The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: Calamity in Carolina

The last major battle in the war for the western theater was fought at Bentonville on March 19-21, 1865, in North Carolina. During the three-day battle, one of the last charges of the war was conducted by the Confederate Army of Tennessee. While co-writing the book, Calamity in Carolina, The Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville, March 1865 with Daniel T. Davis, I remembered a quote from a witness of this last attack. The quote and observation has stuck with me since we wrote the book back in 2015, and I have used the words in book talks and PowerPoint presentations since.

By early afternoon of March 19, 1865, General Joseph Johnston was ready to unleash an offensive against the Union VIX Corps division under the command of Brigadier General William Carlin. As one Confederate soldier remembered, the men believed “we could take the works or old Joe [reference to Joseph Johnston] would not order it.” As the proud remnants of the Army of Tennessee shuffled into attack formation, a member of the North Carolina Junior Reserves remembered the scene so vividly that he later put to paper what he saw:

“It looked like a picture. . . . Several officers led the charge on horseback . . . with colors flying and line of battle in such perfect order. . . .”

The pageantry of the advance, though, belied the desperation and devastation that the Army of Tennessee had suffered, especially during the past year of combat.

As the Junior Reserve soldier continued his remembrance of that afternoon. The pageantry of the advance was done “gallantly, but it was painful to see how close the battle flags were together.” The diminished ranks had shortened the distance between units and commands with “regiments being scarcely larger than companies and [a] division not much larger than a regiment should be.”

The attack commenced with the same elan that these Confederates had shown on many a battlefield. The same “rebel yell” emanated from the throats of the proud veterans as they lunged forward, like a single wounded lion, in one last desperate advance. Success became nullified, though, when other Confederate units did not advance, and although the Federal soldiers gave ground, Federal commanders established a secure and strong position.

Two things come to mind when I write that quote from the Junior Reserve soldier. First: the soldiers of the Army of Tennessee; their long years of war; their multiple setbacks on battlefields across numerous states; their commitment to the cause and comrades; and the sacrifice and depletion of their ranks. The men shouldering rifles at Bentonville were survivors, committed, and had utmost trust and confidence in General Johnston to lead them to victory. That cannot be highlighted enough. One last charge was in the Army of Tennessee and, though their numbers could not secure a stunning victory, they tried.

Second: the mere fact that a member of the Junior Reserve was on the battlefield. These were men as young as 17 (some could even have snuck in younger) that were needed to supplement the Confederate manpower shortage. The need to enlist teenagers to defend the state and serve alongside the armies shows the desperation of the Confederacy by this time in the war. Today, young men that age are in high-school, trying to figure out what to do on a Friday night or working their first jobs or getting ready for the prom. In 1865, they were serving on a battlefield and possibly sacrificing their lives for a cause.

As I reflect on this book, I remember these vivid accounts from the battlefield and try to share that with the readers of Calamity in Carolina to connect with the soldiers who fought, bled, and died. For me, there is no better imagery, no better connection to the horrific and/or incredible events of a Civil War battlefield, than when you can uncover primary sources like the one this North Carolina Junior Reserve gave us.

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Editor’s Note (from Chris):

Calamity marked a cool watershed moment in the history of the series because it was the first time we decided to use a full-color image on the cover. Up to that point, we’d been using historical sketches or photos, which would generally appear in monochrome (usually black) on a colored background with the title in another, complementary color. Designer Ian Hughes created just such a cover for Calamity with a nice color scheme:

As Dan and Phill pulled together images for the book, they discovered there wasn’t necessarily a wealth of historical images for Averasboro and Bentonville like there are for, say, Gettysburg or Antietam. But in the course of their hunt, they found a great full-color image. We had to use it, not just because of the relative dearth of images but because, in color, it was so striking—and, on the cover, we had the ability to reproduce that color.

The image, based on a sketch by J. E. Taylor, appeared in the April 22, 1865, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. It depicts Joseph Mower’s assault on the Confederate left that broke the position and nearly cut the Confederate line of retreat. “I found the painted version for sale in the Bentonville Battlefield Visitor Center,” says Dan Davis. “It is one of the few images depicting the combat at Bentonville, and the colors of the painting are so vivid they jumped out at me,” Dan explains. “The colors of the painting contributed to the cover and blended so well that they immediately appeal to the human eye.”

For me, this was a Homer Simpson “D’Oh!” experience. We had settled into a pretty good template for the covers, which this cover broke–and which got me to wondering, “What might we have done for some of our previous covers had we been using full-color images?” Calamity’s cover gave us “permission” of sorts to take advantage of more full-color images on covers, which has been really nice. I’ve always been a fan of Ian’s cover designs, but being able to use full color has allowed him to really step up his game.

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Calamity in Carolina: The Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville
by Daniel T. Davis and Phillip S. Greenwalt
Savas Beatie, 2015

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