Monday, July 1, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Fight for the Old North State

While admittedly there are a number of gaps in my Civil War knowledge, two of the most yawning are the conflict's navies and the various actions that occurred in eastern North Carolina. Fortunately for me, Hampton Newsome's most recent work, The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864, which was published earlier this year by the University Press of Kansas, covers significant aspects of both.

I've had the good fortune to network some with Hampton over the past year. We've discussed his previous book, Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864 (a military study that I highly admire and can't recommend enough), research topics, and various projects. Through our email and phone conversations I've sincerely appreciated Hampton's sage advice and I respect his honest opinions.

During the winter of 1863-64, as Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia wintered largely around Orange County, Virginia, and his Union adversary, Gen. George Gordon Meade did the same not far away in Culpeper County, the Southern commander proposed a bold plan to regain parts of North Carolina that had been in Northern hands since 1862. This was believed necessary largely due to a pro-peace movement within the state and growing numbers of desertions to the Old North State. It was believed that military successes in the state might reverse these trends.

To do so a joint army-navy expedition was outlined to retake New Bern. Leading this initial Confederate offensive was Gen. George E. Pickett, who commanded the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. This operation, and those that followed in the coming months, have largely been overlooked by scholars in favor of totally skipping over these actions and moving right to the Grant and Lee's clashes of central Virginia in early May 1864 or those between Sherman and Johnston at the same time in the western theater. We can thank Newsome for shedding much needed light on this under-examined region and period in the Civil War. Newsome's impressive scholarship blends the political issues spurring these military initiatives, while at the same time thoroughly painting the strategic and tactical actions that developed. Worked into this story, too, are other previously unexplored aspects involved in the campaign such as white Southern Unionists who fought against Confederate neighbors, African American refugees who sought freedom within Union lines while often serving as scouts and pilots, and black soldiers battling for a reordered society.

Newsome brilliantly tells the story of the Confederate's failed first New Bern attempt in early February, Pickett's executions of Kinston Unionists that followed, Gen. Robert Hoke's successful capture of Union camps in Plymouth and Washington in April, and then Hoke's move on New Bern in early May before ultimately being recalled to central Virginia to help defend the Old Dominion against Grant's initial Overland Campaign movements.

As Newsome states at the end of the work: "The Confederate efforts in North Carolina in early 1864 would not rank among the Civil War's largest or most decisive military operations. However, the victories there aided the Confederacy. Confronted with huge manpower odds and material disadvantages, the rebels assembled and executed a remarkable campaign- a 'very splendid success,' in the words of [Gov. Zebulon] Vance's words-that may have helped keep North Carolina in the war."

Meticulously researched, vividly told and interpreted, The Fight for the Old North State not only helped fill a void in my own knowledge, it will certainly become the go to source for the greater Civil War community to understand these particular actions. In addition to a nice set of maps, the book also contains a number of photographs that help the reader with some of the campaign's lesser known figures. Do yourself a favor and add The Fight for the Old North State to your library. I highly recommend it.


  1. Looks like am interesting book. Will put that on my To Read list.

    Just finished "The Civil War in Kentucky" by Kent Masterson Brown, "Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain" by Robert Krick, and "Nathan Bedford Forrest" by Jack Hurst. Currently reading "Fighting for the Confederacy - The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander" edited by Gary Gallagher, and "Make Me a Map of the Valley - The Civil War Journal of Jedidiah Hotchkiss".

    Up next - "The Orphan Brigade" by William C. Davis, and "The Cavalryman of The Lost Cause - A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart" by Jeffry Wirt".

    Also, I recently visited Lexington Virginia. A beautiful little town where I toured The Stonewall Jackson House, VMI, Lee Chapel, and the cemetery.

    Happy Reading.

  2. Hi Paul!
    Krick's Jackson at Cedar Mountain is probably one of my top 10 Civil War books. I've had the E.P. Alexander book on my shelf for ages, but I've not taken the time to read it. I'm making it a goal to do so by fall. I spend the summer of 2004 in Lexington, VA completing an academic fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House. It was an experience I will always cherish. Take care, and happy reading!