Thursday, August 22, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Executing Daniel Bright

Little by little, and book by book, I'm filling in the rather large gap in my Civil War knowledge bank about how the conflict was experienced in eastern North Carolina. And reading Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865, was certainly a big help.

While the average Civil War student probably associates guerrilla actions more with border states like Missouri and Kentucky, this book shows that irregular fighting was not confined to one or two geographical locations during the war. Myers explains that the situation, culturally, socially, economically, and yes, geographically, combined to form a perfect environment in which guerrilla warfare could both flourish and reek tremendous damage.

The Confederacy's Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 had a positive military impact in some communities throughout the South, but Myers contends that it was an "unequivocal disaster" in the area of northeastern coastal North Carolina. Not only did guerrillas from this region take advantage of the war to raid and harass both Confederate sympathizing and Unionist (termed Buffaloes) neighbors, the state authorities had little means to control irregular depredations. On top of that, counter-guerrilla military incursions by occupying Union forces, intended to curb irregular acts of violence, also brought a significant load of destruction upon the heads of these citizens. Eventually overturned in early 1864 by the Confederate Congress, the Partisan Ranger Act did much more harm than good during its existence.

One attempt to counter guerrilla activity in this region, and which is the primary focus of this study, was led by Brig. Gen. Edward Wild, who commanded a brigade of African American troops. Wild's "African Brigade," composed of almost 2,000 both free men of color and those formerly enslaved (many from the area), made their way from a base in Norfolk, Virginia to northeastern North Carolina in December 1863. The intent of the raid was to free slaves in the area for service to the Union, limit the resources of the area from aiding the Confederacy, and to curb guerrilla activity. Often provided with vital information from Unionists and slaves, Wild's men took hostages (including two white women) for exchange of captured black soldiers, and caught some men suspected of being guerrillas. One of the men captured was Daniel Bright. Bright volunteered early in the war serving with the 17th North Carolina Infantry. He was captured at Hatteras Island and imprisoned. Bright was paroled, eventually exchanged, and then transferred to the 32nd North Carolina, and then he mustered out. Wild suspected Bright of being a guerrilla, and unable to prove otherwise, he was hanged as such. This attempted show of force and use of black troops to try to quell localist violence and bring the region under Union control is an excellent example of how many areas experienced the war and thus developed coping mechanisms.

Depending on who was in power that day or week, a sense of fluid allegiance was often necessary to survive. Myers puts it best in the book's Epilogue: "Together these indications of loyalty from northeastern North Carolina demonstrate the difficult time both governments had in deciphering the loyalties of Pasquotank [County]. This confusion over loyalty is evidence that most people became adept at shifting their opinions as the situation required and that for those people caught between armed belligerents in the North Carolina's no-man's-land, surviving the war, no matter what it took, became their most important daily duty."

Executing Daniel Bright is wonderfully written, and a model of what microhistory can be, and can do. Myers's depth of research and insightful interpretation give readers clarity to what could be an otherwise cloudy historical episode. I highly recommend it!

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