A Conversation with Philip Gerard on The Last Battleground (part three)

Part three of six

We’re talking this week with author Philip Gerard about his new book The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina (UNC Press, 2019).

Chris Mackowski: You mention in the foreword of your book that the editor of the series came to you and proposed this idea, and at first you said, “There are some fantastic historians in this state, why not have them do it?” And she said, “No, you’re the perfect guy.”

Philip Gerard: Well, Elizabeth Hudson, whom I had done a couple of pieces with before, she thought of me and liked my books and talked to me. I said, “I don’t know about this war thing.” Chris Fonvielle, who is my great friend and colleague, is a great Civil War historian, and there were people at UNC and Ashville—they are all amazing people. She said, “Well, we want somebody who is ignorant. We don’t want that kind of expert hindsight on how everything happened.” They wanted somebody to write it as a drama that was unfolding.

I kept thinking what Teddy Roosevelt said back when addressed the American Society of Historians way back when. He said you have to write as if it feels present and is happening now or it’s not of any use. That’s what I was trying to do—to make it like, if you looked out your window, there’s the dust of the army marching towards you, or there are the guys coming back on the ambulance trains, or there is the railroad carrying the troops north. On the moonless nights, there’s the blockade runner coming across the bar at Cape Fear.

CM: I thought your use of the present tense really added to the sense of immediacy.

PG: It was a deliberate thing, and we talked about it a long time, and initially, as an abstraction, they were not in favor of it, but I showed them the way I used it and they were very enthusiastic after that. I always wanted to capture the sense that nobody knows how this is going to turn out. Everybody has their hopes, their ideas, and their fears, but nobody really knows.

Somebody asked me the other day, “What if Lincoln hadn’t been elected the second time in 1864?” Well, I guess then George McClellan would’ve been president, and it would have been a separate peace from the South—and we would’ve fought the Civil War again some other time. We would not have settled it. It was two different economies, two different moral systems. They were not going to co-exist much longer side-by-side.

CM: I also thought the immediacy was so impactful because the focus of the book is on that personal level, instead of on the top down, but really on the bottom up.

PG: I think that’s part reporter and part novelist in me, because the settled facts of what happened—here’s when they seceded, here’s when they surrendered, here’s when the major battles happened—in the broad outlines, nobody really disagrees about it. But if you get down to a granular level, at people making decisions about their lives, you get down there and you realize that one little thing done differently could have changed everything.

Like the telegram that reached Sherman when he was getting ready to go meet with Johnston and negotiate surrender. Had that come 10 minutes later, he wouldn’t have known Lincoln had been murdered before going into the negotiation. As it was, he had the most important trump card he needed to re-enforce the issue.

Time and again you see that. At Bentonville, just about the time the Confederates have this amazing maneuver to destroy this outfit sitting there, this captured Confederate goes to the general’s tent and, there sitting next to the general is the only guy in the entire army he knows—it’s his old friend from New York—and the Confederate gives away the whole plan. Then the Federals reinforced and won the battle. They probably would have won eventually at the cost of another 3,000 dead or something, and it would have cost them five or six days.

That’s the level where you start thinking about things like: what are the odds an actor—think of someone like the Tom Cruise or George Clooney of the day—walks up with this really unreliable pistol, getting into the president’s box, getting into the only place where he could have hurt the president. If he shot him, even in the head, the odds were very good he’d recover, but if he shot him in the one place in the head, he could change the course of everything that has happened over the last 150 years—because it changed Reconstruction and it changed all the plans that would have resulted in a more racially equitable society, and of course now we have been paying the price for that ever since. That kind of “what if” business is sort of a fool’s game, but I like to retrace it back all the way to decision that was made. Often very small decisions make a huge difference.

CM: One of the things I thought was interesting that you mentioned in the introduction was that the story of North Carolina not only sort of encapsulates the story of the whole Civil War, but it’s also central to “who we are as North Carolinians.” What did you learn about your state by delving into this?

PG: It clarified an awful lot of this Red-Blue business. There were basically three states of North Carolina, the coastal state, which were mainly the secessionists because all the plantations were along the coasts and river valleys such as the Cape Fear and Roanoke—and then I guess there was a fourth state, which were the fisherman sitting along the Outer Banks that just wanted to get rid of the war so they could go back to their fishing. They didn’t really care one way or the other. So they’re there, then the coastal elites are the slave owners, then you get into the Piedmont, including Raleigh, that had a lot of anti-war or peace sentiment, and then you get into the Western Piedmont towards the mountains and you hit another swath of Confederates and then you get into the mountains near Madison County and it’s Unionists there.

North Carolina was always sort of this striped state. If you go back to the Revolution, that was like a Civil War in North Carolina, just as it was in many of the states where you had the Patriots on the coast, and then further in you have huge Tories, and then you get to the mountains where you sort of have half-and-half and they were busy fighting each other. So it sort of explains this genealogy of the state being so many different things at once.

About the only thing that brings people together is basketball, but even there you are either State or Duke or Carolina. I’m not a basketball fan so I don’t really care, but people get ferocious about those kinds of things.

The other thing you realize is that North Carolina has this sort of schizophrenic personality as a state, where it is very progressive and then goes way, way to the other side, and then goes back to being progressive. You can see that even now. When I moved here, Governor Hunt was in office, and we had the Coastal Area Management Act to protect the beaches, we had clean water initiatives and river buffer programs, Smart Start for pre-school education, all this great stuff going on. And then the reaction set in and they are gutting universities, gutting the environmental laws, gutting education and making enemies out of teachers. It has this strange way of being all or nothing back and forth, and that seemed to be true all the way back to the pre-Civil War era, where you do have governors trying to do smart things and then suddenly, “Let’s secede from the Union. That’s a good idea.”

One of my favorite pieces to do was one of the earliest ones about the flags they made and finding out they couldn’t even make their own sewing needles. The silk was always imported, and they didn’t have the machinery to do what they needed to, so they had the flags made in Philadelphia. They couldn’t make flags, how the hell were they going to make cannons? There was always this level of “magical thinking” in the same way you see in the legislative stuff in Raleigh with the Bathroom Bill. If you think this through, there are dollar signs attached to this. Before you go spouting off some Biblical verse that you say justifies it, let’s actually look at the facts and see where this would lead. North Carolina seems to totter back and forth: first it votes Obama and then it votes Trump.

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The “many North Carolinas” Gerard encountered created some interesting opportunities for him s he worked on his book, too. In part four of our series, he’ll talk about some of those opportunities and the insights he gleaned from them. “You get a sense travelling around North Carolina…” he says. “It’s a huge state.”

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