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The Civil War in North Carolina Paperback – February 20, 1995
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Barrett has brought together a splendid account of the part of the Civil War fought within . . . North Carolina.
"North Carolina Historical Review"
With indefatigable research . . . Barrett has brought together a splendid account of the part of the Civil War fought within the borders of North Carolina.--North Carolina Historical Review
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Barrett, of the Virginia Military Institute, was well-qualified to tell the story of the Civil War in the Tar Heel State. In a preface, he explains that his prior work on an earlier book, "Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas" (1956), made him aware of the need for a state-level study of North Carolina’s Civil War history generally. Barrett’s book possesses a strong narrative sweep and extensive primary-source documentation, and it is likely to possess a particular appeal for North Carolina readers who want to learn more about this aspect of their state’s history.
The more familiar one already is with North Carolina’s Civil War history, the more likely one is to enjoy this book. Early in the book, Barrett speaks of “[a] western North Carolina politician” recalling how he was in the midst of giving a public speech against secession when he heard of President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion; hearing that news, the politician reflects, “When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation…it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a secessionist” (p. 13). Many North Carolina students of Civil War history, reading that quote, will know at once that the speaker, unidentified by Barrett, is future Governor Zebulon B. Vance.
Successive chapters of the book deal with topics like the Union Navy’s expedition against the Outer Banks and capture of strategic points like Roanoke Island, Fort Macon, and New Bern; the ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle’s successful defense of coastal sound waters, until its destruction by a daring Union commando; the fighting over Fort Fisher, the fortification that defended the city of Wilmington, last port of the Confederacy; and various features of Union General William T. Sherman’s march through the state, including the Battle of Bentonville (the largest Civil War battle ever fought in the state), as well as Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s eventual surrender to Sherman at Bennett Place – the largest troop surrender of the Civil War.
"The Civil War in North Carolina" was published in 1963 – 100 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, in the midst of the Civil War Centennial, at a time when the American reading public’s appetite for Civil War-related material seemed inexhaustible. Yet it was also a time when the problems of race that had caused the Civil War were distinctly unresolved in American life. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham for campaigning against segregation laws of that city, and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Two months later, President John F. Kennedy gave his Civil Rights Address, asking, “If an American, because his skin is dark…cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” And two months after that, 250,000 people came to the nation’s capital for the March on Washington, and heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
What does all of that have to do with John Barrett’s "The Civil War in North Carolina"? In answer to that question, I would say that this book is in many ways a book of its time. Barrett emphasizes strategy and tactics, heroism and cowardice, the good and bad decisions made by Union and Confederate leaders; he does not put a great deal of emphasis on slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War (there is not even an entry for slavery in the 14-page index for this 470-page book). Many readers of this time wanted to hear stories of bravery and derring-do; they did not want to hear uncomfortable things about slavery and racism. Barrett gives the readers of that time what they would have wanted.
At the same time, I must say in fairness that Barrett does not at all buy into the “Lost Cause” school wherein the Confederates fight solely for high-minded constitutional considerations, with slavery only an “occasion” rather than a cause, *the* cause, of the war. One of the book’s most powerful details comes in the context of the Union capture of Columbia, North Carolina, when Barrett writes that “To the delight of the Negroes, the whipping post was torn down” (p. 95). In that one detail, Barrett evokes 250 years of inconceivable misery and cruelty.
As Barrett had already written a book about Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, it should be not surprise that many of this book’s best and most thoughtful passages relate to that particular phase of the Civil War in North Carolina. In considering how “Sherman planned to use his military forces against the civilian population as well as the armies of the enemy”, Barrett reflects on the way in which “‘Collective responsibility,’ the theory upon which total war rests, made possible a new mode of warfare in which the accepted rules of the time were transgressed” (pp. 291-92). One senses Barrett’s determination to be fair-minded, and to apply the soldierly pragmatism that one would expect from a VMI military-history professor, in his assessment that “it was not a sense of cruelty and barbarism that prompted Sherman to formulate his theory of total war. This conception was the outgrowth of a search for the quickest, surest, and most efficient means to win a war” (p. 292). Yet it is troubling to reflect that, later in the same decade in which Barrett wrote "The Civil War in North Carolina," U.S. Army officers in Vietnam would be applying Sherman’s doctrine of total war amidst the battlefields of Southeast Asia, destroying villages in order to “save” them.
As mentioned above, John Barrett’s "The Civil War in North Carolina" is relatively “old-school” history; if what was once called “the new social history” is your thing, you will not find it in this book. What you will find is a well-written, well-researched, thorough state-level study of the American Civil War.