Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Gov. Henry T. Clark

Several months ago, I purchased a new biography on North Carolina Governor Henry T. Clark, written by R. Matthew Poteat. I read some of it, got distracted, and put it aside. After finishing the book on Stanly, I returned to the book on Clark, went back a couple of chapters from where I had stopped and picked up the book again. It was finished yesterday, and here is my review.

If you talk about North Carolina governors during the war, you usually talk about three men: John Ellis, Henry T. Clark, and Zebulon B. Vance. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, Vance is the most written-about Civil War era governor. Ellis has no biography, and Clark finally has one.

Clark was born in 1808 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. His father, James West, was a US Congressman. Henry attended the University of North Carolina, and later gained admittance to the North Carolina Bar, but seldom practiced law. He was more interested in managing his family’s land and property. Clark was selected to serve as a delegate to the Nashville Convention in 1850, and soon thereafter was elected to serve as the representative for the Tenth District in the North Carolina senate. He was re-elected six times. In 1858, his colleagues elected him as speaker of the senate. He was occupying this position in July 1861 when Governor Ellis died. Since the state had no lieutenant governor, Ellis was elevated to the position of governor until the next general election in September 1862.

Clark laid the groundwork for much of the state’s involvement in the war. Almost all of North Carolina’s regiments were mustered into service under Clark’s administration. He also established a state-sponsored gunpowder manufacturing plant in Wake County, and a salt-manufacturing facility in Chatham County. And, he laid the ground work for a state-owned blockade runner that Zeb Vance would later purchase. However, Clark would catch flak for the loss of much of the eastern coast of North Carolina to the Federals, even though much of the fault rested with the Confederate government. For unknown reasons, Clark chose not to pursue another term of office in 1862, and instead, retired to his home near Tarboro. Later in the War, Clark’s Tarboro home was raided by the Federals, and he himself was almost captured. After the end of the war, Clark served again in the North Carolina Senate. He died at his home in Tarboro in 1874.

I really wanted to like Poteat’s examination of Clark’s life, and to be honest, the second part of the book (once the war begins) is much better than the first part of the book. Poteat seems to be obsessed with slavery. Chapters two and three seem much more an examination of slavery that of Clark’s life. The author makes several leaps of logic (aren’t these called fallacies?) with no documentation. For example, Poteat writes on page 52 that “owning slaves was not simply an aspect of his business, it was part of his heritage, and he [Clark] believed the system to be the natural order that God had intended.” And on page 66: “Clark’s view of slavery was consistent with that of most white men of his day. He believed that slavery was a necessary and just institution, essential to the South’s social and economic way of life. Conservative white southerners like Clark considered slavery the foundation of republic virtue, necessary to maintain the social order and an engine of human, moral, and material progress.” Both of those statements might be true, but there is no documentary evidence cited that Clark actually believed either of those statements.

I guess the statement that really is a leap of logic falls on page 138. Poteat speaks of many joining the Ku Klux Klan after the rise of the Radicals during reconstruction. He writes: “There are no records that tell of Clark’s thoughts or involvement (if any) with the Klan, but Col. William L. Saunders, the alleged leader and ‘Grand Dragon’ of the North Carolina KKK, was his nephew by marriage. The two men corresponded, and given Clark’s Democratic pedigree, racial views, and associations, it’s very likely he supported the Klan to some degree.” This statement is so flawed that it is difficult to find a place to begin. Might Clark have been involved with the Klan? Sure. However, since there is “no record,” what right does Poteat have to infer that Clark “likely… supported the Klan to some degree” just because he had someone in his family who allegedly was in the Klan? I can’t imagine a lawyer ever getting away with such allegations in a court of law today.

Poteat does well when discussing the efforts of Clark as governor during the war years. However, this book has serious flaws that will influence generations to come.

R. Matthew Poteat. Henry Toole Clark: Civil War Governor of North Carolina. 207 pages, illustrations, notes, index. McFarland, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-7864-3728-3.

1 comment:

wminot said...

Was Governor Clark the author of the marvelous comment,
'' North Carolina is the valley of humility between the twin peaks of conceit, South Carolina and Virginia." ?

Wendy Knowlton Minot
(one of his many, many great-grand children)