trying to uncover what white Southerners mean by “heritage.” No one has ever been able to explain it to me without resorting to using highly charged political or even racist rhetoric. Your book has been a treasure trove of information towards helping me address the heritage question without all the baggage. You do an excellent job of mapping out the twists and turns that ultimately lead to the Civil War. I’ve recommended it a number of times to my friends and family.

    I have a question about Denmark Vesey. I found that chapter to be particularly edifying and heartbreaking. I knew little of the revolt until your book. Since then I’ve done a bit of research to find out more. Most historians present it as a fact that Vesey was indeed the mastermind of a planned slave revolt, yet you seem to indicate that the case that there was any plan for a revolt at all is highly suspect. The mere fact that most of the “star chamber” proceedings were held in secret points toward a conspiracy concocted by the paranoid whites population of Charleston, a paranoia that may have been fueled by the revolt in Haiti. Am I reading your assertion correctly? Forgive me for asking. I’m just trying to piece all this information together in their proper context as I trod along.

    Once again, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed America’s Longest Siege. My copy will become part of my permanent collection of books.

    Thank you,

    Richard W. Ridley

    • Richard, thanks for the very high praise for my book. I was afraid I carried too much baggage with me to the writing table, so I’m glad that it did not seem so to you. The goal is impartiality, and that’s something very tough to accomplish with Denmark Vesey, at least here in Charleston. On one hand, he is vilified by many old white families for supposedly plotting to murder. At the same time, he’s lionized by many African Americans and those unenamored of the old South for his muscular response to the degradation of slavery. I was very much persuaded by Michael Johnson when I heard him speak in Charleston twenty years ago or so. And the more I looked into it, the more I was convinced that everyone had a vested interest in believing the plot was real, and those interests colored their interpretation of the evidence. Not to claim to a greater impartiality than everyone–only I read things the way you very eloquently sum up. So, after that long-winded response, in short–yes, you’ve got my assertion exactly right. Thanks again for the compliments and for recommending my book to friends.

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