Saturday, May 08, 2010

Myers: "EXECUTING DANIEL BRIGHT: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865"

[Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865 by Barton A. Myers (Louisiana State University Press, 2009). Hardcover, map, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 146/206. ISBN: 978-0-8071-3475-7 $32.50]

The inner Civil War that raged within the coastal counties of North Carolina has been the subject of a number of excellent scholarly books and articles, and Barton Myers's award-winning monograph Executing Daniel Bright is yet another significant contribution to the Civil War historiography of the region. Although his title suggests a larger focus on the death of suspected Confederate guerrilla Daniel Bright, Myers's brief in length but deeply thoughtful study is really more of a Pasquotank County social, political, and military history.

Pasquotank, a northeastern North Carolina county whose major settlement was Elizabeth City, voted for compromise candidate John Bell during the 1860 presidential election. Like many others throughout the upper and border South, the county had Union and Confederate supporters spread across all social strata. Additionally, while many Pasquotank residents enrolled in the Confederate army, a significant number (white "Buffaloes", free blacks, and ex-slaves) joined Federal units.

When the U.S. army and navy together captured vast stretches North Carolina coast during Burnside's 1862 expedition, Elizabeth City also fell, significantly disrupting civil and social order in the city and surrounding lands. Myers describes well what followed soon after, a situation that unfortunately afflicted countless communities throughout the South. Union forces would often be ordered away from captured areas after brief occupations, inadvertently creating lawless zones controlled by the regular authorities of neither side. Into this power vacuum would step guerrillas like Daniel Bright.

Myers's account of the guerrilla war in the county reinforces Daniel Sutherland's thesis that the irregular war, far from being a broadly useful military tool to be used against invading U.S. armies, actually undermined popular support for the Confederacy by leaving the local populace undefended and open to harassment by both sides. In some cases, in exchange for nominal loyalty, locals were forced to look to federal forces for protection. Pro-Confederate guerrillas proved impossible to control (Pasquotank's irregulars were no exception), and the bands were generally unwilling and/or unable to consistently protect citizens and their property. Even worse, the presence of guerrillas only increased the likelihood of Federal raids and magnified the harshness of their retribution. This is clearly demonstrated by the author's excellent summary of Union general Edward A. Wild's December 1863 punitive raid from southeast Virginia into northeast North Carolina. It was during Wild's raid that Daniel Bright, an accused Confederate deserter and guerrilla, was captured and hanged. For an individual whose name is mentioned in the very title of the book, surprisingly little space is devoted to Bright's life, Civil War activities, and the circumstances of his capture and execution. However, his importance is mainly symbolic, ancillary to the overall thrust of Myers's book.

Wild's raiding force was composed of USCT units, a circumstance that concerned local families of all political persuasions. The image of black soldiers moving through the region with impunity, freeing slaves, accosting citizens, and taking white women as hostages unnerved many. Wild's raid led both sides to take the unusual step of meeting together and hammering out a neutrality agreement that would bring a modicum of peace to the area and also serve to forestall additional punitive raids. It did not work as planned, but demonstrated that some issues could be temporarily set aside if it meant the preservation of personal property and the existing racial/social order.

As stated above, Executing Daniel Bright is a valuable contribution to the social and military historiography of the Civil War in coastal North Carolina. It is also a model of concise scholarly rendering of a number of challenging subjects and themes that can be applied to the study of other regions. Highly recommended.

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