Philip Gerard says “North Carolina has this sort of schizophrenic personality as a state.” In yesterday’s segment about his book The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina (UNC Press, 2019), he talked about some of the challenges he faced in getting his arms around that. One thing that helped, he says, was hitting the road and seeing things for himself.
Chris Mackowski: I’m assuming you had the chance to do a lot of traveling for your research on the book.
Philip Gerard: I did. I went as far as Sherman’s boyhood home out in Ohio. I went to all the battlefields in Virginia. The thing about writing about North Carolina is that some of the most active troops in the entire Army of Northern Virginia, like the 26th North Carolina, were North Carolinians. The people who killed Stonewall Jackson were North Carolinians. The people who got to the wall at Gettysburg were North Carolinians.
Even the stuff they didn’t do in the state you can follow into the other states, so I went to Gettysburg, I went to the Crater, I went to the Confederate White House in Richmond, I went out to Salisbury, Bennett Place, Fort Fisher, anywhere that I could go. It’s always a good excuse to tramp about the state.
The other astonishing thing: we’ve been at war with Afghanistan for, what, 17 years or something. The Civil War all happened with people shooting at each other one bullet at a time and walking to each battlefield, and it was settled in four years. You get a sense traveling around North Carolina—like Virginia, Pennsylvania, it’s a huge state. It goes from the coast all the way to Tennessee. We got lost at one point in the west and ended up in Johnson City, Tennessee—like, how did that happen? You start to think that these guys walked a lot.
I was talking about Sherman’s Final March to a group the other day. It was 450 miles that they marched in a little less than 90 days, fought two pitch battles and won, fought a major cavalry skirmish, captured two capitals, engineered the largest surrender in the Civil War, and ended it all in 90 days. I can’t even get a form from the dean’s office back in 90 days. They did all that in 90 days, and they were walking. The relentlessness of it is sort of astonishing. There was this turtle pace of marching, and yet they just kept on getting there and doing it.
CM: Do you have a place that you like the most, or were surprised by the most, or gave you a poignant experience?
PG: When I saw the graves of the Union prisoners that died at Salisbury, I was not prepared for how big they were. You can say this many guys died, but then you go out and see the raised berms that signify the massive trenches that they threw the bodies in. And it’s a spooky little place, too. The prison is gone; they burned it to the ground. But it felt like there was a chill in the air.
CM: Do you have a particular favorite story that you discovered while writing the book?
PG: There are so many. William Shepperd Ashe died on a hand car on the railroad, heading through the darkness to find his wife and find out about his son. It breaks my heart every time I remember it.
I think of the nuns coming in to Beaufort and taking control. It reminded me so much of the Irish nuns that I went to school with, that were clean as a whistle, sharp as tacks, they could mother you or smack you down. They were fierce women who were really dedicated to what they were doing. So I knew those nuns. When they came and cleaned up that hospital, threw that old crusty sergeant out in his wheelbarrow and took the keys back, I felt the realness in that and I liked it. I like any story that I could take some rectitude from. It didn’t just end with death and misery, and so many of them did, like the Guilford Greys going off to war with 190 men and coming back with 13, which was not an unusual thing. An entire village might go off to war, sending all the young boys and men and fathers and uncles, and then they trickle back from the war and half of the community is gone.
CM: When you say that 1 in 4 men of service age died during the war, that is an entire generation just wiped out.
PG: It’s at least that, and I suspect that’s a low number, because they didn’t count so many people. I think they talk about that more in terms of white men, but certainly anything during those years was harder if you were black.
CM: One of the things I really admired about the book was that there were things you did as a writer that I don’t think a historian would necessarily think to do. To me it was just a wonderfully written book. There was this sentence in your introduction where you say, “To write about the battle of Bentonville, you need to do this, this, this…” and it was all one long, incredible sentence, but it was amazing. As a writer, what was it like to practice your craft?
PG: What I was really aware of all the time was trying not to write about the war the way other people have always done it, sort of like shorthand.
In another book I did, Secret Soldiers, I kept reading in historians’ books that tanks got knocked out. Well I wanted to know what it means to have a tank “knocked out,” so I called a guy up at Fort Belvoir who works in Army intelligence, and he sent me forty pages of graphic description and photographs of knocked-out tanks, because the American Army did an interesting thing in World War II that the Germans didn’t do: they had tank recovery teams because they knew their tanks were vulnerable, and when they got knocked out on the battlefield—“knocked out” meaning an .88 shell that is armor piercing, which means it doesn’t explode until it gets inside, gets inside and shreds the people inside apart, but it doesn’t necessarily do a lot of damage to the tank. So what they would do is have teams of people haul these things back and literally hose the body parts out, disinfect things, and repair the hole and make sure the engine still works, then put it back out on the line. They could do this in as little as a couple days.
In this case, I wanted it to be, “What does it mean to charge?” People always think of a charge as them running willy nilly, but they aren’t, they are walking. It takes a lot of gumption to walk across open ground, trying to keep a tight line. It seems insane, but the goal is they all get there and try to fire at once and drive the enemy from the field, but you have to unpack that and write about it in a way that somehow captures the essence of what the thing really was like. When Private Benjamin Booth ended up in Salisbury Prison, he writes in his diary that they were so close to the other soldiers that they were setting each other’s tunics on fire when they fired at each other with the muzzle flashes. That is something that you don’t hear about and is a way of getting inside this experience.
That is what I was trying to do. I wanted it to be uncomfortable, painful, joyful—all the things that these people were experiencing, but I didn’t want to just fall back on a cliché. I wanted there to be some music in the language.
And writing about music—I did two pieces in particular about that—I wanted to capture the melancholy, the joy, the religious fervor, the sense of participation, inclusion, morale building, and the utter sadness of songs.
I wanted the reader to feel like this was something new, not the same old same old. The best compliment I got was from a woman who said that her husband was a big Civil War buff, and when he read it he said it wasn’t like reading about the Civil War at all, it was like reading a really good story.
In tomorrow’s segment, Gerard will talk more about the impact storytelling has had on his history writing and, specifically, how that helped him explore “the things they carried.”