Earl Hess tells the story of the men of the Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade, and especially the famous 26th North Carolina, chronicling the brigade's formation and growth under Pettigrew and its subsequent exploits under William W. Kirkland and William MacRae. Beyond recounting the brigade's military engagements, Hess draws on letters, diaries, memoirs, and service records to explore the camp life, medical care, social backgrounds, and political attitudes of these gallant Tar Heels. He also addresses the continuing debate between North Carolinians and Virginians over the failure of Pickett's Charge.
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Lee's Tar HeelsThe Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade
By Earl J. Hess
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe 26th North Carolina
The building blocks of every Civil War brigade were its component regiments, and the oldest, most experienced regiment of Pettigrew's brigade was the 26th North Carolina. It was organized on August 27, 1861 at Camp Crabtree, near Raleigh. The men came from eight different counties almost evenly divided between two geographic areas: the heartland of North Carolina, where the coastal plain met the piedmont, and the mountainous western side of the state.
The names of the individual companies that made up the 26th were colorful and expressive. The Jeff Davis Mountaineers from Ashe County became Company A; the Waxhaw Jackson Guards of Union County became Company B; the Wilkes Volunteers of Wilkes County became Company C; the Wake Guards of Wake County became Company D; the Independent Guards of Chatham County became Company E; the Hibriten Guards of Caldwell County became Company F; the Chatham Boys of Chatham County became Company G; the Moore Independents of Moore County became Company H; the Caldwell Guards of Caldwell County became Company I; and the Pee Dee Wild Cats of Anson County became Company K.
These companies were part of a great wave of reaction against President Abraham Lincoln's call for troops to suppress the rebellion on April 15, 1861. Like the rest of the Upper South states, North Carolina had refused to leave the Union before the firing on Fort Sumter, believing that the election of a Republican president was not sufficient cause to break up the nation. But the Confederate attack on Sumter changed the dynamics of the secession issue. While the North unanimously supported a military solution to the break-up of the nation, most citizens of the Upper South refused to answer Lincoln's call for troops. As a result, North Carolina and three other slave states seceded from the Union and joined the original seven Deep South states. Most of the companies that made up the Twenty-sixth were organized in July but the Moore Independents assembled on May 13 at Carthage, the first company of the regiment to form.
As the companies assembled at Camp Crabtree and were selected for inclusion into the 26th, the personnel began to meet and form relationships that would see them through the remainder of the war. Maj. Henry King Burgwyn, Jr., commander of the camp, would be elected lieutenant colonel of the new regiment. He came from a planter family of Northampton County, North Carolina, and was descended from English aristocratic stock. Born on October 3, 1841, while his parents vacationed in Boston, Harry, as he was known, attended Burlington College in North Carolina and was tutored to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The necessary appointment never came through so Burgwyn entered the University of North Carolina, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1859. His taste for military training was so strong that he immediately enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute. Burgwyn was a staunch supporter of Southern rights. He advocated the state's secession even before the firing on Fort Sumter and threw himself into war preparations when North Carolina left the Union. He was given command of Camp Crabtree on July 5, but a commission in a field unit suited his temperament and ambition much more closely. His election to the lieutenant colonelcy on August 27 was a prayer answered. Burgwyn was only nineteen years, nine months, and twenty-seven days old, "probably the youngest Lt. Col. in the Confederate or U.S. service," he proudly noted in his diary.
Capt. Abner B. Carmichael of the Wilkes Volunteers was elected major of the regiment, but the colonelcy went to a man who had no prior association with any of the companies at Camp Crabtree and thus he would not even see his new regiment for several days after the election. Capt. Zebulon Baird Vance of the 14th North Carolina was given the nod by the company officers on August 27. He was a popular politician from the western counties of North Carolina, and thus was well known by at least the three companies that hailed from the mountains. Born in Buncombe County near Asheville on May 13, 1830, Vance entered the University of North Carolina in 1852, but studied for only one year before he was admitted to the bar. He made a reputation as a lawyer, local politician, and editor of the Asheville Spectator before election to the North Carolina House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives. Vance was a staunch Southern Whig, one of four Tar Heel Unionist Congressmen before Sumter. He deplored the pending breakup of the nation but was prepared to honor the Deep South's decision to leave. When Lincoln called for troops to restore the Union, Vance denounced the policy and enthusiastically joined the Confederate war effort. He volunteered as a private in the Rough and Ready Guards of Buncombe County but quickly was elected their captain when the unit became Company F, 14th North Carolina. Vance's men endured a summer of garrison duty at Suffolk, Virginia before he was notified of his election to command the 26th. It was not unopposed. An anonymously published letter to the Raleigh Register, possibly authored by Burgwyn, urged the election of Rev. Cameron F. McRae, Burgwyn's brother-in-law, but this suggestion fell flat.
Two other people who would rise to prominence before the war was half over, entered the regiment in 1861 through the lower ranks. John Randolph Lane was born on Independence day, 1835, in what friends would later characterize as straightened circumstances. A contemporary believed this helped to shape his character, recalling that he was "reared with the advantages of self-denial." Entering the Chatham Boys as a corporal, he soon was elected captain of Company G. His hard work and ability to learn the science of military affairs catapulted him into the lieutenant colonelcy when Burgwyn rose to command the regiment. Both men would be hit on July 1 at Gettysburg, Burgwyn to die and Lane to suffer untold agony from a horrible head wound. Yet the pugnacious Lane would survive, return to rebuild the regiment, and be wounded several times more before the war was over. He lived to see the turn of the new century.
John Thomas Jones was another quick-riser in the ranks. He was a twenty-year old student at the University of North Carolina when Sumter was fired on, but, like Burgwyn, he was a strong supporter of secession even before Lincoln's call for troops. The new Confederacy was "fighting for the institutions of the whole South," he wrote home, "and the South will yet sustain them. Who would rather be swung on to the tail end of a Northern ... Republic than to be equals in a Southern confederacy[?]. The safety of our institutions depend upon our being united; if we are divided where are we to look for success." An alliance between the Upper South and the North would lead to "an abolition ticket here in this State. As for me I will never live in any such a country." Jones left the university just before graduation and volunteered as a private in the 1st North Carolina, a six month regiment. He saw combat at the battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, and organized the Caldwell Guards. Jones served the company as lieutenant and captain, and was promoted major and lieutenant colonel by the mid-point of the war.
The men who enlisted in the 26h North Carolina hardly spoke of their motivations to fight for the Confederacy, but defense of their native soil undoubtedly was the most important motive for the hundreds of men who made up the regiment. Lt. Henry Clay Albright of Company G offered some insight into their thinking when he wrote to a North Carolina newspaper that, "At the first sound of the war whoop, as it fell upon their ears from afar, these brave and chivalrous hearted men forsook the quiet of their farms, the happiness of the family circle, and all they held dear to them, and rushed as one man to the defence of their young Republic's bright and unsullied honor.... they resolved to sacrifice their lives rather than submit to the tyranny of a wrong and misguided tyrant." Albright privately assured his sister that "I'm willing to undergo any necessary hardship or privation ... for my country's cause, which is the foremost and dearest companion of my heart."
Noah Deaton of Company H summed up this attitude in a letter to one of his female friends when he criticized the men who continued to stay at home while their neighbors enlisted. "[T]here are a great many young fellows that have no cares to keep them from going out in defense of their country but are such cowards that they would suffer subjugation rather than fight and I trust the ladies will not countenance such fellows." Deaton had the perfect remedy for anyone who was offended by his opinion, let them "take up arms to defend their homes and not wait for others to do what they should do." Deaton paid a price for his patriotism. He was captured at the battle of Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, and was not paroled until nearly the end of the war.
John Randolph Lane would commemorate the memory of the fallen at every opportunity for the rest of his long life. Speaking to the North Carolina Society of Baltimore in 1903, Lane eloquently remembered the men of his old regiment. They were "of good blood," he insisted. "I do not mean that their parents were aristocrats-far from it; many of them never owned a slave. They were the great middle class that owned small farms ...; who earned their living with honest sweat and owed not any man." Lane called each of his comrades a patriot who was "convinced that the cause for which he was fighting was just; he believed that he owed allegiance first to his home and his State. He was standing to combat an unjust invader."
No sooner had the regiment completed its organization than orders arrived to move out. The Federals were responsible for the unit's hasty departure from Camp Crabtree. It was scheduled to be sent to Virginia but a joint army and navy force under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was even then attacking the outer banks of North Carolina. The state's long coastline, indented by a number of huge sounds protected by a string of tiny barrier islands, was vulnerable. If the Federals could take these outlying islands they would have access to the relatively calm waters of the sounds. Most of the major rivers of the coastal plain drained into these sounds, offering avenues of invasion for seaborne Yankee armies. Fully one third of the state's territory would be laid open to Northern incursions, a number of port cities would be cut off from European trade, and the Federals would be in a position to interrupt the Wilmington and Weldon railroad, a vital link between North Carolina and Richmond.
The 26th left Crabtree by rail early on the morning of September 2 and arrived at New Bern later that day, where it received orders to move south to Morehead City. The men were assigned to guard Fort Macon, a masonry fortification on the eastern end of Bogue Island which guarded Beaufort Inlet and the ports of Morehead City and Beaufort. Vance arrived on the evening of September 4 and took command of his new regiment as it made a difficult crossing of the sound. The men boarded a schooner which grounded well short of the beach, forcing them to complete the journey in small boats. One Tar Heel was "mashed to death a geting on the Boat" and another was injured very badly. The regiment spent its first few days on the island setting up tents and digging wells. Vance and Burgwyn agreed to name their first encampment in the field Camp Burgwyn, after the lieutenant colonel's father, who was on Bogue Island acting as a volunteer aide for Gov. Henry T. Clark.
The logistical problem was immense. Vance was told to rely on the commissary stores at New Bern but they were inadequate. He wrote an imploring letter to Governor Clark, describing the 26th as "almost in a state of mutiny" because of a four month delay in its pay. Most of the men suffered from the want of "ordinary articles of every day use" and had no way to buy them from local merchants. Vance urged Clark to pay the men something or "I fear I shall not be able to maintain discipline."
Vance's men retained their spirit and enthusiasm despite the shortages. W. E. Setser of Company F put it more boldly, "the bois ar all aneious for a fight. we think we can whip six thousand yankees. the bois sais they can whip five a peace. i think i can whip six my self." If the Northerners landed on the island, "we will feed them on canon plates and grape and musketry." They needed all the spirit they could muster, for soon after setting up camp on Bogue Island the 26th was hit by a wave of communicable diseases. Measles, malaria, typhoid fever, and mumps ravaged the camp and a special hospital was created on the mainland near Carolina City, three miles west of Morehead City. Nine men from one company died in a week's time. The sickness raged from September through December before it finally subsided.
Despite the illnesses and lack of supplies, Vance and his regiment devoted their primary attention to the prospect of a battle. There were numerous scares and false alarms. John A. Jackson of Company H informed a friend, "we cant tel what a day will bring forth[,] the next time you hear from us we may have had a hard battle or may be prisners bound for New York or some other port." The only contact with the enemy came as the result of an accident. A transport steamer, The USS Union, became separated from a fleet sailing south from Fortress Monroe and grounded on the shore of Bogue Island twelve miles west of Fort Macon on November 1. It broke apart and several people on board were drowned. Eighty-one survivors approached Vance's regimental camp with a flag of truce on November 2 and gave themselves up. Vance was criticized by his superiors for not adequately picketing the approaches to his camp, illustrating the laxness with which he tended to run the regiment. Although the ship was broken up, it contained a load of valuable articles, and Company D, F, H, and K were detached to salvage it. The work began on November 4 and lasted until the 19th. Horses, muskets, whiskey, champagne, coal, mattresses, pillows, clothing, and two rifled cannon were recovered. At times the men were fired at by Federal ships but they took shelter behind the sand hills and no harm was done.
When it became apparent that the Federals had no intention of attacking Fort Macon, the regiment left Bogue Island to establish winter quarters on the mainland on November 26. Camp Vance was laid out near Carolina City. The men's health improved with the onset of cooler weather and the Christmas season passed quietly, save for several men who became drunk and rowdy and had to be placed in the guardhouse. While many enlisted men found their huts at Camp Vance to be clean and comfortable, Burgwyn thought the camp was in wretched shape when he returned from a stay in the hospital to recover from typhoid fever. Little care had been taken to police the area, so "you may imagine the filth," he complained to his mother. Discipline seemed worse than ever. Although Burgwyn drilled the men four hours every day, he was not satisfied with their proficiency. He heard recitations on tactics from officers each day as he slowly raised the standard in "my regiment." Burgwyn came to compare it favorably with all the other units in the area. "My own is the best & if it had a good Colonel would be a most capital reg. Col. Vance is however a man without any system or regularity whatever & has so little of an engineering mind.... His abilities appear to me to be more overated than those of any other person I know of." Burgwyn was critical of several other officers as well, calling them "exceedingly inefficient in tactics." He believed the quality of the 26th would be "much improved" if these officers could somehow be levered out of their positions.
A long-awaited Union offensive into the sounds soon drew the regiment out of Camp Vance. Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside commanded a joint army and navy force to seal off port cities and establish a major Federal presence on the coastal plain. Roanoke Island and New Bern seemed to be the most likely targets so Confederate authorities began rounding up all the troops they could spare. News of Burnside's expedition reached Camp Vance on January 24 and the order to move arrived two days later. Vance left immediately with six companies and Burgwyn was to follow with the rest the next day. The regiment made Camp Branch their home for the next six weeks. Named for Brig. Gen. Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, commander of the District of the Pamlico, it was located four miles south of New Bern close to the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad. Fort Thompson, on the west bank of the Neuse River, and a line of infantry works connecting it to the railroad were nearby. The threat to New Bern was real but not immediate. Rain set in with a vengeance, pouring down for four days running in mid-February. Sickness began to rise in the ranks, pneumonia and flux were among the afflictions, and Vance himself came down with a tough case of an undiagnosed illness. "Vance knows nothing about the manege of a Regmt," concluded Burgwyn when the colonel refused to move the regiment to better ground.
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What People are Saying About This
At Gettysburg and on through to Appomattox, the North Carolinians sculpted an admirable record. This good history of a good brigade tells their story in stirring fashion.
Using extensive research Earl J. Hess has produced a definitive and admirable history of one of the Army of Northern Virginia's great brigades.
Hess's writing is eloquent and simple, and he brings a generous and critical spirit to his portrayal and assessment of the Tar Heels' remarkable contribution to the Confederate cause.--Civil War Book Review
When J. J. Pettigrew led his Tar Heels into the maelstrom around Seminary Ridge on July 1, 1863, the big brigade had seen relatively little action. At Gettysburg and on through to Appomattox, the North Carolinians sculpted an admirable record. This good history of a good brigade tells their story in stirring fashion.--Robert K. Krick, author of Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain and The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy
Hess's writing is crisp, clear, and captivating, and the book is a worthwhile addition to any Civil War library.--Military Review
Hess has done his homework impressively and constructed a lively history of a fighting regiment.--Blue & Gray Magazine
Based on comprehensive research and combining a clear and vivid narrative with a penetrating analysis, Lee's Tar Heels is a definitive history of this brigade but much more than that. The nuanced and compelling way in which Earl J. Hess traces individual soldiers' lives throughout further humanizes the static blocks on battle maps and the cold numbers on casualty and other statistical lists. In doing so, Hess reminds us once again that this war-like any other war-can be remembered and interpreted not only as a historical event but also as an immense and powerful collection of human triumphs and tragedies. Lee's Tar Heels is one of the best Civil War unit histories ever written, and it show us what military history can be and should be.--Journal of American History
Using extensive research Earl J. Hess has produced a definitive and admirable history of one of the Army of Northern Virginia's great brigades.--Harry W. Pfanz, author of Gettysburg--The Second Day
Lee's Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade is a fine example of a history of a military organization. Earl J. Hess's book rightfully joins the ranks of other modern Confederate brigade histories.--Civil War History
A welcome corrective. . . . Transcends mere combat narrative to offer a comprehensive survey of camp life, home front interactions, logistical needs, desertions, political inclinations, and postwar fates. . . . A richly textured study and a long overdue tribute to its subject.--Journal of Military History
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Pettigrew's brigade was pitted against the Iron brigade on the first day at Gettysburg. While the Tar Heels had a clear numerical advantage, with the 26th NC alone approaching two-thirds of the total strength of the Iron brigade, the brigade took all the punishment the Yankees meted out. On the third day of Gettysburg, the brigade again paid a heavy price in the fateful attack on Cemetery Ridge. The brigade performed further sacrifices in covering Lee's retreat. The brigade as part of Heth's division became a mainstay of Lee's later campaigns.Hess has written a marvel of a brigade history with just the right mix of biography of its leaders and men, a description of its organization and logistics as well as the events in camp, on the march and on the battle field. The addition of colorful vignettes about the 26th NC band and the original voices of its members create period flair and sympathy for the poor devils. "The bois sais they can whip five a peace." Which turned out to be wildly optimistic and soon turned into a defiant "they may over pour us, but they cant scear us." The boys paid a high price in blood, which makes it completely unnecessary for Hess to bloat the casualty numbers with the men captured. POWs may be casualties from an organizational point of view, but may not destroy unit morale (as the separation is temporary). This is just a minor distraction of an otherwise exemplary work.
In the face of real excellance I have very little to say, simply that Hess covers just about every angle of this significant unit of which you might ask. Of particular interest was how the experiences of the band of the 26th North Carolina on one hand, and what these draftees of Quaker faith went through on the other, were documented; thus giving one a new perspective for a change. About my only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen more about the relationships the assorted brigade commanders had with their regimental leaders, but perhaps that material is thin on the ground; I can't doubt that if the author had located relevant material it would have been incorporated in this study.