Interview: Bill Trotter on the American Civil War
John Walsh speaks at length with famed author and wargame expert Bill Trotter on his series of Civil War epics.
William “Bill” Trotter is the author of the two volume epic saga of life in North Carolina during the American Civil War. The first part of the saga is entitled The Sands of War and the second part is The Fires of War. He has also written many other books and is renowned among the wargames community for his prescient and entertaining articles on all aspects of the industry. I caught up with Will for an email interview. Here’s what he had to say.
The Wargamer (WG): How important were the events in North Carolina vis-à-vis the Civil War as a whole?
Bill Trotter (BT): Historians have tended to neglect the role of North Carolina, for the simple reason that none of the war’s big dramatic campaigns took place within the state’s borders. In fact, there were only two big battles fought on North Carolina soil, and both of those took place late in the conflict. One, of course, was the Union attack on Ft. Fisher, which was “big” by any standard – it was in fact the largest amphibious operation in U.S. Navy history until the landings on Guadalcanal in 1942. The first Union attempt, led by the incompetent and corrupt General Benjamin Butler, was an abysmal failure (but it had one positive consequence in that it gave Ulysses Grant the excuse to do something he’d long wanted to do, but couldn’t because of political reasons: sack Butler in disgrace); the second attack, in January, was far better organized and ultimately succeeded in capturing the fort, although the Rebel garrison surrendered only after an entire day of ferocious resistance, inflicting five times as many casualties on the Union attackers than there were defenders inside the walls to begin with. The other “big” battle was Bentonville, in March, where Joseph E. Johnston, recalled from exile at the eleventh hour (he’d been languishing without a field command ever since Jefferson Davis fired him just as the siege of Atlanta was beginning), scraped together bits and pieces of Confederate units and executed a brilliant attack on Sherman’s left wing. Veterans of both engagement later described Bentonville as being every bit as bloody, in proportion to the numbers involved, as Gettysburg. Sherman admired Johnston’s pluck (and always regarded Davis as an idiot for sacking “Old Joe” in favor the reckless and ineffectual John Bell Hood), but his numerical superiority was so great that, for all its violence, Bentonville amounted to little more than a speed-bump in Sherman’s drive to capture Raleigh, the state capital.
WG: You write also about some of the many smaller engagements?
BT: Yes, there were, in addition, approximately 100 engagements fought inside the state, some of them extremely intense, even though the numbers of men involved were not huge and the consequences had little bearing on the outcome of the war as a whole. But if you look beyond the purely military sphere, you’ll see how pivotal North Carolina was to the strategic well-being and long-term prospects of the Confederacy. The more I studied the state’s role from that perspective, the more certain I became that both sides missed enormous strategic opportunities in North Carolina. And very little has been written about those matters in the basic histories of the conflict: Catton, Freeman, McPherson, even Shelby Foote – none of them paid much attention to North Carolina, except for the blockade runners’ activities and those two battles I mentioned above. Twentieth-Century historians, like the contemporary leaders and generals, were absolutely fixated on Lee’s campaigns and the campaigns in the “western” theater – i.e., the struggle for control of the Mississippi and for Tennessee.
If you study the map (and I’ve included a crude sketch map of my own, for the benefit of readers not familiar with regional geography), you can plainly see how first the North and later the South could have reaped tremendous benefits by taking stronger action in North Carolina, that in fact the state could have been pivotal in deciding the whole issue of secession, but those opportunities were not so evident at the time, and the men with sufficient authority to take advantage of them were either prejudiced against North Carolina for political reasons, or were myopic and rather unimaginative in their strategic thinking, including Lee, who should have seen in North Carolina’s situation a golden opportunity to improve his and the South’s overall strategic prospects on-the-cheap; there was a rather large window of time when, if Lee had detached just one corps of veteran troops from the Virginia front, he could easily have recaptured every Federal enclave on the N.C. coast, picking off the fortified outposts one by one, and by doing so, he would have presented the North with a drastically changed strategic situation before Washington had time to do anything about it.
But the leaders on both sides were obsessed with capturing or defending Richmond, and were unable to see the potentially enormous benefits to be gained from a relatively short, but vigorously prosecuted, campaign in the eastern part of my state. One reason why a “Carolina campaign” never happened was that NC Governor Zebulon Vance, a staunch advocate of civil liberties and vituperative critic of what he described as the “despotic tendencies” of the Confederate government, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis heartily detested one another. Correspondence between Raleigh and Richmond was never especially warm, but after about the spring of 1863, Vance’s hectoring, disrespectful missives to Davis, and Davis’s testy, almost petulant replies, had become so openly antagonistic that their letters should have been written on asbestos paper. (Vance writing to a third party about Davis: “The man nurses grudges the way a sow suckles piglets – he is still hiring and firing generals on the basis of rude remarks someone made to him when he was a West Point plebe!”). Davis and many of his cronies disliked and distrusted not only the Governor of North Carolina, but the very state itself.