We’ve been talking this week with Philip Gerard, author of The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina (UNC Press, 2019). During the course of my conversation with him, one thing theme that has continued to surface and resurface is his own balance between writing and history. His approach to that balance has had some surprising results that, from a public history perspective, have been refreshing.
Chris Mackowski: Let me switch gears just a little bit, because you said this book sort of coincides with the work you’ve been doing with the North Carolina Civil War & Reconstruction History Center in Fayetteville. How’s that project coming along?
Philip Gerard: It’s coming great. It’s on the site of the Old Arsenal. In its day, the Old Arsenal had been like the Central Park of the South. Unfortunately, there is a big highway that bisects the property that they put in in the 60’s, so we are actually bridging that highway with an entryway into the museum so that we can reclaim the whole site.
There are three or four historical homes on the site that we moved into a village, and they are going to, among other things, house the digital part of the history center. So we are working with the Department of Public Instruction to create a really good curriculum of materials for K-12 and college that will come out of there. A big part of it is the educational reach that doesn’t depend on being at the center. You can visit it, sure, but it is going to be light on artifacts. We don’t want to have a huge collection of things to keep; we want to tell the story.
David Winslow, who is the executive director of the project, raised the money for it. Eventually he will hand that off to somebody from the Division of Archives and History, but he enlisted me early in the process to meet with twelve historians at a retreat center in Winston. We figured out what the story was of North Carolina in the war, and then I had to go home and write a script, and then they vetted that for accuracy. The script became the story of not just the war, but of slavery, the war, and the aftermath of the war in North Carolina. They then commissioned an exhibit designer to create exhibits around that story, and then they commissioned an architect to design the building to house the exhibits to tell the story, so they did this from the inside out. Typically what happens is a community has a bunch of cannons and rifles lying around, and they build a square building, and then somebody comes in to build cases, and they stick all the cannons in there, and only then does somebody try to tie it all together with a narrative. We very consciously wanted this to be all about stories.
The website for the past several years has featured stories from all 100 counties, unedited. People share them for what they’re worth, and then we have people looking at them to figure out which ones actually look like they’re promising enough to do some real historical research on, and find out the truth of them and include those. It’s a good project.
I don’t know that they’ve announced it yet, but one of the things we’ve just acquired is—you know the cyclorama at Gettysburg? Well there is another one and we just bought it. We have to restore the panels, and we’ll do like one panel every year or something for the foreseeable future, until the whole thing is done, but it will be a major draw.
CM: Well considering how many North Carolinians were in that charge….
PG: The cool thing is, a lot of them were recognizable to contemporary viewers, because they were painted to resemble individual people in the battle. There will probably be some scholarship around who’s who and what’s what, and I think the painter put himself in there somewhere.
That’s another astonishing thing. We think of everyone as being identifiable, but in the Civil War, like 1/3rd of the casualties at Gettysburg on the southern side were never even identified. There were families that knew people who either fought or died at Gettysburg, but they never knew what happened to them—they just knew they never came home. Another euphemistic term, “missing in action,” usually means they were blown to pieces, because when you have 1,000 soldiers go missing in a battle, it’s not like all of those people ran away or were misplaced like car keys. Unpacking all of those euphemisms seems to be really important. History in general, but the Civil War in particular, has so many clichés about it.
CM: So, what have I not asked you about this book that I should have?
PG: Well, you’ve hit on the creative process a bit, and I like that, because too often people just care about the subject matter and getting it right, especially with nonfiction. I care about the subject matter and getting it right. I have two personal fact-checkers, had two historians vet the book, the magazine had its own fact-checkers, but I was trying to make something that would really stand up as a piece of creative work, and capture the personal and emotional stake of these people and make the reader feel that same stake. I was paying a lot of attention to how it was written.
One of the things the magazine [Our State] does is they sit around once a month and every editor reads every single story out loud that he or she is going to put in the magazine, and at that stage, if the publisher, or the executive editor, or the editor-in-chief doesn’t like it, they can pull it. Someone can say, “It’s ready for production,” and the magazine can say, “It’s not musical enough.” Everything here was read out loud by me and other people to make sure it falls on the ear with some kind of rhythm and music. I’m glad you pointed out the things that you did, because I worked hard.
CM: Well, I come at the Civil War as a writer first, so I always pay attention to the craft. It’s nice when all that stuff is invisible, but it’s also nice when someone points it out, too. I really admired that about the book.
PG: Well, part of the writing process in a book like this is that you don’t want to be too showy because you want this to be a pane of glass and you want the reader not to feel your presence, but to be feeling their own presence inside the world. Every so often, though, you need to call attention to something with a little bit of a “wow,” and then just say whether it is the darkest hour or trying to say how difficult it is to capture 90,000 folks maneuvering around on a farm in the rain. Every so often you have to raise your hand and say, “Hey, over here. Look at this,” and then you can go on.
I was very conscious of each beginning, but also the last line of each piece, and how I ended the book as well. So many things in nonfiction end with something like, “One thing is certain, more study is required,” or something really mundane like that. I wanted there to be some kind of punch there at the end. The piece I did on the Guilford Greys, and finally, the list of all the things they haven’t yet experienced, and then saying, “They aren’t veterans yet, but for that distinction, they don’t have long to wait.” That’s the impending battle. I tried to get at the weight and the naïveté of their marching toward a horrible death.
CM: I tell my own students, that a reader might not remember anything else you’ve written but that good, powerful takeaway in that last line. They’ll feel that.
PG: Especially if it’s a line that helps you feel the rest of it in. Once you get to that, you should be able to say, “Oh, I remember what this is about.” Hemingway said something along the lines of, “When a reader reads a good story, they should remember it as if it happened to them.” I’m not always that interested in the reader remembering all of the facts, but if the reader remembers an impression like, “Man, those guys were carrying around a lot of stuff into battle,” or, “Wow, those nuns were a fierce bunch,” and if they just have that one general memory, then all the rest of it can crystalize around that, and they won’t forget it.
CM: So you said you didn’t necessarily start this as a “Civil War guy.” Would you consider yourself to be a “Civil War guy” now?
PG: Kind of yes and no. I have to say I ended up with more questions to ask than I’ve answered. I wind up feeling it is more mysterious than ever in a way, and current events have really brought that into focus. We were up in our place near Charlottesville during all that time of the white supremacist march, going, “What in the fuck is happening here? Torchlight processions of Nazis across UVA? They’re menacing the Jews that are gathering at the synagogue to pray, and people are letting this happen?” It just felt like maybe we aren’t as far away from this country 150 years ago as I thought we were.
I have written about the things that happened in Wilmington in 1898, the massacre and coup of black citizens by white supremacists. In fact we are doing the 25th anniversary launch of the book, . It’s been in print forever, but we are doing a new edition, with a full afterwards. It’s a book that almost got me fired from the university, because people I wrote about were the grandfathers and some people’s fathers of the Board of Trustees, and they tried to ruin my tenure and not grant it to me.
But the Civil War is the backstory to that, because all those 25,000 contrabands that Sherman sent down the river from Fayetteville were the basis for the huge black population that was here in the 1890s, and so it was like, “This is point A to B to C. This is a direct line of evolution.” When I look around now, I understand a lot more of what I’m seeing based on having this deep immersion in the Civil War.
I don’t know if I would do it, but I’d like to go back and retrace Sherman’s march from Savannah to Goldsboro and Raleigh, and do it in two parts. I’d be looking at the actual Civil War part, and then looking at what’s there today, and interviewing people on the way to see whether the two Carolinas bear any relationship to one another.
CM: That would be a fascinating project.
PG: Well, there are logistical issues, too. A lot of it now follows pretty good roads, but there’s some of it that doesn’t. The question would be what kind of transportation I want. Do I want to walk some of it? How do I do it? If I figure out the logistics of it, I might be able to pitch it for the next book.