Before the Civil War finally marched with Sherman’s columns into the Old North State, North Carolina had already been deeply affected by the war. Likewise, it made its own influence strongly felt beyond its own borders.
Philip Gerard has spent the last eight years chronicling that story, first in a series of articles for Our State magazine and, most recently, in a new book. The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina (UNC Press, 2019) collects and expands upon that original series of articles, with a strong emphasis on storytelling.
Gerard, a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is a novelist and widely published feature writer. He’s also recognized as one of the foremost experts in teaching “creative nonfiction” as a literary style. (I use his textbook in my own creative nonfiction course, in fact.) And as if that didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s kind enough to give me a copy of his latest CD, American Anthem, which features his songwriting, singing, and guitar. “I play in the style of Americana,” he tells me.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Philip for a conversation about his new book, the Civil War, and the power of storytelling as a tool for history. Our conversation, which will appear this week as a serial, has been edited lightly for clarity.
Chris Mackowski: It seems like you’ve got your fingers in a whole lot of different pots. How do you find the time to do all that?
Philip Gerard: My writing is all according to this principle: I don’t write what I know, I write what I want to find out about. I always tell my students that the two essential qualities of a writer are ignorance and curiosity. It’s something that piques your interest just enough that, if you don’t know about it, you really want to find out about it.
And I compartmentalize. If I’m at school, dealing with my students, I’m not trying to do an interview with somebody or be on the phone, and when I’m home, I’m not dealing with student papers, I’m not answering e-mail. I don’t always carry my phone around with me. Like, if I’m in my ‘dog time,’ and I want to be in the moment, I don’t want to be answering calls from somebody. I check my e-mail in the morning on work days and in the evening, and that’s about it. I don’t check it on weekends unless I have something crucial that I’ve got to keep up with. I find that, otherwise, I would be nuts, because I would be thinking about everything all the time. You’ve got to be thinking about one thing at a time; multitasking is not a thing.
CM: When you talk about being in the moment and wanting to think about stuff, in my experience, I find that many students, particularly beginning writers, don’t realize that thinking is part of the writing.
PG: My friend Bob Reese would always get annoyed because he would be lying on the couch and his partner would say, “Get up off the couch,” and he would say, “I’m working, I’m working.” Some of the best work that I do is probably when I walk with my dog in the morning. I take her down to the park, and I’m not thinking about anything consciously, but when I get to my writing desk—we leave about dawn every morning— but when I get back, I go to my writing desk and I feel like things have settled so that something that is ready to be written that wouldn’t have been if I had just tried to go down and push through it. You have to give yourself room to breathe.
The Civil War story is a case in point. I started out knowing pretty much nothing about the war, and what I knew turned out to be wrong for the most part. Like, I knew about Grant and Lee as sort of these iconic figures bent over a surrender table at Appomattox, which really didn’t solve anything more than those 29,000 troops. The complexities of it took a while to sink in, and to figure all that out, I would write a story.
Every story—I did fifty-one of these for the magazine before I tried to make them into a book—each one was like writing a small novel. It was like trying to wrap your head around different regions, different people, different cultures—the Cherokee culture, the mountain culture, the Unionists, the Quakers, the Moravians, the nuns, the railway, the slaveholders, the free slaves, and the escaped slaves. There wasn’t just one North Carolina, there were like forty North Carolinas.
It turned out to be this great prism to look at the war through, because it was going to be pretty much everything that was going on in the country at the time of the war. There was fighting, there was the home front, there were people executed on both sides, there were regiments raised for the Union and the Confederacy, conscientious objectors, and food riots. Everything that you could have imagined going on in the war at the time was pretty much was happening here.
And then of course the Great Surrender happened at Bennett Place.
But you can’t just get the facts and write them down. It takes a long time to think your way in to the mindset of people who were in that war, why they were doing what they were doing, the kind of contradictions they were living with. I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve read from soldiers saying, “I don’t believe in the war. I hate it and I want to go home but I can’t,” for whatever reason: they were conscripted, their uncle was the captain, or whatever the reason was, and they felt stuck. Many of them were working actively to keep their younger brothers out of the war, even as they were serving in fighting units and re-enlisting, and so forth. The ambivalence was not something I expected to find.
Tomorrow, when our conversation with Philip Gerard continues, he’ll talk about some of the challenges he faced while writing The Last Battleground—including the confirmation of basic facts!