Thursday, April 23, 2015


[Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina by James L. Gaddis, Jr. (The History Press, 2015). Softcover, maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:167/191. ISBN:978-1-62619-842-5 $19.99]

Even though Civil War armies were desperate for trained officers to lead troops in the field, many West Point graduates on both sides toiled away in low rank obscurity. Others achieved positions of great responsibility at the beginning of the war only to quickly disappear from the scene. Confederate general Richard Caswell Gatlin belonged in the latter group, his life and military career the subject of James Gaddis's Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina.

Unusual for Civil War military biographical treatments, the majority (albeit a slim one) of Gaddis's text is devoted to his subject's life and antebellum army service. A native of Lenoir County, North Carolina, Richard Gatlin was born into a socially prominent yet not particularly wealthy family. An 1832 graduate of West Point, Gatlin spent his entire U.S. Army career as an officer in the 7th Infantry and postings took him all over the country. He first gained notice by passing up the traditional post-graduation leave to participate in the Black Hawk War. Later, several tours of duty were spent along the Arkansas-Indian Territory frontier and in Florida fighting Seminoles. In between involvement in the obscure Patriot's War border affair in 1838 and the Utah Expedition of the late 1850s, Gatlin was wounded fighting with General Taylor's army in Mexico, returning to duty there only after the war ended.

In addition to describing in some detail Gatlin's actions during the above events, the author also provides insight into Gatlin's family life, one frequently marred by tragedy. Unfortunately for those researching his place in nineteenth century American history, Gatlin did not leave any great volume of writings behind and the few letters that did survive are not particularly insightful avenues into his private life and personality. Nevertheless, there is enough source material available to piece together a reasonably thorough history of his Civil War career.

Like many Tar Heels, Gatlin was a late supporter of secession. Nevertheless, when war came he served enthusiastically under both state and Confederate army banners. In June 1861, the governor of North Carolina appointed him brigadier general of state troops and commander of the southern coastal defenses. Rapidly exhausting state funds, arms, and men, Gatlin and Governor Ellis looked to Richmond for help and found the response less than encouraging. In August, Gatlin was made a Confederate brigadier general and placed at the helm of the newly formed Department of North Carolina. Few resources followed, which was doubly unfortunate given how many state initiatives were discontinued in anticipation of the transfer of authority.  Within a week of Gatlin's assumption of departmental command, Union land and naval forces captured Hatteras Inlet, opening the North Carolina sounds to invasion and giving the harried general his first taste of public ire.

The ensuing fall and winter months witnessed many organizational changes and new officer appointments but no great response to pleas for additional men and coastal guns, though one might argue that local cries of abandonment by the national government were somewhat misinformed. According to Gaddis, Gatlin actually reported rather substantial department strength during this time, with nearly 12,000 PFD in February 1862 when the Burnside Expedition first swept into Pamlico Sound and seized Roanoke Island. A recurrence of an illness first contracted on the frontier kept Gatlin from front line duty, although it's unclear whether or not he ever planned on leaving his Goldsboro headquarters behind to take personal command. Roanoke Island itself was the Norfolk Department's responsibility but the March 14 fall of New Bern was immediately followed by Gatlin's relief from command, an unfortunate bit of timing as the government was acting on the general's own earlier request to step down due to ill health. Over the following weeks, Washington, Morehead City, Beaufort, and Fort Macon would all come under Union control, further staining Gatlin's record as the individual most responsible for preparing the state's coastal defenses.

As the man in charge, Gatlin received a great deal of public blame for the enemy capture and occupation of the North Carolina coastline but as time went on most civilian and military observers came to sympathize with his difficulties. More critical of Richmond's neglect, today's historians have similarly allowed little direct blame to permanently rest upon Gatlin's shoulders. Most, including Gaddis, generally approve of his troop dispositions but one can't help but compare Gatlin's force allocations to similarly catastrophic Confederate defense plans characterized by dispersal of forces to garrison key points. In contrast to Gatlin in North Carolina, General Lee in South Carolina and Georgia recognized the lessons of Port Royal, a campaign that spotlighted the Union army and navy's ability to achieve overwhelming local superiority at points of their own choosing. Instead of employing a cordon defense of the coastline, Lee only lightly screened vulnerable coast areas, keeping his main forces at places conducive to rapid concentration against Union incursion. While Gatlin did keep a central reserve, it consisted only of two newly raised regiments, both poorly armed and untrained. It might have been interesting for Gaddis to consider the suitability of Lee's coastal defense strategy (which proved successful long term) to Gatlin's situation in North Carolina.

Largely forgiven by the end of 1862, Gatlin nevertheless was not entrusted with another Confederate command. As other Confederate generals like Mansfield Lovell and John C. Pemberton quickly discovered, presiding over very public defeats (regardless of degree of culpability) meant accepting a much diminished role if further military service was desired. Beginning in August 1863, Gatlin served as North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance's adjutant general and remained at that post until war's end. Unable to make a living in his home state during Reconstruction, Gatlin relocated his family to Fort Smith, Arkansas and died there in 1896 at the ripe old age of 87.

An important early war military figure, Richard Gatlin is certainly deserving of a modern biographical treatment and James Gaddis's Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina does a fine job of elevating the general's life and long military career out of the depths of obscurity. Civil War students seeking to answer the question of why North Carolina ports, forts, and sounds fell so quickly to Union forces will find in the book a useful historical overview of related decisions and events from the Confederate perspective.

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