Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hilderman: "THEOPHILUS HUNTER HOLMES: A North Carolina General in the Civil War"

[Theophilus Hunter Holmes: A North Carolina General in the Civil War by Walter C. Hilderman III (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2013). Softcover, maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:197/230. ISBN:9780786473106 $35]

Latter day appreciation of Civil War generals typically centers on either their battlefield genius or administrative talent (rarely both), the latter encompassing a broad range of useful wartime skills such as political acumen, recruitment, subordinate talent recognition, and civil/military organization. Few knowledgeable persons will be willing to defend the generalship of Confederate Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes, but author Walter Hilderman, in his new book Theophilus Hunter Holmes: A North Carolina General in the Civil War, argues that the high ranking Tarheel officer's leadership role in maximizing state manpower mobilization during 1864-65 makes his service deserving of greater recognition.

According to the author, Holmes left behind little in the way of personal papers and no postwar writings (though several manuscript collections located in Virginia and North Carolina archives are listed in the bibliography), making the task of the biographer difficult. In typical Civil War military biography fashion, Hilderman begins his study with Holmes's West Point years, moving from there to the young officer's early professional career, which was comprised of involvement in the Indian Removal affairs of the 1830s and fighting in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars. These sections do not provide a great deal in the way of details specific to Holmes, but rather more of a general discussion of events. In what fashion these earlier conflicts might have informed Holmes's Civil War service is not a source of serious speculation.

Significant new information related to Holmes's Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas commands is not apparent. Contemporary allegations that Holmes was tardy in moving toward Manassas, missing the 1861 battle, remain without foundation. The conventional criticisms surrounding the general's performance during the Seven Days have softened over time, and Hilderman finds himself in accordance with the view that poor army-level staff work and situational confusion emanating from the top were arguably more responsible for Holmes's perceived timidity on June 30 than the aging general's mental and physical limitations. His command grade was certainly no worse than any of a number of others with similar levels of responsibility on that day, or the next. Holmes's infamous deafness is not a source of additional inquiry in the book beyond the author's finding that no primary source exists for the "I thought I heard firing" quote so often repeated in the literature in mocking fashion. The chapters related to Holmes's department and district level leadership in the Trans-Mississippi during 1862-63, including his direction of the disastrous July 1863 assault on Helena, Arkansas, are conventional in content and analysis.

Hilderman's discussion of Holmes's unpopular time in Arkansas (mostly as a desk general) is not especially supportive of his study's thesis that Holmes rendered valuable administrative service to the Confederacy. Rather it is in North Carolina where this view is best reinforced. During the final twelve months of the war, Holmes was tasked with raising and organizing new state reserve forces. The intention behind such further robbing from the cradle and the grave was to use these formations to release regular Confederate garrison troops in North Carolina for more active service in Virginia, where they were direly needed. Hilderman, the author of a 2006 study of conscription in North Carolina, is well suited to document this aspect of the state's Civil War history, and it is indeed the best part of the book. With limited resources, Holmes was able to both enforce Confederate conscription in the state and mobilize Junior and Senior Reserve regiments numbering around 10,000 older men and boys. Their efficiency was mixed, but, given the inherent limitations, more could hardly be expected.

Recognizing the talents of subordinates, mentoring them, and actively promoting their career advancement is an important part of the job of high ranking military officers, and its clear from Hilderman's biography that Holmes took this responsibility seriously. Members of his staff, most notably James Deshler, became generals and Holmes repeatedly reminded Richmond authorities of the work of other talented individuals like Major Peter Mallett, who served under Holmes at Aquia Creek in 1861 and later successfully managed an entire network of conscription offices in North Carolina. An important benefit of Hilderman's study is that it should disabuse readers of the popular notion that Holmes was senile and devoid of any useful attributes. No one will take from Hilderman's biography a belief that Theophilus Holmes was a misunderstood gem of a Confederate general, but the book does provide the most fair minded assessment of the general's career yet published. Scholars of Confederate conscription will also find this study to be a useful tool.


  1. If Hilderman's research is reliable, it's a shame to cast that "I thought I heard firing" anecdote into the urban legend dustbin. Next somebody will tell us that the quote really came from Don Carlos Buell at Perryville.

    1. I agree. I hate to see that quote debunked it's a great one. And his cupping of his ear was just a great image.

      Well at least he wasn't made into a military genius.



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