Book Review: “The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January—May 1864”

The Confederacy faced a series of ever-increasing problems by the winter of 1863-1864. Logistically, they were running out of supplies. Politically, the war that seemed to have no end to its bloody lists was wearing down the morale of the Southern people. There were whispers of pro-peace politicians who were starting to believe that maybe negotiations with the Federal government, and not sustained warfare, was the way to go in the new year.

Those problems seemed especially pertinent coming out of North Carolina, a state that had major portions of its eastern coast under Federal control since 1862. Determining that something needed to be done, both to secure more food and equipment, and to renew the martial spirit of the Carolinians, Lee green-lit a campaign that would launch Confederate forces against Federal strongholds around New Bern and Plymouth. That campaign is the subject of a new book by Hampton Newsome.

  Hampton Newsome is a familiar name to those who study the Siege of Petersburg because of his fantastic Richmond Must Fall, about Grant’s Sixth Offensive in the fall of 1864. Readers who enjoyed the thoroughness and detail of that book can find the same high level of work in The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January—May 1864.

            Because of the fury of the Overland and Atlanta Campaigns in the spring, the fighting in North Carolina in the immediately preceding months has been generally overlooked. There are, of course, a scattering of books about the topic, but Newsome’s pages present a perfectly mastered monograph on the subject.

Newsome is able to both narrate his book from the strategic and tactical level, both with astounding success. His opening pages briefly discuss the United States’ operations against the coast, especially Ambrose Burnside’s successful campaign of 1862. With a firm foundation laid to explain the why, Newsome then transitions into the how.

The Fight for the North State presents a cast of characters that many readers will recognize, as well as new figures that have not had the same limelight. There’s George Pickett, still arguably shellshocked from Gettysburg, who somewhat bumbles the attack against New Bern in February 1864, as well as Benjamin Butler, who manages to overlook the seriousness of the operations from his headquarters in Virginia, to his chagrin. Behind the scenes is William Holden, a prominent newspaper editor who led the charge for a peace settlement, and his political foe, Gov. Zebulon Vance. A rising star, Brig. Gen. Robert Hoke gets the lion’s share of credit in Newsome’s work for overseeing the successful attack against Plymouth in April 1864. Federal commanders like John Peck, Innis Palmer, and Henry Wessells, who all tried to combat the Confederate attacks, also get their due credit within the pages.

Once the fighting begins, Newsome’s skill as a writer brings the reader down to the tactical level on the firing line, but he doesn’t let his narrative get bogged down with too many unnecessary details. At times the book reads like a suspenseful novel, as if the events haven’t already been decided almost 160 years ago. Newsome’s telling of the railroad gun’s near capture and mad-dash to safety at New Bern, with guns blazing in all directions, is one example. He stretches his sea legs too, with dramatic narratives of naval engagements that included the capture of the USS Underwriter and the ferocity of the CSS Albemarle blasting its way through opposition at Plymouth.

Within the pages of The Fight for the North State, Newsome also plays the role of investigator in the aftermath of George Pickett’s controversial hanging of U.S. prisoners of war at Kinston, and the massacre of black prisoners at Plymouth. Though faced with many contradictory reports and articles, Newsome weeds out fact from fiction and explains how the atrocities came to happen. Though similar massacres like the one perpetrated at Fort Pillow are frequently mentioned among Civil War scholars, the actions in North Carolina are somewhat overlooked. Hopefully, because of this work, that will change.

All good military studies need to have equally good maps, and in this as well the book does not disappoint. There are eighteen maps, in fact, spread across the book, that allow the reader to easily follow along as the armies clash back and forth.

As one might expect of a book that seeks to explain such a complex and at times confusing campaign, the endnotes are aplenty with nearly 100 pages of citations. Tacked to those is a healthy 20-page bibliography with a plethora of archival sources. Newsome did his homework, to be sure.

For the statistic-minded reader, Newsome also includes a series of appendices that not only show the orders of battle for the various actions, but also a tabulation of casualties.

In summation, it is difficult to imagine any writer approaching the subject of the 1864 North Carolina Campaign with the same degree of thoroughness that Newsome has accomplished in this book. He has proven to be among the best Civil War authors writing today.

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Hampton Newsome, The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January—May 1864.
University Press of Kansas, 2019.
329 pages main text/ 466 pages total.
Three Appendices, Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.

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2 Responses to Book Review: “The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January—May 1864”

  1. Bryce a Suderow says:

    I suggested the topic for this book to the author. Later I helped with the research and editing of this book Bryce Suderow

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