Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review - "Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865" by Michael Laramie

[Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865 by Michael G. Laramie (Westholme Publishing, 2020). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,305/359. ISBN:978-1-59416-336-4. $30]

Over the past few decades, North Carolina's Civil War military history literature has been transformed from one of the weakest of any high-activity front to one of the best, much of that change in affairs owed to the dedication of a number of talented avocational historians. Thus, the time is now ripe to replace John Barrett's dated Centennial classic The Civil War in North Carolina with a new introductory volume addressing all of the significant campaigns and battles fought inside the borders of the Old North State. With its more narrow approach to sourcing (more specifics on that below) and limited geographical reach, Michael Laramie's Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865 does not reach such all-encompassing heights, but it is in its own right a very fine overview of all major military events east of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.

Beginning with the Union combined army-navy operation that seized the North Carolina barrier island inlets in 1861 and ending with a brief summary of the March 1865 Battle of Wise's Forks, the military breadth of the volume is remarkable comprehensive. In between those military bookends is rather detailed coverage of Burnside's Expedition, South Mills, the 1862 Goldsboro Raid, Potter's Raid, the 1863-64 Confederate offensives against Union-held enclaves (ex. New Bern, Plymouth, and Washington), the naval battle of Albemarle Sound, the Wilmington Campaign, and a host of smaller skirmishes and raids. Blockade running in and out of Wilmington is extensively addressed and appropriate attention paid to its scale and importance. The economic and logistical value of the tidewater region (particularly in its production and transportation of foodstuffs badly needed by Confederate forces fighting just to the north in Virginia) is also made clear to readers.

Though marred by frequent typos, the narrative presentation of the material strikes a nearly perfect balance between descriptive military detail and popular accessibility (a craft undoubtedly honed during the creation of the author's award-winning work on Colonial-era land and naval campaigns). Text accounts of the fighting are supplemented by dozens of maps and fortification drawings. Many of these are recognizable from their inclusion in the atlas to the O.R., but a minority are author originals.

With most of the campaigns and battles described in the book having excellent book-length coverage, it is curious that almost nothing in the way of full-length monographs produced over the past few decades made it into the author's bibliography (including a host of expected titles, many of which are definitive-level, from the likes of Sauers, Fonvielle, Gragg, Walker, Sokolosky, Moore, and others). Laramie cannot have been ignorant of this large body of work and excluding the current secondary literature was surely done with a purpose in mind. Some authors intentionally ignore secondary peer studies as a means of not being unduly influenced by their interpretations; however, as a reader, it is always comforting to be offered as least some proof that the writer (especially one new to the Civil War field) is conscious of the present scholarship. Though his bibliography also does not indicate any original archival research, Laramie was nevertheless able to parlay a fairly large selection of contemporary published sources [i.e. official army and navy records, newspapers, first-generation unit histories, veteran-authored articles, and the like] into a remarkably fulfilling account.

As other writers have done, Laramie effectively presents eastern North Carolina as a sub-theater of vital military importance, with a logistical significance (especially to the Confederates) that only increased as the war progressed. While appropriately highlighting the immense materiel and resource mismatch that went a long way toward explaining Union success and Confederate failure, Laramie also persuasively explains how the leadership disparity at all levels of command contributed mightily to Union dominance of the region. Enduring debate over whether Union forces should have done more to exploit their gains in North Carolina is addressed, albeit only in passing as part of the volume's concluding summary.

The strengths outlined above make Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes a fitting candidate (arguably the best overview so far written) for first-line introduction to the Civil War in eastern North Carolina. General readers will find Laramie's narrative style highly engaging, and the author's comprehensive treatment of campaigns and battles possesses more than enough detail to attract experienced Civil War readers wanting to learn more about the topic.

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