Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hilderman: "They Went into the Fight Cheering!: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina"

[They Went into the Fight Cheering!: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina by Walter Hilderman III (Parkway Publishers, 2005) Softcover, 3 maps, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography. Pages total/main: 290/224. ISBN: 1-933251-25-5 $24.95]

Book length studies of Confederate conscription at any level are relatively rare, and this documented manuscript by Walter Hilderman is a welcome contribution to the literature. Readers will likely find that North Carolina's often sharp geographic, economic, and political divisions contribute to a particularly interesting examination of the subject.

Hilderman writes well and makes use of a mix of primary and secondary sources. Three correspondence collections in particular showcase well the experiences of soldiers responsible for enforcing the conscript laws in the state. However, while the text's reproduction in full of so many of these reports and letters can be helpful, there were many instances in which pertinent excerpts would have served just as well, if not better. Footnotes and endnotes are present, with the sources and explanatory notes the author feels most interesting to readers chosen for placement at the bottom of the page.

They Went into the Fight Cheering! gives readers a good sense of the realities of enforcing conscription laws amongst a populace with a highly varying degree of support of the Confederacy. A satisfactory amount of organizational and bureaucratic detail is provided in the text without becoming cumbersome. Difficulties are highlighted, both internal and external. Some regions in the state (particularly the western counties) harbored large, increasingly organized bands of deserters and conscription resisters. The Confederate military also exacerbated Conscription Bureau problems by allowing the army to directly recruit replacements, bypassing conscript camps of instruction and creating a bureaucratic mess. In fact, the battle over military vs. civilian control of conscription (and their contrasting degree of regard for individual civil rights) lasted until the end of the war and was a common theme of Hilderman's study throughout. While the author notes that the North Carolina conscription apparatus run by Mallett was exceptionally effective, he does not provide the comparative data from other states that would impactfully backup his claim. Detailed data for counties or congressional districts [the typical bureaucratic boundary] are similarly beyond the study's scope.

They Went into the Fight Cheering!
also serves as a reasonably detailed unit history of the military organizations* (primarily Mallet's Battalion) responsible for Conscription Bureau duties such as enrollment and camp administration & security. As the war dragged on, these companies were frequently drawn into combat duty, notably during the 1863 Kinston/Goldsboro raid.

Hilderman's study is probably not the last word on conscription in North Carolina, but it is a fine comprehensive introduction to the program at the state level. Beyond providing insight into the men involved in enforcement, it also yields a useful leadership and organizational assessment.

* - For interested readers, two appendices are included. The first lists officers attached to the Conscription Bureau of the various congressional districts in NC. The second is a unit roster of Hahn's Battalion.

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