Sunday, February 24, 2008

Meekins: "Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War"

[Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation by Alex Christopher Meekins (The History Press, 2007). Softcover, photos, drawings, 3 maps, notes. Pages main/total: 134/157. ISBN: 978-1-59629-212-3 $21.99]

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in city, county, and regional studies. The myriad of reasons why are beyond the scope of this review, but these provide perhaps the best laboratory for the study of Southern Unionism and the guerrilla warfare that invariably breaks out in areas with concentrated unionist populations. Both subjects are strongly local in terms of motivating factors and characterization. Alex Christopher Meekins' study Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War is very much in this vein. The region of interest is that part of North Carolina bounded by the Chowan River (west), Albemarle Sound (south), Currituck Sound (east), and the Virginia-NC border (north).

While more regional in nature than indicated by the title, this study nevertheless directs much of its focus upon the Pasquotank River port of Elizabeth City. It's initial capture by Federal army and navy forces in early 18621 inaugurated a period of alternating occupation and economic devastation. Meekins recounts in great detail the broad destruction wrought by the guerrilla (and counter-guerrilla) warfare that engulfed the area during 1862-1865. The various strategies employed by the succession of Union district commanders to stem the violence over this period are detailed.

Significant unionist feeling in NE North Carolina led to the Federal army's recruitment of both white and black combat units. The uncertain economic viability of the region and issues of physical safety among the citizens are important elements of Meekins's study. In fact, as in many other regions of the occupied South, Union forces used economic incentives as a means to curb guerrilla attacks. Regardless of such efforts, rampant guerrilla warfare, combined with only periodic occupation by regular forces, led to a citizenry constantly under the gun, assaulted and exploited by both sides (regardless of allegiance).

The publisher has done a fine job as well; the paperback volume is sturdily constructed using quality materials and is handsomely illustrated. Written well and based almost exclusively on primary source materials, the book's strengths are abundant; however, several weaknesses are apparent. While notes indicate a deep level of original research, no bibliography or index are provided. Three maps2 are present, but, with so many locations mentioned in the text but not found on any map, much needed detail was lacking3. None of these flaws, however, would deter me from recommending this study. Beyond its role as an original, gap-filling regional history, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War contributes significantly to the expanding literature examining broader issues of Southern Unionism [black & white] and guerrilla warfare.

1 - This event is only briefly covered. Military coverage focuses primarily on the occupation, with its attendant guerrilla warfare and cavalry sweeps.
2 - An 1893 map of Elizabeth City; and two regional, large-scale archival reproductions dating from 1867 -- one a magnification of the other.
3 - I have always been of the fervent opinion that original maps, wedded to the text, are a must for all modern studies.


  1. Drew,
    Very nice review. I think Chris Meekins would be pleased with your compliments. I really must get a copy of the book now.

    Andrew Duppstadt @ Civil War Navy

  2. Drew, Andrew, thank you for your kind words. Your comments will indeed make my work stronger if given an opportunity for a second edition. I myself have fretted over no index or bibliography but perhaps the future will change that omission.
    Lack of detail in the main battle - 45 minute engagment or so - stems from my recognition that Richard Sauers did a fine detail of that fighting, and so I decided to frame the context rather than rehash his fine work.
    Its great that you noticed a regional cast to the work as well - and I believe you also understood that as I went regional it was to compare or contrast events in the region against those in Elizabeth City - for instance, the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Elizabeth City but not in Edenton (which serves as a major foil of the study - experiencing many of the same things but with different outcomes).
    Lastly let me say what a pleasure it is that you understood the central idea in the work - one expressed in the title of my thesis: Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis. These folks were hounded on all sides and finally just wished to be left alone. Alas, such literary allusions don't play as well "Civil War" in a title.
    And I take your point about maps - and have located a few that would also sevre if given a future edition.
    Again, thank you for your kind words.
    Chris Meekins

  3. Chris,
    Thanks for writing. Southern Unionism is a fascinating subject, and your book is another wonderful contribution to a growing mass of scholarly literature. I believe SU [rather inclusively defined] is deeper and broader than is commonly believed; has lots of interesting implications.


  4. Hello Chris,

    I had been reseaching for sometime about the hanging of Daniel Bright, a NC defender, by General A. Wilde.
    He was hung in Pasquotank County, Dec. 19,1863.
    I'm looking to find more information about Daniel Bright and place of his burial.
    Have you heard of this act ? I believe there are several articles that cover the event but some some are conflicting.
    Thanks for the book. Quite good !!
    You can email me at


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