Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Review - "Treason on the Cape Fear: Roots of the Civil War in North Carolina, January-April 1861" by Philip Hatfield

[Treason on the Cape Fear: Roots of the Civil War in North Carolina, January-April 1861 by Philip Hatfield (35th Star Publishing, 2022). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,114/161. ISBN:978-1-7378573-5-6. $15.95]

The early months of 1861 were nervous times for the entire United States, with no one entirely certain how the Upper South and Border South regions of the country would respond to any outbreak of serious hostilities. Uncomfortably situated between a Deep South exhilarated at the prospect of independence and a North increasingly unified in opposition to southern secession, North Carolina's social and political climate was one of deep fear and profound uncertainty. As the first weeks and months of 1861 progressed, state leaders, the majority of whom adopted a wait and see attitude, found that emotional tinderbox more and more difficult to manage. This final three-month period of antebellum North Carolina history is the topic of Philip Hatfield's Treason on the Cape Fear: Roots of the Civil War in North Carolina, January-April 1861.

Hatfield's book opens with a standard overview of the simmering sectional disputes over slavery that eventually boiled over into secession and Civil War. Summarizing North Carolina's role in and response to those conflicts, early chapters set the stage for the events of January-April 1861 by contrasting the immediate secessionist path taken by the Lower South after Lincoln's election with the lingering unionism (conditional as it proved to be) of North Carolina's governor John Ellis and the majority of his state's voting body. Also offered is a brief history of the state's antebellum militia culture, one that, like other states across the country, produced a qualitative mixed-bag of units and formations. Interspersed within North Carolina's militia system of general neglect were a small number of well uniformed, drilled, and armed companies. Those companies, some of which held long-celebrated historical ties to their local communities, as well as hastily assembled militia operating as little more than armed mobs participated in the events described in the book.

Hatfield does a fine job of describing the feelings of mounting fear, mistrust, and abandonment that spread across North Carolina's coastal counties during the secession winter of 1860-61. Nothing that national and state leaders said or did could calm the nervousness of North Carolina's citizens there. Unsubstantiated rumors ran rampart, and when it was falsely reported that two ships were headed to the state to reinforce coastal forts, hastily organized North Carolina militia took action, seizing Fort Caswell and Fort Johnston in early January.

Thereafter ensued one of the more unusual events of the period. The forts were captured without the authorization of Governor Ellis and without seeking his approval. Residents of many coastal cities and towns felt that Raleigh was neglecting their interests and believed the governor himself not sufficiently committed to bolstering tidewater security. In response to the unauthorized seizures, Ellis apologized to President Buchanan and directed the forts be returned to federal hands, which they promptly were. However, a mere two months later, the national picture having drastically changed upon the firing on Fort Sumter and subsequent collapse of the Upper South's conditional unionism, Ellis ordered the forts retaken.

With the forts back in state hands and reinforced, the militia settled into quiet garrison duty after no federal invasion proved forthcoming. Soldier life at the forts is described, often in their own words, and the author also provides some demographic information about the men who filled the ranks of those early volunteer companies.

Reader reaction to the author's heavy reliance on lengthy block quotes throughout much of the book will vary, but, whatever one's feelings might be regarding that writing practice, this slender volume's overall narrative offers a solid account of the political and military events that unfolded in North Carolina over the months preceding the state's own May 1861 secession. That final abandonment of North Carolina's initial pro-Union stance, of course, led to the worst fears of January-April 1861 becoming stark reality. Indeed, the consequences of North Carolina's actions during that period came to roost over the next twelve months, first through General Benjamin Butler's August 1861 Hatteras Expedition and then by General Ambrose Burnside's far more expansive North Carolina invasion that struck the coast in devastating fashion the following February.

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