Good storytelling can get at aspects of history that can otherwise end up overlooked. Yesterday in our conversation with writer Philip Gerard, he talked about the importance of that in his new book, The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina (UNC Press, 2019). “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,” he said.
Chris Mackowski: I think one of my favorite lines in the whole book was: “North Carolina’s darkest hour lasted three days.” What a great intro. What a great way to take that metaphor and flip it on its head. It made me think, “This guy really knows what he’s doing.”
Philip Gerard: What I would try to do, and again this is a journalistic thing, as I was researching, I was often researching multiple things at once. So I was always researching and writing and hearing from people at the same time, but I would never start a draft of piece until I knew how it was going to begin. I would fiddle with that first line for a long time, and then I would fiddle with it again after I finished drafting it. I would often start the draft with the things I wanted to quote from, like a letter or thing a general said, and I would arrange those, but I wouldn’t start drafting until I knew what my way into it was going to be.
I guess my other favorite piece that I really enjoyed doing was an homage to a friend of mine named Tim O’Brien, “The Burden of War.” He did a book called The Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War. I wanted to do a slight variation on that, but the idea was that these men were doing hard physical labor, and to do that labor, they had to carry both tools and materials to the job site. So if they had to go to a job site in North Carolina, there were engineers out in woods chopping down pine trees, carrying the supplies, laying them down, picking them up after the wagons have passed, and carrying them forward. The rest of the time these guys are carrying wagonloads of ammo, food, and personal items.
The debris trail that they are leaving behind, in the case of Sherman’s army, is a trail that only a conquering army could afford to leave. The Union soldiers were throwing away stuff that the Confederates would have killed to have, even broken or damaged.
And then I wanted to get at what they were metaphorically carrying around: how heavy the letters were after a while, the news back home, and the impending sense that many of them were communicating through their letters and diaries: that the longer they went on, the more sure they were that they weren’t going to make it. They were sure wherever they were going to end up was going to be heaven, but it wasn’t going to be home. It was kind of the burden of their own mortality in a way.
CM: There’s so much writing about the war that doesn’t get at that, which is one of the things I really admired.
PG: That had occurred to me, because some years back, I did a radio piece on the Gettysburg Address. I got to Gettysburg really early in the morning. The sun wasn’t quite up yet, and I started with the statue of Lee, where his attack came across the battlefield. I was walking across the field and talking into a tape recorder the whole time, and I realized that there is a real optical illusion on that battlefield. It doesn’t look like a hill from where you are standing. It goes down and then up, and at a certain point down there, you cannot see the angle, and then you start to go uphill. I realized when I got up that I was huffing and puffing, and all I was carrying was a little tape recorder.
Then I looked up what they were carrying during those attacks. Well, they had a musket, that’s ten or twelve pounds. Then they had their bag for the powder, a blanket roll, a canteen of water, whatever was in their pockets, and it makes you start to get a sense of the war in your own body in a way you just don’t get from either books or even looking at the static displays.
I’m going to talk to the Society of Archivists, and one of the things I’m going to talk about is how many objects in the war were not used the way they were supposed to be used. At Kingston battlefield, they found a bunch of broken crockery, really nice fine china that the US soldiers marching towards the battle had looted from some of the finer homes along the march. The mystery was always why they were broken up when they were found. I talked to a guy named Dennis Harper, who literally grew up in a house on the battlefield, and he collected all these artifacts from the battle over the years that he dug up, and he was talking about the fact that what he thinks happened there—and he had pretty good evidence to support it—is that there was a surprise attack. Where the crockery was found was on a very exposed part of the field, so the soldiers had gotten there and were almost immediately attacked. They could see the attack coming so what they used the crockery for was to dig in, because only one man in the whole company had a shovel, and the rest of them were using their canteen cups, or their bare hands, or their crockery, and that is how it all got busted up. And then they suffered terribly. In that attack, they were all either killed or captured.
The bayonet became a really great candleholder, because the socket was the perfect size for a candle, and they could stick it in the ground and it wouldn’t go anywhere, but they hated to use it.
The ambulances were often used as sleeping quarters for surgeons if they didn’t have bodies in them.
In our final segment of our interview with Philip Gerard tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Gerard’s involvement with a wider initiative to promote the state’s Civil War and post-Civil War history.