Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Best book I've read this year - The Yankee Plague.

It should not come as any surprise, but I read lots of books every year. They are for research, for reviews, even for fun. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Lorien Foote's The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy. This is the best book I have read in 2016.

The Yankee Plague focuses on the last few months of the war - from September 1864 until the end - and documents how escaped Federal prisoners of war, largely from South Carolina, changed the war in both of the Carolinas. No longer was there a home front. The escaped Union POWs, along with those who helped them and hunted them, collectively made the area a new front of a multi-faceted war. Thanks to a bevy of writers, some publishing  their accounts while events were still fresh in their minds, Foote examines men who managed to escape Confederate prisoner camps. Some made their way toward Georgia, trying to link up with elements of Sherman'a army. Others tried to make for the coast, while others still thought the best course was to walk toward the mountains, heading to Knoxville and Federal lines. Foote bounces between different accounts as the men moved in parties, seeking freedom. She also chronicles the people they ran into: slaves wanting to aid the prisoners' plight toward freedom and that third group of people - those who were using the war for their own unjust gains. Toward the end of the tome, she describes how the remaining prisoners from South Carolina held up not only the evacuation of Wilmington and the retreat of Robert F. Hoke's Confederates, but also delayed supplies in reaching Sherman's army as it entered the Tar Heel state.
Foote's narrative is compelling and her prose is clean and fresh. There are numerous primary sources, largely the prisoners' own accounts, coupled with statements from the rarely cited Record Groups 249 and 393 (National Archives).

To me the only draw back is the lack of a mention of Brig. Gen. John W. McElroy, in charge of home guard battalions in western North Carolina. It was his job to coordinate the home guard attempting to coral the prisoners, draft dodgers, and deserters. It might have also been nice to have a little more on the guides these POWs sought out to help them in their quest for freedom.

Overall, this is a fantastic read that greatly increases our understanding of the war in its final months, especially in western North Carolina. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Looking for 60

In June 1864, Capt. George W. Kirk led a raid from East Tennessee into Western North Carolina. Kirk surrounded and captured Camp Vance near Morganton, capturing around 300 junior reserves. On his return trip, he fought several skirmishes with home guard units, and burned several homes. Various Northern newspapers reported that Kirk captured 30 (and sometimes 60) "negroes," presumably local slaves. (see Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, July 23, 1864)

After tramping back through the mountains, Kirk took his prisoners to Knoxville. The 60 presumably local slaves were said to be enrolling in a local Colored Regiment. The regiment forming in Knoxville at this time was the 1st United States Colored Heavy Artillery. They were recruited to guard railroads and stores and prisoners in East Tennessee, freeing up white soldiers for front line actions. The only time I can find the 1st USCHA moving together as a regiment is during Stoneman's Raid.

To my knowledge, no one has ever looked for these 60 men who were abducted, or maybe "liberated" by Kirk during this raid, and joined the 1st USCHA. So, I did just that. The compiled service records of the 1st USCHA are online, and went through them, trying to pick out these men. I was hoping that once I did, I could go to their pension applications and find details about their enlistment in the United States Army.

My first clue was a letter in a newspaper, dated July 7, 1864, stating that the prisoners were back in Knoxville, and that the (presumed) slaves were joining a local regiment. So I had a date to work with. As I went through the compiled service records, I found 26 men who enlisted July 6-8, 1864. Fourteen were from North Carolina or Tennessee, from counties that Kirk passed through on his raid. But one of the challenges were the other 12. Thorton Coleman and William Coleman enlisted on July 6 and July 7, 1864. Both were from Richmond, Virginia. Were they brothers? Had they been sold to a slave owner in western North Carolina? Or, maybe brought with someone, sent further South where they had some degree of protection from (yankees), or even rented out. Part of the problem is that the compiled service records tell me where they were born, not where they were living in July 1864.
I thought, after I finished compiling a list of names, I could look for pension applications in the pension index on Then, I could make a decision about a quick trip to the archive in DC to look for other pieces of their story. But alas, the company of the 1st USCHA that I needed has not been digitized.

Of my list of 26, I can find two, George Forney, who was 20 years old in 1864, and Shaesser (Sharp) Caldwell , who was 25 when he enlisted, who appear back in Burke County in the 1890 Veterans Census. I am still looking for the others.

To be honest, I may never find "the rest of the story." But if just one of them left an account of how they were spirited across the mountains and given a chance to join the Union army after Kirk's raid on Camp Vance, then it will be worth the hunt. Heck, I've already gone further than anyone else with this story. I have a list of names, names of men nearly everyone else has forgotten.

1st US Colored Heavy Artillery on parade in Knoxville, TN. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lockville and the War.

Kevin Stone asked the other day about the Lockville and Haywood communities in Chatham County during the War. Let's look at Lockville.

Lockville was originally known as Ramsey's Mill. There was a mill, dam, ferry boat, and landing. In the 1850s, owner Alston Jones worked out a deal with the Cape Fear and Deep River Navigation Company. The Company came in and raised the height of the dam from six to eight feet, and converted the millrace into a canal that made navigation possible over Pullen's Falls. This was apparently completed in 1859, although the War brought work to a halt and backrupted the Company. It is probable that the name "Lockville" referred to the locks on the river, used to float boats up and down near the falls.

There are a few mentions of Lockville in period newspapers. In March 1861, it was announced that the steamer John Dawson had been purchased to haul freight from Wilmington to Lockville (The Daily Journal March 25, 1861). It appears that the canal was the primary way to haul coal from the Egypt Coal Mine to Wilmington.  Even though it was chartered in 1855, a railroad to the area was almost finished by the time Sherman arrived in 1865.

The Lockville Mining and Manufacturing Company incorporated in 1863 and was located in the area; this was a company that purchased the Endor Iron Works in 1864. An ad in the January 7, 1864, edition of The Daily Progress, announced that the company was looking for miners to work in the cooper deposits.

In 1865, Reese H. Butler, at one time a machinist working for Spiller and Burr, but later at the Raleigh Bayonet Factory (Heck, Brodie & Co.), was building "an extensive foundry and machine shop" near Lockville. (Norman, 59)

The final time Lockville appears in war-time newspapers occurs on Mach 28, 1865. W. S. Downer, superintendent of the Lockville Mining Company, had either been to Fayetteville, or talked to someone in Fayetteville. The letter, dated March 17, 1865, read in part: "Fayetteville is ruined. All the Arsenal buildings, the Market House, Court House, printing Office, both Foundries, all the Mills, Cotton Factories, Oil Works, &c., were destroyed. They robbed the people of everything in the way of food..." (Raleigh Conservative).

I could find no mention of a Civil War Trail marker, or a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker in the area.  (There is a marker for the Egypt Coal Mine in neighboring Lee County.)
Lockville, from a 1870 map.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Interview me, Round 1:

Last week, I posted that it was my tenth anniversary as a blogger. As part of my "celebration," I asked a few friends to interview me. Here are a few of their questions (there will be more):

Joe Owens: What NC regiment do you consider displaying the most courage overall in a battle? The 26th NC at Gettysburg? Second question, have you thought about writing a book about a NC Revolutionary War Regiment, or maybe a battle in NC during the Revolutionary War?

Thanks Joe! I think it took a lot of courage for any soldier to stand in battle. Early in the war, they squared off face to face, like the 5th North Carolina at Williamsburg or the 26th Regiment at Gettysburg. That took a serious amount of fortitude. Late in the War, the Confederates were often protected by breastworks, but when they did attack, like the 60th Regiment during the Nashville Campaign, that took real courage. Was one regiment better than the others? No... probably not. They were all pretty tough.

Have I ever thought about writing on a Revolutionary War regiment or battle? There are a few people I find interesting from that time period whom I might write about, but not really any regiments or battles. It has taken me thirty years of reading and researching (and some reenacting/interpretive work) for me to feel confident about what I want to write about (mid-19th century). I'm not sure how many years it might take for me to feel confident enough to change time periods.

Chris: Kolakoski: Wow! Congrats on 10 years! Here's a question: What do you consider to be the essential elements of your research and writing process?

Thanks Chris! Hard to believe it has been 10 years! Hands down, I think the essential element in research is the internet. When I started researching that first book twenty years ago, I used the net to find snail mail addresses to write archives, looking for original source materials. I think I did ok. When Bob Krick reviewed the book, he said that I left "no stone unturned." That has kind of been my "motto" ever since. In many ways, it is so much easier now. The Confederate Compiled Service Records are online, the Official Records are online, Confederate Veterans and the Southern Historical Society Papers are online. Plus, there are millions of pages of newspapers online (and searchable, if you can figure out how someone spelled something). Plus, through several sources, I can search books that I would not have access to. I still use traditional libraries and archives. I still go to the family history section or the local genealogical society newsletters and flip through those books, looking for original letters. But all of the online resources allow me to look at thousands of pages of original material from my home office. And I think I find more stuff now; I have the time to be through since I'm not worried about parking meters or the library closing.

Wade Sokolosky: What aspect of NC CW history do you feel is the least understood or requires further research?

Thanks Wade! I'm really enjoying your new blog. My shelves, like many others, groan under the weight of books about the time period. There are scholarly tomes on the social side of the conflict. Many of the battles have fresh views from a talented array of military historians, and there always seem to be new biographies on the major military and political actors. But at the same time, the general public cries out for books about the places they live in and call home. I think local communities need more histories, as well as some of the minor players, both military and political. It seems we keep rehashing the same old things. There are a half dozen books on Greensboro and the War, but none on Raleigh.

Sam Shapiro asked a couple of good questions. The one about the battle of Wyse Fork I'll get to in another post. His second question was: "How many important battle sites are inaccessible to the public, due to the fact that the sites are on privately owned grounds? And do situations like that ever become contentious? Have there been legal battles to make the sites publicly owned? Isn't part of the Gettysburg Battleground still inaccessible for this reason?"

I guess we need to define "important battle sites." There are some battlefields that are lost - Battery Wagner off the Charleston coast (washed into the sea), while Atlanta and Chantilly have been gobbled up by development. Yet thanks to organizations like the Civil War Trust and various local groups, thousands of acres of battlefields at the major or important sites have been preserved over the past two decades. For example, in 2002 and 2003, the Bentonville Battlefield was identified in the Civil War Trust's annual report History Under Siege as a battlefield that needed to be preserved. Since that time, an additional 1,785 acres, bring the total preserved acreage to 2,100 acres. And the Civil War Trust is currently trying to acquire an additional 503 acres. Now, there are a lot of battlefield properties still in private hands. I wrote a history of the May 1862 battle of Hanover Court House many years ago. Every bit of that battlefield is private. And the owners really don't like having people wondering around their homes at all hours. You ask "do situations like that ever become contentious?" I've come close to being arrested for trespassing a time or two. Legal battles? Yes, but usually in the form of some large corporation buying a tract of battlefield land with plans to build a subdivision, or amusement park, or Walmart on the property. Then, the preservation community usually steps up and puts pressure on the corporation to sell the land. The private entities, like the Civil War Trust, that buy the land try and work hard to build good relationships with private land owners. The corporations can always pay more. The preserved land at Gettysburg has grown significantly over the past decade. One prime example is Lee's Headquarters, which just opened to the public last week. The Civil War Trust purchased the property, tore down the hotel, and restored the original house.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

10 years of blogging

Dang... I missed my own anniversary. I started this blog ten years ago yesterday - November 2, 2006. I guess this small post will have to do, in lew of flowers. When I first started writing this blog, I was working on my history of the 58th North Carolina Troops. That book was published in 2010. Since then I have written a few more volumes, including a general history of North Carolina and the War, and histories of Charlotte and Watauga County.

It has been my pleasure to share this journey with you, to let you look into my life as a writer, with all of its joys (like seeing a book finally come into print) and frustrations (like those missing Branch brigade flags from June 1862). I've had somewhere around 500,000 pages in the past ten years.

Looking back, I'm not sure that I have a favorite post... not even sure I remember all of the post. More recently, I liked the one about buildings still standing that witnessed the war. (You can check that one out here). The John Brown discussion was interesting, as was the series I did last year when I was out touring with Capitals of the Confederacy. Any questions that a visitor asked that I did not have an answer for, I looked up and wrote about. I learned a lot, and hopefully helped many of you.

There are all kinds of new things that I want to share - about the role of Tar Heel soldiers in battles, about books, politicians, and places.

I look forward to sharing even more with you in the future! 

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Reading about North Carolina in the Civil War: Getting Started.

The new issue of J19 arrived yesterday, and I was reading an essay by Jillian Spivey Caddell entitled "Words of War." The author writes: "This new wave of scholarship suggests that the Civil War has not been so much unwritten as unread." That is an interesting thought. There have been, conservatively, 65,000 books about the war (I'm not sure who has counted, but that's the number passed around). So, if I wanted to read all of them, I would need to plough through about 710 books a year, for 92 years.

Is that what keeps people from digging more into the scholarship of the era? With 65.000+ books, is it too daunting a project to undertake? I don't really feel that is the problem (instead, how about a society that no longer places an importance on its own past. That however, is another post.)
Frequently, I get asked about books - what to read, what I am reading (Sutherland's A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War), etc. So, here is my simple, North Carolina focused list.

1. Bruce Catton - The Civil War (1960)
There are many general histories about the war - Eaton, McPherson, Foote. A lots of people want to start with Shelby Foote's three-volume series, and three years later, they're still reading Foote, or they have given up and gone back to watching Golf TV. While Catton’s history is 55 years old, it is a great introduction to the war (and he could write). This book has been reprinted several times.

2. Bell Wiley - The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943)
Back in my early days of interest in the time period (and in re-enacting), I used to read this book once a year. I would consider this volume a foundational cornerstone. The chapters walk you through the enlistment, battle, food, weapons, camp life, religion, etc. There is also a companion volume, The Life of Billy Yank. Both volumes have been reprinted several times.

3. John G. Barrett - The Civil War in North Carolina (1963)

It is hard to believe that the standard, or go-to book about North Carolina and the War was released 53 years ago. But no one has come close to beating it. It is a stout book, but it walks the reader from the secession crisis through the surrender of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. It has also been reprinted many times.

4. Michael C. Hardy - North Carolina in the Civil War (2011)
Is it wrong to have included one of my own books? Maybe. I did not set out to rewrite Barrett's work. What I wanted to do was to write an introduction to the War in North Carolina, for those intimidated by the almost 500 pages in Barrett. My tome is only 158 pages. The two important things about this work, and why it made it on the list, are the chapters about the post-war remembrance movement in North Carolina (veterans groups, monument dedications, etc), and the bibliography. Barrett ends his story in 1865. North Carolina in the Civil War goes beyond, with short chapters on reconstruction and remembrance. Plus, the updated bibliography will allow readers to dig more deeply into the literature regarding the time period.

5. Mark L. Bradley - Blue Coats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina (2009)
The Reconstruction time period has never held the sway for me as the War years, probably because the South had lost the War, and the North was attempting to remake the South (or something like that). I had tried to read other books on Reconstruction, like Forter's work, but could never really get into it. Bradley's work is well researched and well written, and is very fair in its accounting of the Reconstruction years.

6. Gordon B. McKinney - Zeb Vance: North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader (2004)
There have been a bevy of books about North Carolina's War-time governor, Zebulon Baird Vance. I have Dowd, Tucker, and several more, but I believe that McKinney's work is the best out there. Since Vance was an up and coming politician in North Carolina, served for about a year in the Confederate army, then was our "War-governor" from 1862 until his arrest in May 1865, he was probably more deeply involved in the time period than anyone else.

So there is my short list, a list that does not include any battle histories, nor place histories, nor regimental/brigade histories. Just a list that I believe is a great place to start building a greater knowledge about North Carolina and the Civil War.