Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Book Review: Tar Heels in Gray: Life in the 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War

By John B. Cameron
McFarland & Company, Inc.
Copyright 2021

As the back cover of this book states, “The 30th North Carolina was involved in most of the major battles in Virginia from the Seven Days through the surrender at Appomattox.” Most of its men joined early in the war, but others were drafted and served unwillingly. 

“What was the war actually like for these men?”


It is that question, and others like it, that this book explores and discusses in a deeply-researched text that those interested in the men of the Civil War armies should read. 


Tar Heels in Gray is a good book, an enjoyable and detailed biography of a regiment’s time in the war, focusing on non-combst-specific challenges the unit and its men faced, including recruitment, motivation, disease, desertion, hunger and others.


It is not intended as a military study of campaigns and battles like most regimental histories are, but focuses its attention on other important details about daily soldier life that contributed to the regiment’s ability to arrive at and perform in battle. This is a good approach by the author and produces a valuable look at the challenges the unit faced just to have enough able-bodied men to fight.


This book is generally well-written and easy to read, but I admit that some of the statistical discussions, and the descriptions of how the author decided what fit in which category and how he assembled the statistics, were not as enjoyable as other parts, though the graphs and charts were helpful. That may just be me - I often don’t enjoy the deeply analytical and statistically-based articles about sports I follow either - but I do understand why he included these sections in the book to show his methodology. I do wonder, however, if some of the discussion of the methods could have been included in an appendix.


My personal taste on that one issue aside, I especially enjoyed the letters to and from the home front and the descriptions of camp life and relationships between soldiers were outstanding and valuable. (The discussion about Louis McLeod and Francis Moore was especially interesting. I wish their friendship had lasted longer do that their story would have been longer and provided more material for the author. That was a perfect discussuon for this type of book and showed the humanity of these men in terms of the appreciation of friendships and the feelings of loss or betrayal.)


 The 30th North Carolina was just one regiment, but this is a look at it likely shows similar experiences as men in other units, especially Confederate ones, faced. 


I also enjoyed the discussions of the various diseases men in the men of the 30th faced. Some medical terms are technical and/or in Latin, but the overview of the diseases, how common they were, and, especially, how some were likely misdiagnosed was enlightening, and might help me on my current project. 


This note might be another quite picky one, but the author’s style of writing dates - the day, followed by the month, then the year (e.g. 23 June 1865) - is a bit distracting at least for me as I am accustomed to the more traditional style (e.g. June 23, 1865).


This is a relatively short book, 161 pages including the endnotes (which are worth reading, as many include additional information other than sources), plus a six page bibliography, but is well-researched, with the use of many soldier letters, census records, tax records and more. It is clearly the product of much work (such as the analysis of how to classify the economic and occupational statuses of the more than 1,000 soldiers in the regiment, and the discussion of the wounds and diseases these men suffered). It is an impressive effort, with a fine result that provides good insight into how a regiment and its men joined the army, lived, survived, were motivated, deserted and/or died in the dangerous and deadly years of the Civil War.


*Please note that I received a copy from the publisher for no charge. I have published my honest comments herein without allowing how I acquired it to affect my opinions.  

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