Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Notes

During the last several months, I’ve been fortunate to read some good books - some related to my current project on North Carolina, others not so much. Here are some thoughts on a few of the more interesting ones.

In 1864, my great-great grandfather, a teenager at the time, was conscripted into the 68th North Carolina somewhere between Ahoskie and Aulander in Hertford County.  He survived the war, raised a family, named his son Wade Hampton Newsome, and, after a long life, passed away in the 1930’s.  His Confederate service seems pretty straightforward, and it probably was . . . but one can never be sure.  Barton Myers’ excellent book demonstrates that, well, things were pretty complicated in Civil War North Carolina.  On the heels of his excellent study about guerrilla violence in eastern North Carolina, Executing Daniel Bright, Myers tackles the diffuse, amorphous Unionist movement in the Old North State.  His analysis of this sprawling, multi-faceted issue is full of thought provoking insights about Tarheels who opposed the Confederacy and helped bring about its demise. 
There is much to like in Myers’ book but perhaps the most impressive part is the deep dive he takes into the case files of the Southern Claims Commission, a federal agency that adjudicated reimbursement claims for civilian property confiscated by U.S. troops during the war.  Because the Commission required claimants to prove their loyalty to the Union, the stacks of case materials housed in the National Archives provide fertile ground for historians interested in southern Unionists.  By systematically sampling the claims and examining intriguing details of individual cases, Myers has uncovered a treasure trove of previously unknown information about North Carolina’s Unionists. One golden nugget is the case of a James W. Buck from Wake County, who, as revealed in his file, not only served as a bodyguard for newspaper editor and gubernatorial peace candidate William Holden but also counted himself a member of the Heroes of America (i.e., the “Red Stripes”), a clandestine anti-Confederate organization.

Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt: The Confederate Campaign Against Peace Agitators, Deserters and Draft Dodgers by William T. Auman
A nice compliment to Myers’ book, the late William Auman’s 2013 study focuses on Unionists in Carolina’s western “Quaker Belt” who challenged Confederate power during the war. The movement vexed officials in Raleigh and Richmond, who took a variety of measures to quell the dissent. Based on Auman’s previously unpublished 1980's dissertation, the book chronicles the aggressive, sometimes brutal efforts by Confederate officials to suppress dissent in the peace-leaning counties. It also identifies an overlooked similarity between the North Carolina peace advocates and the Northern Copperheads, many of whom advocated the South’s return to the Union with slavery intact.     

I’ve read this one twice now. Ferling’s work effectively untangles the string of military campaigns during the Revolution, especially the events in the war’s later years. The narrative clips along, always placing the battles and campaigns in their larger political context and providing in depth commentary on the personalities of the leaders involved. This one is truly a pleasure to read.

Where did slaves end up after they fled the plantations in North Carolina and headed for the nearby federal bases? Click and Mobley chronicle the history of two communities established by the Union army for former slaves in the eastern part of the state: James City at New Bern and Roanoke Island in the Pamlico Sound. These works offer a clear window into this intriguing aspect of the war in North Carolina. 

Sherrill has done much heavy lifting here. The research is extensive and the writing is well done. The author exhibits a first-hand knowledge of terrain possessed only by one who has walked the ground and talked to the local experts. His footnotes are immensely helpful and reveal the hard work that went into this study. His chapters on New Bern and Plymouth in 1864 are excellent.  My favorite line from his notes about his field visits outside New Bern is: “A canoe venture up the creek turned up no sign of the block house on the opposite bank.” Since reading his book, I've reached out to Mr. Sherrill with some research questions and he has been very helpful in sharing information on events in eastern North Carolina.


The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864 by John Horn
Last year, my friend John Horn released his book covering an important part of the Petersburg Campaign in August 1864 – the operations at Deep Bottom, the Union seizure of the Weldon Railroad at Globe Tavern, and the dramatic Confederate victory at Reams Station. This is much more than a reprint of his 1991 work on these battles; it is a completely retooled and expanded version. As much as any period during the campaign, the August battles underscore the approaches taken by Union and Confederate commanders at Petersburg. Horn does a great job leading the reader through these complicated operations. His narrative digs into the tactical details but also presents the events in their broader perspective. Furthermore, he does not hold back in his assessments of the commanders involved. The book has received many very positive, well-deserved reviews. I was fortunate to be involved with this project, preparing the maps and reviewing the manuscript. Over at the Siege of Petersburg Online, Brett Schulte has posted a lengthy article that includes several of the book's maps - "Maps of the 2nd Battle of Deep Bottom from John Horn’s New Petersburg Book." Along with John Selby, John Horn and I co-edited Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans, a collection of many previously unknown first-hand accounts the war in the east.  

 Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 by James Oakes
The conventional view follows a well-worn track. Lincoln’s war began as a struggle for Union and only later expanded to include the goal of emancipation. Clear enough?  Maybe not says Oakes. His study challenges the traditional notion that the President and his allies slowly adopted abolition as a war strategy. Instead, Oakes forcefully argues that slavery’s destruction had been an unswerving goal from the outset.  Over the course of the study, he thoroughly describes the legal hurdles facing slavery’s opponents as well as the various strategies they employed.  Oakes also emphasizes the slaves’ own efforts including self-emancipation, work for the federal armies, and enlistment in federal units.  The study details how Union forces, the Lincoln administration, and Congress supported the self-emancipated slaves as they streamed into the Union lines in the war’s first years.  Oakes clearly explains how the President and Congress worked for slavery's demise through legislation, including the first and second Confiscation Acts, and executive actions, most famously the Emancipation Proclamation.  This book presents the ins and outs of a complex subject in a cogent, well-organized narrative – an excellent read.

In 1864, a skirmish occurred only a few hundred yards from my childhood home, a fact I learned of only a few years ago.  Bruce Venter’s work recounts that scuffle and other events associated with the ill-fated raid on Richmond led by Judson Kilpatrick in the spring of 1864.  The fascinating event has much to attract even the casual reader:  a raid to free Union prisoners in Richmond, a covert plot to kill Jefferson Davis, and a several sharp fights in what is now the Richmond’s western suburbs.  The extensive research and the well-crafted writing demonstrate that Venter has clearly leaned into this project.