Saturday, February 28, 2009
So why write about the Battle of Newport Barracks?
Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and....... Newport Barracks.
If one was to compile a list of the great battles of the Civil War I can pretty much bet my life on the fact that the Battle of Newport Barracks would not even come close to making that list. While in terms of numbers engaged and casualties it ranks pretty low when viewed in the context of the war in general, not to mention it is a battle that very few have even heard of. So with that said why in the world is a book needed on the subject? Before I answer that let me just give a bit of background on how this project came about.
When I was in kindergarten (the 5-year-old version of me looked much like Opie from the Andy Griffith Show, but that is another story altogether) I had a moment that would play a major role in my life and 20 years later put me on track to write my first book. I cannot remember the actual date for the life of me, but one February day my teacher Mrs. Quick told me about the Civil War and a great battle that was fought at Gettysburg. This immediately gained my attention for some reason, so on a family trip to Maine that summer we passed by Gettysburg. I asked my parents if it would be possible for us to stop and luckily for me they said yes. I am sure in their mind they thought we would have lunch, buy a toy cannon for me, and most likely never see Gettysburg again. We did have lunch, and I still have the toy cannon from that day, but from that point on Gettysburg and the Civil War would fascinate and captivate me for the rest of my life.
Fast forward to the summer after my freshman year of high school. Both my parents are Methodist ministers so from time to time as the bishop felt necessary we moved. At the time we were living in Stedman, North Carolina (a small town 10 miles east of Fayetteville) but soon we would be moving to Newport, North Carolina (5 miles west of Morehead City). Now I am pretty good with geography and especially that of North Carolina, but for the life of me I had no clue where Newport was. In all honesty I did not want to move at all, but as life is apt to do sometimes, the thing we least want is something that in the end works out for the best. So in June of 1998 we packed up and moved to Newport.
Once we moved, word got around that I was interested in the Civil War. So as a result I received all kinds of information on the war, especially the war in Carteret County. At the time I did not put as much thought into it as I later did, but always in the back of my mind I remembered the stories on "Fort Benjamin" and the railroad trestle. Little did I know that ten years later I would be writing a book on those very subjects. Over time I was getting asked questions about the war in Newport so I decided to look a little more into it, but never to the level I would eventually. I was able to get the basic idea of what happened and from there I sort of put it on the back burner. I always told myself one day I might write a brief description of the battle and history of the town during the war, but as with things, never got around to it. I would research here and there, but I was far from diligent in my research.
That would change in 2007 when I was hired as a seasonal historian at Fort Macon State Park. One day I was looking through the books in the parks collection and saw a title that caught my eye. It was a book on the Civil War in Newport by a local named Bill Poheresky. I had read it soon after I moved to Newport in 1998, but wanted to give it another read so I borrowed the copy. It is a very short book so it took me little time to read it, but when I finished I had more questions and my interest was much higher that it was in 1998. I kept asking myself, could it be as simple and straight forward as the book made it out to be? Honestly, war and battles never are, so I decided to once again look more into the battle, but this time with a serious determination to find out as much as I possibly could on what happened. And thus the birth of this book project took place.
Now that was a long and convoluted explanation of personal history as it relates to the subject, and yes I will finally address the main question as to why write about it. As I said, I just could not accept the standard version of what happened and in all honesty the book I read on the matter was almost 30 years old. In my mind I wondered what a fresh set of eyes, with the benefit of the advances in research, might bring. The more research I did I began to find that my initial questions had some traction and that indeed there was more to the story. Through long forgotten letters and diaries, books, and other sources I began to discover a battle that was much more complex and fascinating than I had ever imagined.
Often we view war and battles from an almost impersonal level. Certainly the scope and sheer size of a conflict like the Civil War can do that. It is difficult to understand the truly national tragedy that was the American Civil War. It is quite trying to wrap one’s mind around the human cost of the war, not just to those who fought, but those on the home front as well. While strategically not as important as larger battles, the Battle of Newport Barracks was still important. While not as costly by comparison to other battles, there was still a cost to the Battle of Newport Barracks. The pain and suffering by those who were involved and those effected by the outcome is very much real. To me it is the more personal look at a battle that draws me to the subject. We see any number of traits and emotions that are common in battle: courage and cowardice, bravery and fear, brutality and compassion, victory and defeat, jubilation and despair. In the process we begin to view our subject, as not just a footnote in history, but with a new sense of humanity. We see a commonality among the combatants, but also a great level of difference. We learn of their lives and that of their families, we attempt to comprehend what they experienced despite the fact that we will never truly be able to fully understand. Ultimately we place ourselves on that line and ask how might we react?
Sacrifices were made on that February day in 1864 and all of those who experienced it were changed in some way. One simply cannot experience war and battle at its worst and not. Some would die what might be deemed a "glorious death" on the field of battle and others eventually wasted away in the truly hellish conditions that were Civil War prison camps such as, Andersonville or Salisbury. We see those who fought with great bravery and those who did not. We see those who walked away unscathed and those who bore the scars of battle for the rest of their lives.
History is composed of events ranging from the momentous to the mundane, and without an understanding of each we never fully see the entire picture. I feel an obligation to make sure the story of that day is told and my sincerest hope is that somehow I can do so in a manner befitting those who were there. In the end that is why I feel the need to write this book.
So in the coming days, weeks, and months I will try to convey the work that goes into the writing of this book and also try to share some information that will eventually end up there.