Gaston County, North Carolina, in the Civil War by Robert C. Carpenter. McFarland Books, 2016. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-4766-6244-2. $39.95.
In recent years, microhistories have become passé among many scholars. On a more popular level, however, they continue to be a rich source of information for individuals attempting to understand the markers of the past that surround them every day in the form of derelict buildings, historical markers, battlefields, monuments, and much more. Often, these microhistories are invaluable in understanding the social, military, political, and economic reach of larger national events into the lives of a nation’s citizenry. One such example of this approach is historian, retired principal, and Gaston native Robert C. Carpenter’s Gaston County, North Carolina, in the Civil War, which provides a comprehensive overview of the devastating effects of the Civil War on one geographic locality.
In Gaston County, North Carolina, in the Civil War, Carpenter argues that the American Civil War fundamentally upset the prewar lives of Gaston County’s inhabitants in terms of ideology, economics, politics, and social structure. Beginning with the county’s founding in 1846, the author then examines the change over time wrought by the war before terminating with the cessation of hostilities in 1865. Many of the conclusions that Carpenter drew from his examination jell with larger studies of the effects of the war on common citizens. For example, though Gaston citizens initially supported secession, increasing frustration with perceived overreach of the Davis administration led to an increase in anti-war sentiment, which became the dominant ideological position by the end of the war. Additionally, many of these frustrations boiled over into a “civil war at home” between former loyalists, Unionists, and those still loyal to the Confederate cause—a war waged through economic exploitation, vigilantism, and physical intimidation. Politically, Carpenter finds that Gaston citizens, like most other North Carolinians, held disparate views on politics from the beginning of the war, and he argues that there was little unity or support for secession from the very beginning.
Where Carpenter diverges from the larger narratives is in his analysis of the economic evolution of wartime Gaston County. Utilizing the previously undiscovered 1863 Gaston County tax list, he finds that 90 percent of officeholders and county leaders owned slaves, that almost 80 percent of all slaveholders actually held more tax value in their slaves than in their real estate, and that slaves assessed values exceeded land values by almost 15 percent in the county as a whole. The number of slaves and slave-owners dramatically increased in the area over the course of the war. In effect, the southern way of life, which many of the county’s citizens fought to protect, revolved around the ownership of slaves. Shockingly, even as the Confederate economy collapsed and Union soldiers marched through the South liberating slaves, the war effort actually promoted the institution of slavery in Gaston County. This stands in stark contrast to the assertion of many historians that slavery’s influence in North Carolina was largely limited to the coastal region or diminished over time.
Gaston County, North Carolina, in the Civil War is undergirded with a bevy of primary source materials, including the 1863 tax list, diaries, letters, and official documents—many of which were collected by the author himself and which cut across various social and economic classes. The work is comprehensive, covering almost every element of life in Gaston County including its economic evolution, the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy from Gaston County, the relationship between soldiers and the home front, family life in the area during the war, violence and lawlessness among Unionists and dissenters, the changing politics of North Carolina during the war, and the role of African Americans in the area during the war. Each chapter is divided into certain subjects wherein the author presents snippets of analysis followed by extensive quotations and anecdotes from the participants themselves.
Overall, Gaston County, North Carolina, in the Civil War is a solid and important account of the Civil War’s effect on one locale. The sheer abundance of evidence and the inclusion of the 1863 tax list in the appendix is a gold mine for future research. However, Carpenter’s analysis is unfortunately rather slim, particularly in the first half of the book. The sheer number of anecdotes and direct quotations, which should have buttressed his analysis, instead often overwhelm it. As a result, the book almost presents itself as an amalgam of stories instead of a detailed analysis of a particular moment in history. Nonetheless, this is a solid work which deservedly belongs on the bookshelf of historians seeking to understand Gaston County and North Carolina in the Civil War.
Joshua Shiver is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Auburn University.