Friday, August 12, 2022

Booknotes: Tar Heels in Gray

New Arrival:
Tar Heels in Gray: Life in the 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War by John B. Cameron (McFarland, 2021)

Organized in October 1861, the 30th North Carolina Volunteer Infantry spent its training and early service in its home state. Rushed to the Virginia Peninsula the following year to join the Army of Northern Virginia in its defense of Richmond, the regiment stayed with Lee's army for the duration of the war. Feeling that the history of that hard-fought battle service is already well documented through Michael Taylor's To Drive the Enemy from Southern Soil (1998) and William Venner's 2018 book The 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War (I have no familiarity with the former but reviewed the latter here), author John Cameron focuses instead on examining unit demographics and providing us with a comprehensive social history of the regiment.

Cameron is most intent upon answering the following questions: "What was the war actually like for these men? What was their economic status? To what extent were they involved in the institution of slavery? What were their lives like in the Army? What did they believe they were fighting for and did those views change over time?" He bases his answers to those questions on a diverse collection of primary sources. "In addition to the author's personal collection of letters and other contemporary records," the book "draws upon newly discovered letters, diaries, memoirs, census records, and published works."

Early chapters look at regimental organization and camp life. With a third of its men entering the ranks through conscription, that topic and unit discipline are the subject of another chapter. Several useful charts and tables support the section discussing prewar occupations, social status, wealth, slave ownership, literacy, physical characteristics, etc. What the men felt about slavery, religion, and the war itself is also explored. Supported by more quantitative analysis, death by disease along with various other topics related to attrition and battle casualties are examined at length. The final section looks at food shortages in the army and other reasons behind the regiment's high rate of desertion from the war's midpoint onward. Cameron's study "depicts Civil War soldiers as they were, rather than as appendages to famous generals or symbols of myth. It focuses on the realities of the men themselves, not their battles."

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