Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Review - "The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864" by Hampton Newsome

[The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864 by Hampton Newsome (University Press of Kansas, 2019). Hardcover, 18 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,329/478. ISBN:978-0-7006-2746-2. $34.95]

With use of its port facilities, rail network, and productive farmland coveted by both sides, eastern North Carolina was an early target for Union land and naval forces. Nevertheless, interest on their part in turning newly-won coastal enclaves into bases for major inland operations against vulnerable enemy lines of communication soon cooled considerably. After the 1862 Burnside Expedition swept through the area and occupied all key points lining the coast, neither side prioritized the region. Largely stripped of troops over and above those needed for garrison duties, a sort of regional military stalemate existed throughout the war's middle period, interrupted only by the occasional raid. The military literature generally follows suit, providing thorough coverage of 1862 and 1865 events but only paying spotty attention to the years in between. However, as oddly occurs with some frequency in the Civil War literature, a very long period of neglect has been punctuated recently by a small but noteworthy burst of activity. Beginning in 2015, the beautiful to behold and astoundingly useful The Old North State at War: The North Carolina Civil War Atlas brought exceptional map coverage and much needed perspective to 1864 events in the eastern part of the state. This was followed by James White's New Bern and the Civil War (2018), a slim volume documenting the several 1863-64 Confederate attempts to capture and reoccupy the region's most strategically significant town. Examining in unprecedented depth and detail the 1864 Confederate winter-spring offensive in eastern North Carolina, a partially successful campaign that featured a stunning Confederate triumph at Plymouth and two failed attempts to capture New Bern, is Hampton Newsome's new book The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 18641.

Newsome begins with an excellent discussion of the military and political reasons behind why an early-1864 campaign in eastern North Carolina was deemed important by the Confederate high command, including Robert E. Lee (who was always loath to part with troops needed for his epic struggle with the Union's premier field army). With the main armies in Virginia still in winter quarters, what began in North Carolina as a small-scale Confederate roundup of deserters was converted into a major campaign to regain home ground long lost to the enemy. On the political front, it was hoped that major military success in eastern North Carolina might boost the reelection chances of war governor Zebulon Vance, diminish Unionist resolve, and counter increasing demoralization among Confederate supporters who felt neglected by the Richmond government. The lack of a strong response to a major raid conducted the previous year by Union general Edward Wild's "African Brigade" made the pro-Confederate populace feeling unprotected by the government and slavery in the state increasingly insecure. In addition to raising civilian morale and support for the war, the capture of New Bern and other major Union-held posts along the rivers and sounds would also open up vast areas of the state once again to Confederate commissary agents. By 1864, this was a pressing consideration.

Newsome provides extensive coverage of the five major components of the Confederate winter-spring offensive: (1) the failed February 1864 attack on New Bern (which was followed by the controversial hangings at Kinston), (2) Ransom's Raid, (3) the storming and capture of Plymouth, (4) the reoccupation of Washington, and finally (5) the second aborted attempt to seize New Bern in May. The multi-pronged land and naval attack on New Bern in February was department commander George Pickett's operation. It involved a complicated and highly ambitious plan that relied on close coordination, surprise, and river support from daring naval officer John Taylor Wood's small boat force. As Newsome's detailed account reveals, none of those elements succeeded to the extent required to achieve victory. Surprise was lost immediately by a determined Union defense of the  Bachelor Creek blockhouse and picket line while Wood's impressive capture of USS Underwriter was negated by the necessity of destroying it after the vessel proved immune to all efforts at getting it underway. A minor victory at Newport Barracks also could not be exploited. The whole operation is reminiscent of other failed Confederate attempts to capture Union river posts that were strongly defended, heavily fortified, and closely supported by the navy (ex. Helena in Arkansas and Fort Butler in Louisiana), and the author is appropriately aware of the many challenges Pickett's operation needed to overcome in order to have any chance of complete success. Of course, every military failure seeks out a scapegoat and allegations of timidity on the part of Virginia general Seth Barton served that requirement well. In retrospect, it seems highly doubtful that Barton and his brigade could have overwhelmed the strong forts and water barriers on their front and forced a general Union surrender, but others at the time seemed to believe otherwise. As overall commander, General Pickett was also held responsible, and his star sunk even further in the minds of many when he orchestrated a mass hanging of Union prisoners who had previously deserted from the Confederate Army (more on this below).

After the New Bern operation failed to achieve the desired results, a brigade-sized Confederate foraging raid was launched from Weldon. Ranging back and forth across SE Virginia and NE North Carolina, Ransom's Raid (February 24 - March 7) accumulated a massive commissary haul. As Newsome astutely notes, its consequences were more than material in nature. The renewed military  presence on ground long occupied by the enemy also demonstrated that Confederate forces were no longer willing to simply concede the loss of territory. On a grimmer note, Ransom's trail also symbolically passed through areas featured in Wild's Raid and still regularly patrolled by black Union troops, and instances of no quarter fighting near Suffolk (where the Confederates clashed successfully with a detachment from the 2nd US Colored Cavalry) presaged what would follow at Plymouth.

Though his actions would be overseen first by George Pickett and later by P.G.T. Beauregard, the key figure in the 1864 campaign in North Carolina was Robert F. Hoke. For the Plymouth attack, he would be in charge of a major operation for the first time, and his stunning victory there would earn him promotion to major general. Newsome's highly detailed account of the entire operation is well researched and thorough, easily the new standard treatment. Several chapters address the planning and execution of the movement against heavily fortified Plymouth. The final outfitting of Hoke's naval support, the CSS Albemarle, is also detailed in the book. In addition to being strongly defended and amply fortified, Plymouth had established rearward defenses facing the water approaches. To secure Plymouth's fall, many things had to go right on the Confederate side. Through the author's keen analysis of events, the Plymouth chapters reveal Hoke's strengths as a battlefield tactician and a Confederate capacity for combined operations rarely seen during the war. At Plymouth, Hoke was able to firmly manage all of his subordinate formations in the heat of battle. When any part of his attack plan bogged down, he instinctively redirected the focus of the assault without losing control of his men or the tempo of the battle. This uncommon flexibility resulted in a devastating Confederate breakthrough on the more rugged but less-fortified Union left that swept through the town itself and captured the defenders from the rear. The haul in prisoners, supplies, and equipment was immense, and Hoke's North Carolina campaign was far from finished.

The next target was Washington, which was also surrounded by a substantial and well-defended network of fortifications. Though the Pamlico River town was far from an easy target, it was nevertheless evacuated (and substantially burned in the process) before Hoke arrived. This bloodless capture placed New Bern yet again in Confederate gun sights. This time around hopes were high that things would turn out different with added support from the navy. However, the ironclad CSS Neuse was still aground in its namesake river and the refitted Albemarle was turned back in Albemarle Sound during the lesser-known May 5 naval battle on Batchelor's Bay. Concurrent events in Virginia also conspired to derail Hoke's plans, as the opening of the Overland Campaign led to the staged recall of Hoke's borrowed brigades. Though some accounts written by the Union defenders lament their weakness in the face of looming attack, the much-reduced Confederate force had little realistic chance of taking New Bern under those circumstances and the operation was abandoned.

The book's coverage of the Kinston hangings and later allegations regarding a "massacre" of white North Carolina Unionists (derisively termed "Buffaloes") and black troops after the capture of Plymouth highlight intractable wartime disagreements over which classes of soldiers would be deemed legitimate combatants by both sides and thus subject to standard POW treatment. As one would expect, Union forces maintained that Confederate deserters and black soldiers became entitled to all the rights and protections of regular soldiers once they formally donned the blue uniform, but many Confederates in positions of authority disagreed. General Pickett saw the hangings of deserter Buffaloes captured at New Bern as both just punishment and useful tool of intimidation, but the author notes that even some in the ranks of the Confederate Army were sympathetic with deserter protests that the army had been unfaithful, even deceitful, toward those men when it came to honoring their original terms of enlistment. According to many Confederate rank and file soldiers, the condemned men deserved less than capital punishment and the fact that it was a prominent Virginian meting out the harsh military justice rankled Tar Heel Confederates almost as much. On the matter of the Plymouth controversy, Newsome defers without much in the way of extensive further commentary to the now classic 1995 North Carolina Historical Review article by Jordan and Thomas2, which concluded that perhaps fifty men were killed either during the act of surrender or after capture.

Throughout the book, Newsome's narrative is supported by an excellent set of maps (18 in number) that allow readers to readily visualize military movements and events at all scales. The usefulness of the series of tactical maps for Plymouth and the two New Bern operations is particularly noteworthy. In The Fight for the Old North State, Newsome certainly adds to his reputation as an indefatigable researcher. Text, notes, and bibliography indicate both extensive original manuscript research as well as thoughtful synthesis of the available secondary literature. Readers appreciative of the high-level research and narrative interpretation skills displayed in Newsome's earlier military study Richmond Must Fall will find the same qualities here3.

Though the 1864 Confederate offensive in North Carolina failed to seize New Bern—the crown jewel of Union military posts in the department—Newsome builds a persuasive case that the operation was mostly successful when viewed in the broadest sense. It raised Confederate morale in the state, had the desired effect of chilling the ardor of Buffaloes, temporarily undermined the state's peace party movement, and likely contributed at least in some way (though the author readily admits how much so is impossible to know) to the reelection of pro-war Governor Vance. Though a complete inventory of material gains is impossible to compile from available records, it does seem likely that supplies seized both during the campaign and after the reopening of large areas of the North Carolina countryside to Confederate commissary agents met the urgent needs of the fighting forces in Virginia over the coming weeks and months. The campaign also marked Robert Hoke as a rising young star in the east, although, as Newsome acknowledges, the young general had his critics after he resumed a subordinate role under Lee for the rest of the year in Virginia.

In a narrative that details battlefield events and analyzes their military, political, and social contexts in equal measure, The Fight for the Old North State is an excellent history of an understudied late-war offensive that was a rare (though qualified) Confederate success. While racial and political violence were certainly not new to 1864, Newsome's account of the campaign also usefully portrays it as a clear, early demonstration that the coming year's increasingly frequent confrontations between the most volatile combinations of battlefield combatants would be characterized by rising levels of lethal violence. Highly recommended.

1 - Juanita Patience Moss's Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina (April 17-20, 1864): The Last Confederate Victory is flawed but worthy of mention as the only book dedicated to that battle. Like Newsome, the author largely points to Jordan and Thomas for authority regarding massacre claims.
2 - Jordan, Weymouth T., Jr., and Gerald W. Thomas. "Massacre at Plymouth: April 20, 1864." North Carolina Historical Review 72,2 (April 1995). Newsome's limited discussion of same suggests that he is in general agreement with the findings of Jordan and Thomas.
3 - Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864 (Kent State University Press, 2013). This work forms a key part of the recent renaissance in Petersburg Campaign studies.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this thorough review. I'm glad you enjoyed the book.


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