Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Elizabeth City and the Civil War

Large armies never marched where I live. And the largest military action of the war was when Stoneman’s Raiders came through, their advance guard fighting a skirmish with a company of local home guard in Boone. Most of the "military" action pitted either the home guard against small bands of Unionist-leaning irregulars, or, were family/community related. Chris Meekins’s new book, Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation, highlights the war that a local population on the other side of the Old North State experienced.


People often characterize western North Carolina as being pro-Union. And, certain parts of it were. But it is not just western North Carolina. When the governor called for a convention in February 1861 to consider taking North Carolina out of the Union, only 579 votes separated the two sides (46,672 in favor, 47,269 against). Paquotank County, where Elizabeth City is set, cast 585 votes. Seventy-three percent of those votes (426) were for not calling a convention and for keeping the state, more specifically, Elizabeth City and Paquotank County, in the Union.


Meekins walks his readers through local history. His introduction gives us a glimpse of the northeastern section of North Carolina prior to the war. From this introduction, we learn of the importance of the canal system that connected the area with the port at Norfolk. Just as western North Carolina was more connected to South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, due to the lay of the land, the northeastern part of the state was more connected to Virginia than other parts of North Carolina.


Through the next 134 pages, readers look at the war, both in terms of military action and in violence against civilians. The war in and around Elizabeth City was a constant struggle between the two opposing sides. The Federals would arrive one day, only to leave shortly thereafter. Confederates, usually irregulars, would move in after the Federals left. When the Federals were present, they would usually demand loyalty oaths from the civilian population. But once the Federals left, those who took the Oath would be subjected to retribution by pro-Confederates.


One thing that caught my attention was in the last chapter. A raid was conducted by the Federals in late July 1864. The next few paragraphs list a long line of loyal citizens who lost livestock, foodstuffs, and other articles to these "protectors of the Union." As was the case in western North Carolina, those who lived in the northeastern section never knew who the enemy was.


I do wish that Meekins would have taken the story a little further. Yes, formal hostilities end, but what happened when those who supported the Confederacy came home? Were there reprisals for the Unionist activities during the war? While Elizabeth City was burned early in the war, what survived? Is there anything today for visitors to see? How about the Confederate monument that was dedicated on May 10, 1911? Why does a county so pro-Union have a Confederate monument? It would also have been nice to have a map of Elizabeth City. The period map of the region at the beginning of the book is good, but what about something just showing the city?


Overall, I really enjoyed Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation. The period illustrations from sources such as Harper’s Weekly add a nice touch. The book is endnoted, but there is no bibliography, nor is there an index. I’ve worked with the History Press myself, and I know that they do not want indexes. I wish that they would change that policy. For those interested in the war and northeast North Carolina, Meekins’s book is a must have.

3 comments:

Drew W. said...

Michael,
What reason do they give for eschewing the index for all their publicatioins? Is is merely a question of cost? I think it is an unfortunate failing as well.

Drew

Michael Hardy said...

Drew - I never got a really good reason. My editor told me that the History Press feels that a good table of contents is as good as an index. I disagree. I seen more than one person pass on a book because something was not in the index.

Regards,
Michael

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hardy,

Thanks for the kind words and positive review. I would love to have had an index, and hold out hope for one if I get to do a second edition.

Power in the city after the war, especially after the Democratic redemption of the state in the early 1870's, is a study unto itself. Leading Unionists were, almost to a man, all dead by 1900. The height of the power of reunion, especially post Spanish American war, was at its sustained peak during the early 20th Century; as was the power of the Confederate Veterans, Daughters of the Confederacy, and the growing Sons of the Confederate Veterans. In this power matrix the monument was erected to honor the men who had fought for the Confederacy. And under that flux of power, some men who had fought against the Confederacy were reclaimed, re-imagined, and emerged as Confederates (even though it is obvious from contemporary - war time - records they were not).
I would suggest that the question is not why did a monument go up in 1911 but rather why did not a monument go up earlier? In part perhaps because local power had not made a dominant shift for Democrats until after 1898. Fusion governments of the 1890's, with leading African Americans serving as legislators and local commissioners, would not readily have given public land for such use.
Well, sorry for the long-winded answer! It is something I am looking into, when I have a chance.
As an aside, hardest of all was on memorial day the remaining vets would meet at the monument (downtown at the court house lawn)and then parade from downtown southward on Road Street to the Hollywood Cemetery (now Old H C) at the end of Road Street. A distance of at least a mile or two. And then have a picnic in the garden section of the cemetery. Quite a march for that old thin gray line!
Again, thanks for both reading and reviewing my book.
Your Obedient Servant,
Chris Meekins