Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hartley: "STUART'S TARHEELS: James B. Gordon and His North Carolina Cavalry in the Civil War, 2nd Ed."

[Stuarts Tarheels: James B. Gordon and His North Carolina Cavalry in the Civil War, 2nd Ed. by Chris J. Hartley (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2011).   Hardcover, maps, illustrations, notes, roster, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:250/445. ISBN:978-0-7864-6364-0  $55]

Even if widely admired personally and professionally by wartime colleagues and superiors, accomplished Civil War cavalry generals can still find themselves largely forgotten if they lack good press, an exciting eponymous raid, or a shining moment in a famous battle. In the eastern theater, it always helps to be a Virginian, too.  Back in 1996, Chris Hartley shed light on one of these largely forgotten cavalry figures with the release of his book Stuart's Tarheels, an expanded 2nd edition of which has just been published by McFarland.

A combination biography of North Carolinian James Byron Gordon and unit history of his regiment (and later brigade command), Stuart's Tarheels strikes a fine balance of both. The first few chapters examine Gordon's pre-war life, with the rest focusing on the operations of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry regiment and the North Carolina Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Gordon's regiment first saw combat in the Old Dominion at Dranesville in December 1861.  The tarheels then returned to their home state to witness the failure of Confederate forces to prevent the Union conquest of the North Carolina coastal counties. Returning to Virginia to defend the capital, the 1st (attached to Wade Hampton's brigade) participated in the Seven Days and Maryland campaigns.

Hartley's coverage of military events is quite meticulous, detailing for the reader well known operations as well as more obscure actions like the November 5, 1862 fight at Barbee's Crossroad and Hampton's 1862-63 winter raids. Gordon's command skills are emphasized, as well as his administrative ability.  His men were always in a high state of readiness. Gordon's combat exploits probably first achieved wider notice in 1863, when he fought well covering Lee's retreat from Gettysburg and played a key role in extricating JEB Stuart's command at Bristoe Station.  He also became a brigadier general during the latter period, but would not have the opportunity to serve long in that capacity. The following May, during Sheridan's Richmond raid, Gordon was mortally wounded at Meadow Bridge the day after Stuart was shot at Yellow Tavern. In his narrative of these events, Hartley makes a strong case for Gordon being perhaps the best cavalry officer produced by North Carolina and highly deserving of a greater degree of historical recognition.

Solidly grounded in manuscript material and other primary sources, the level of research in Stuart's Tarheels is high. Not having read the first edition, I am unfamiliar with the amount and significance of new information incorporated into the new work.  However, the 2nd edition's 1st North Carolina Cavalry roster, almost 150 pages of material drawn from a wide range of sources and rich in service record detail, is a significant contribution. The maps, drawn by the author, are fairly unremarkable in terms of tactical information provided, but they are useful in the general sense of helping locate places mentioned in the text.

Chris Hartley's Stuart's Tarheels is a very solid example of how to do brigade history correctly.  James B. Gordon and his men are richly deserving of having their Civil War careers documented and recognized for posterity, and Hartley's inspired scholarly crafting of their story does them abundant justice.

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