Venner, William T. The 11th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster. McFarland. (2015). 380 pp., 46 photos, 20 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-7864-9515-3 Price: $39.95 (Paperback).
William Venner’s second unit history for McFarland, The 11th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster, is an excellent unit history featuring many first-hand accounts from the men of the “Big Bethel Regiment.” The book is an interesting and detailed look at the 11th North Carolina Troops, who suffered severely at Gettysburg and Bristoe Station, among other fights, and surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. The author utilizes “over 1,500 first person accounts” throughout the text, both by men of the regiment and their Union foes. Venner weaves these together into a cohesive and entertaining whole. Add good maps and a comprehensive roster and McFarland has produced another really good unit history.
Author William Thomas Venner has written quite a few articles and books on various topics. He has a nicely done web site profiling his work. In addition to several unit histories and articles in America’s Civil War and Civil War Times, he has also written on archaeology and has some fictional works. His other regimental histories for McFarland cover the 7th Tennessee and the 30th North Carolina.
Publisher McFarland, located in Jefferson, North Carolina, has a long history of producing Civil War books, especially unit histories. McFarland books tend to be a bit more expensive than most non-academic presses, but this is due to their business model: “From the beginning, McFarland has been a library-oriented publisher, producing comprehensive reference works and scholarly monographs on a variety of subjects.” Despite the heftier price, most of the Civil War books I’ve read from this publisher have been very well done and often cover obscure topics which might otherwise never see the light of day. Typically, the prices for McFarland Civil War books only increase on the used book market.
The “Bloody Bethel Regiment” had an interesting and storied history. The original 1st North Carolina Volunteers fought in the first real land battle of the Civil War at the Battle of Big Bethel in June 1861 before mustering out in November of the same year. The core of this regiment then formed the new 11th North Carolina Troops, mustering in on March 31, 1862. They hoped to be sent to the main army fighting in Virginia like their illustrious predecessor. Instead they floundered in the swamps of North Carolina and later Virginia for the better part of a year, fighting in some defensive battles, gaining experience, and joining Pettigrew’s North Carolina Brigade in December 1862.
Pettigrew’s Brigade was called into the Army of Northern Virginia as part of Heth’s Division, Third Corps in time to participate in the Gettysburg Campaign. They had wished for this in 1862. By the time the Gettysburg Campaign had ended, most of the men probably wished they were back in some backwater of the war instead. The North Carolinians fought and eventually flanked the 19th Indiana of the legendary Iron Brigade at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, with both sides suffering massive casualties. They rested and refit on July 2 before taking part in the famous Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge on July 3, again suffering horrific casualties in that ill-fated assault. Their poor luck continued on the retreat. Fighting as part of the rear guard at Falling Waters on July 14, 1863, they were outflanked by Union cavalrymen on both flanks and suffered many men captured before they could cross the pontoon bridge into Virginia. The year 1863 continued to be unkind to the Bethel Regiment, when, at Bristoe Station on October 14, they participated in the botched attack against Union troops stationed along a railroad embankment and were nearly cut off in the ensuing chaos. Mercifully for the 11th North Carolina their major fighting for 1863 was over.
The next year promised more of the same bloody fighting. They fought in the Wilderness both days, being severely driven back on day 2, and had several fights at Spotsylvania, first on the far left near the Po River and then against Burnside’s Ninth Corps on the right. The Bethel Regiment fought on June 1 and 2, 1864 at Cold Harbor before being moved down the Chickahominy on picket duty near Bottom’s Bridge on June 9.
The Petersburg Campaign began on June 12 as Grant moved to cross the James River. As part of Heth’s Division, the 11th North Carolina stayed east of Richmond at White Oak Swamp to protect the Confederate capital from a coup de main by Grant’s army. They didn’t reach Petersburg until June 18, 1864, moving with Heth’s Division to occupy Lee’s far right south of Petersburg in the Dimmock Line near the lead works. They spent portions of the Siege here, portions on the east side of the Petersburg lines, and even made a move to Deep Bottom and the New Market Heights lines briefly before defending the Boydton Plank Road late in the Siege. The 11th North Carolina fought at Globe Tavern on August 21 which resulted in a failed assault and at Second Ream’s Station on August 25, where they scored a smashing success against the vaunted Union Second Corps. They and the rest of MacRae’s Brigade tried a flank attack with Weisiger’s Brigade at Boydton Plank Road on October 27, 1864, but found themselves nearly surrounded and lost many captured before escaping.
The last year of the war saw the 11th and MacRae launch an unsuccessful attack against Second Corps units along Hatcher’s Run on February 5, 1865. They settled back into earthworks near the Burgess Mill Pond for the remainder of the Siege, with the 11th being sent a little left up the Boydton Plank Road to cover recently departed Confederate brigades on April 1, 1865. They were in a bad spot and knew it. The Federal Breakthrough occurred just to their left against Lane’s Brigade, and the 11th North Carolina was shattered soon after by Truex’s Brigade of the Sixth Corps. The survivors rallied to participate at Sutherland’s Station but were again routed. The remaining men moved west along the south bank of the Appomattox River until they found a crossing point, joining Lee’s Army but surrendering less than a week later at Appomattox.
This is the second of three Confederate unit histories author William Thomas Venner has written under the McFarland banner. It follows McFarland’s standard “history and roster” format with 210+ pages of text and another 120 or so of roster and casualties suffered by date. Venner faced some unexpected danger with a cousin in college and it made him realize people react very differently under pressure. Given that knowledge he emphasized including first person accounts from as many members of the 11th North Carolina as possible, managing to insert over 1,500 first person accounts into 200+ pages of text. I didn’t count and will take his word for it but noticed there are first person accounts on pretty much every single page. It was impressive and the author backed up his boast. An interesting and useful twist is the use of accounts from the units across the firing line. This was done intentionally and done often, helping the reader gain a better appreciation of what was happening in the Bethel Regiment’s fights. This isn’t a traditional battle history. Venner often focuses on the quieter times and how men felt about them. His accounts of the desertion prevalent in 1865 were especially well done. The author has done something else I have often thought about doing for many Confederate regiments at Petersburg. He used the Compiled Service Records to find out how many men could have been present on any given day. He often gives unit strengths, casualties, and commanders by company throughout the text. Anyone who has studied the Petersburg Campaign in any detail knows how difficult it often is to discover who was commanding a given regiment on a given date, much less the companies of said regiment. The maps are generally well done too, often showing exactly where in the battle line the 11th North Carolina was located. Illustrations of the men from the Big Bethel Regiment are scattered throughout the book, but come mostly from Clark’s classic if sometimes flawed book series on Confederate units from North Carolina. There were a wide variety of other sources used.
The 11th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster is well-edited, with few to almost no noticeable spelling or grammatical mistakes. One small issue occurred several times (at least pages 38 and 47) when Kinston, North Carolina was called “Kingston.” This minor error in no way detracted from the book. Another item which caused this reader some confusion surrounded a small skirmish on July 8, 1864. Venner indicates this fight occurred “near the Weldon Railroad tracks not far from Ream’s Station.” I believe this fight occurred along the main Confederate Dimmock line in the vicinity of the railroad, which is several miles from Ream’s Station. The way the text was written, I originally interpreted it to mean that MacRae’s Brigade marched out to some earthworks in the direct vicinity of Ream’s Station outside of the main Confederate works, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Perhaps this whole matter hinges on whether one considers several miles away “not far from” Ream’s Station. Readers of unit histories often get a postwar afterword or even a large chapter, but nothing like that exists in this book. It ends shortly after Appomattox and moves right to the appendices. But these are quibbles in what was an enjoyable and successful book.
I cannot yet compare this book to Craig S. Chapman’s 1998 unit history More Terrible Than Victory: North Carolina’s Bloody Bethel Regiment, 1861-65, but I plan to read that book next and will perhaps offer a comparison in my review there. At a high level, Chapman offers 50% more text and more maps, but completely lacks a roster. He seems to spend more time on Bristoe Station and the 1864-65 campaigns than Venner. Venner includes more first-person accounts and images and spends more time on Gettysburg than any other battle. More to come there after I read Chapman’s book in detail.
There are two appendices in this book, and both are well done and useful for researchers. The first appendix looks at 11th North Carolina casualties throughout the war, grouping them for particular battles or periods of time. Nature and locations of wounds are added where known, with enlistment dates and companies also present. The roster proper is the second appendix. It includes the name, rank, date of birth, residence, and occupation of each soldier at the time of enlistment. Remarks add detail about what happened to the soldier during the war. Men in boldfaced type were killed during the war.
William T. Venner’s The 11th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster is chock full of “you are there” accounts of both the battles and the quieter times in the life of the Big Bethel regiment. The letters of Lewis Warlick were used extensively throughout the book, though his voice is missed while he was detained as a POW after Gettysburg. The Big Bethel regiment yearned to be a part of the fighting in Virginia while they whiled away 1862 and part of 1863 in the swamps of North Carolina and Virginia. They got all of the fighting they could have ever wanted as part of Heth’s Division, Third Corps, ANV from Gettysburg to Appomattox, losing two thirds of their strength in their first major campaign. Venner spends quite a bit of time at the Siege of Petersburg for those interested in this topic. Although the book ends abruptly after Appomattox, the lists of casualties by date and the well-done roster ease the sting of the sudden ending. Anyone interested in first person accounts of the war in the Eastern Theater will want to own this book. Enthusiasts of North Carolina in the Civil War will likewise enjoy this one as it is also somewhat of a history of the Pettigrew/Kirkland/MacRae Brigade. The book is worth the price and well done. I highly recommend it.
Editor’s Note: A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.