Monday, February 26, 2018

Review of Venner - "THE 30TH NORTH CAROLINA INFANTRY IN THE CIVIL WAR: A History and Roster"

[The 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster by William Thomas Venner (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2018). 7x10 softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:269/446. ISBN:9781476662404. $45]

Naturally all kinds exist, but the greater run of modern Civil War regimental histories seems to have gradually evolved into two basic branches. The first, frequently published through university presses, places great emphasis on social demography and the conclusions that might be drawn from studying the various connections between the war and home fronts. A variety of themes commonly addressed by modern social science disciplines, among them issues of class, race, ethnicity, and gender, are explored while the amount of attention paid to the service history of the regiment is often perfunctory by comparison. The second type, standard to the popular literature, is much less concerned with social history contexts and far more interested in documenting unit organization, leadership, battle history, and casualties, often lavishing great detail upon each part. A roster of some kind has also become an almost integral feature of the popular regimental study.

William Thomas Venner's The 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War definitely belongs in the second category. It certainly displays all of the expected qualities previously mentioned, but the volume also goes a step beyond the typical representative when it comes to micro-level attention to detail.

Recruited and organized in the months immediately following the outbreak of war, the 30th North Carolina Infantry Regiment was formally mustered into Confederate service on September 26, 1861 under the command of Colonel Francis Marion Parker. Like so many other Carolinas units, the 30th would initially be assigned to coastal defense duty in its home state before being called to the front during the early 1862 emergency threat on the Virginia Peninsula. Attached to the brigade of General George B. Anderson, the Tarheels received their baptism of fire at Gaines's Mill and got hit hard again at Malvern Hill just days later.

Accorded a small amount of breathing space after the conclusion of the Peninsula Campaign, the regiment missed Second Manassas but fought in Maryland at South Mountain and Antietam. In contrast to their Fredericksburg experience, the men of the 30th found themselves heavily engaged (with correspondingly grim casualty levels) at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1863.

This bloody trail across the eastern theater continued through the 1864 Overland and Shenandoah campaigns. Finally, after wintering in the Richmond-Petersburg siege lines, the much-diminished 30th NC suffered through the last campaign in the East and ended its Confederate service with the surrender at Appomattox.

Broadly speaking, regular readers of eastern theater unit studies will find the 30th's Civil War story to be much the same as those discussed in countless other Army of Northern Virginia regimental histories. However, every long-serving regiment possesses salient moments, and Venner's narrative draws these out effectively. The 30th was at the very tip of the spear during the culmination of Jubal Early's 1864 Washington Raid that "scared Abe Lincoln like hell," occupying the forward skirmish line opposite Fort Stevens. In addition to highlighting other battlefield high points like the unit's stubborn defense of the Sunken Road at Antietam (where the 30th held the far right flank of the position) and the important part the Tarheels played in helping seal off the near-catastrophic breach to the Spotsylvania salient, the book also describes at length inglorious low points of the 30th's career like the disastrous outpost action at Kelly's Ford on November 7, 1863.

In Venner's narrative seemingly nothing goes unnoticed in camp, on the march, or in battle. The more casual reader might be overwhelmed by the volume and density of detail presented, but even the most jaded regimental history aficionado won't help but be impressed by the effort that went into its creation. By the author's own count, his book contains over 2,000 excerpts from firsthand accounts written by members of the regiment and others. However, even with this great focus on relating intimate details, the book never manages to the lose sight of the broader sweep of events.

Visual aids and informational tables are particularly strong assets of the study. In addition to having numerous photographs and other illustrations included, the volume demonstrates an appreciation for the importance of cartography (the sunken road section alone has 5 maps). While perhaps a bit inconsistent in artistic accomplishment, the map set does a consistently good job of showing readers the 30th's place on the many battlefields described in the text while also filling in the surroundings (both in terms of terrain and neighboring units). Very useful for reference purposes are the strength and casualty tables distributed throughout the book. Before each battle, and at many other intervening points, Venner inserts a table listing regimental strength by company as well as current officers. The same is done for post-battle casualties.

A major part of the book (around 125 pages) is devoted to a pair of appendices. The first is a meticulously rendered casualty register organized by battle. It also includes the 30th's Appomattox surrender roll and a list of all deaths by disease. The second appendix is the full unit roster, which includes a good deal of biographical information gleaned from the CSRs.

There's much in the way of history and reference value packed inside Venner's book. Certainly dedicated students of the 30th NC will want to pick up a copy, but the volume also deserves the consideration of anyone interested in North Carolina Civil War history or Army of Northern Virginia combat regiments in general.

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