On a cold day in early January 1864, Robert E. Lee wrote to Confederate president Jefferson Davis “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done.” Over the next few months, Lee’s dispatch would precipitate a momentous series of events as the Confederates, threatened by a supply crisis and an emerging peace movement, sought to seize Federal bases in eastern North Carolina. This book tells the story of these operations—the late war Confederate resurgence in the Old North State.
1.What’s your elevator pitch for The Fight for the Old North State? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?
This book is about the Confederate effort to retake key coastal positions in North Carolina during the first half of 1864. In launching these operations, rebel leaders sought to secure vital supplies for Robert E. Lee’s army and dampen a growing peace movement then threatening to pull the state out of the war. The ensuing engagements involved complex joint army and navy operations, daring raids, and deadly ironclads.
2.What led you to research and write about the late-war Confederate resurgence in the Old North State?
I was drawn to this project by the interesting mix of military and political issues behind the battles in eastern North Carolina. These clashes, which included Confederate attacks on New Bern and Plymouth, formed a compelling story that not only involved much marching and fighting but also other issues such as Unionist resistance to the Confederacy, emancipation, desertion, and a crucial gubernatorial election.
3. What were some of the challenging aspects of researching the book?
The search for material sent me far and wide. I’m grateful for the help from archivists at dozens of institutions around the country. There were many obstacles of course. One interesting challenge was the hunt for elusive information about Confederate supply efforts in eastern North Carolina during 1864. Most of the official Confederate commissary records from that period have not survived. However, I was able to find valuable information elsewhere, in period newspapers for instance. Another hurdle was the effort to find information about Union African-American recruits at Plymouth. In trying to track down several details, I scanned through regimental books and personnel files housed at the National Archives as well as records in the collections at Duke University. In the end, like a lot of research, I found more on these issues than I expected but less than I hoped for!
4. Your book offers a compelling account of Confederate efforts in early 1864 to turn the tide of the Civil War in eastern North Carolina. What would you list as the most important decision made by the rebel leaders in their efforts?
Confederate success stemmed in large part from the decision to delay the attack on Plymouth until the completion of the ironclad Albemarle. Once finished in April, that gunboat, which had been initially constructed in a cornfield, steamed down the Roanoke River, defeated Union naval vessels guarding the town, and poured fire into the unprotected flank and rear of the Federal fortifications, turning the tide of the battle.
5. Robert E. Lee’s proposal to take eastern North Carolina triggered one of the last successful Confederate offensives. What was the impact of these operations on the culmination of the Civil War?
In targeting Federal bases, rebel leaders sought to boost morale in the state and, in doing so, help Governor Zebulon Vance win reelection that summer and keep the state firmly in the Confederacy. The rebel victories in North Carolina also opened areas previously closed to Confederate commissary agents, allowing them to gather supplies for Lee’s army in the brutal campaigns that summer in Virginia. Though the precise impacts of these events on the overall war are difficult to gauge, the operations clearly aided the Confederate war effort.
6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?
I hope readers gain an appreciation of just how complicated things were in Civil War North Carolina. In addition to the tactical and operational details highlighted in the book, many issues impacted the Old North State during the conflict including the enlistment of North Carolinians into Union regiments, Confederate desertion, guerrilla warfare, emancipation, and the peace movement.
Hampton Newsome is the author of Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864.