Book Review: Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered what remained of the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. But Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee—a much larger rebel force—remained in the field in North Carolina. Johnston would not capitulate until April 26, when he met his nemesis William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett’s Place near Durham Station. In his new book, Ernest A. Dollar, Jr., the director of the City of Raleigh Museum, chronicles the chaotic final days of the war in North Carolina. In vivid prose, he captures the raw uncertainty and conflicting emotions that attended the end of formal hostilities. The author’s keen eye for anecdotes helps him to capture the unyielding exigencies of war for the men and women who lived them. 

Recent historians have done much to recover the doubt and confusion of the war’s end. Books by Gregory P. Downs, Martha Hodes, Caroline E. Janney, Jim Broomall, and Mark Wahlgren Summers—to name only a few—have supplied critical perspectives on the transition from hard-fought war to uneasy peace. Many of these books have taken a methodological cue from cultural historians and the history of emotions approach. Other scholars have supplied valuable insights into the difficulties of postwar readjustment for veterans, measuring the human longitude of the war. Though Dollar may overstate the novelty of his subject and method, these claims hardly detract from his narrative.

Three introductory chapters survey, in turn, the experiences of U.S. soldiers, Confederate enlisted men, and white southern civilians. (Dollar’s book would have benefited from a chapter exploring the experiences of the enslaved, who found themselves caught between the Confederate enemy and their uncertain allies in the Union armies throughout the war.)

The bulk of the book—six chapters—tracks the end of the war in North Carolina day by day. Armies navigated muddy roads and swollen creeks in spitting rains (43). Enlisted men not only battled the enemy, but increasingly hunger and anxiety. White southern civilians found themselves snared between two armies impatient to pillage and plunder; in Raleigh, locals feared their city would share the fiery fate of Columbia. “North Carolinians,” Dollar writes, “struggled to deal with a deep, crippling sadness” (39). The perceived “inability of the Confederate authorities to protect citizens” likewise stirred ire on the rebel home front (36).

Soldiers on both sides lurched between shock, sorrow, and spite (101). After news of Lee’s surrender reached North Carolina, Joe Johnston’s army dissolved into knots of men who looted and ransacked with abandon, desperate to slough off the demands of soldiering. “Men wrestled with their urge for self-preservation and their loyalty to the Southern cause,” Dollar writes (89). Some began to explain away their defeat. Lincoln’s murder devastated U.S. soldiers who only days before had cheered Lee’s surrender. They looked ahead with no small apprehension about the future, wondering about their reception back home and the contours of civilian life.

Dollar’s book “examines the events of the war’s close to show individuals’ psychological, physical, and moral reactions to intense stress during moments of monumental change” (xv). While conceding that it may be “jarring” to impose modern diagnostic language on historical actors, the author does so unapologetically (xv). He attributes the intensity of the war’s final campaigns to the “dramatic psychological changes men were experiencing,” noting that the “unscrupulous behavior” of Union soldiers in the war’s final campaign was a predictable result of “four long years of war” (21, 18). He proposes that the “army’s psychological state overwhelmed Sherman’s control over it” (21). Similarly, he asserts that Confederate conduct in the war’s final days “reveals the depths of [their] trauma” (10). Ultimately, Dollar concludes that “trauma and the moral trespass it caused lies at the heart of why post-war American shied away from the story of the war’s end in the Carolinas” (195). These conclusions demand some more nuance and context. While some soldiers doubtless broke down under the extreme stress of the campaign, not every soldier responded to the war in the same way. Can we so easily attribute the brutal ferocity of the war’s final days to trauma? Did ideology find tactical articulation on the ground? Indeed, Dollar might have lent more altitude to his analysis by engaging with recent work—by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and others—on the culture and character of Civil War violence. He might also have told us a bit more about what, exactly, his work does to the “loss of will” thesis.

While the author’s premise is not entirely persuasive, this book supplies a vivid, well-written, and entirely memorable account of the war’s final days in North Carolina. Hearts Torn Asunder is yet another reminder of the human costs of our deadliest war.

Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina

By Ernest A. Dollar, Jr.

Savas Beatie, 2022  $32.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Brian Matthew Jordan

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2 Responses to Book Review: Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    It is difficult to keep up with much of this new scholarship being published, but it is definitely worth the try to begin to understand our men and women at the end of the war. I am currently convinced that the issues tearing our country apart once again can be traced directly back to this time and these experiences. I look forward to reading this book.

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