North Carolinians in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction

By Paul D. Escott | Go to book overview

To Do Justice to North Carolina
The War’s End according to Cornelia Phillips
Spencer, Zebulon B. Vance, and David L. Swain

JOHN C. INSCOE

At the beginning of Patriotic Gore, his classic study of the literature of the Civil War, Edmund Wilson asked, “Has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861–65 in which so many people were so articulate?” He went on to muse that “the drama has already been staged by characters who have written their own parts; and the peculiar fascination of this literature which leads one to go on and on reading it is rather like that of [Robert] Browning’s The Ring and the Book, in which the same story is told from the points of view of nine different persons.”1

Although Cornelia Phillips Spencer was not one of the authors on whom Wilson focused, her postwar narrative, The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina, published in serial form in the fall of 1865 and as a book the following year, represents a prime example of varied agendas at play— her own and those of others. If she herself never emerged as one of her own “characters,” she did allow other characters to write their own parts, in effect. There is indeed a “peculiar fascination” in the story of how she came to produce this first substantive “history” of North Carolina’s role in the war and of the various factors—personal, political, and patriotic—that shaped her telling of it. Spencer would later join other North Carolinians and southerners as outspoken critics of Reconstruction and proponents of the “Lost Cause.” But in writing her history of the war so soon after the fact, she established a significant precedent for numerous other southern women in the postwar decades who in a variety of venues would come to serve as interpreters of the war, defenders of the South and the Confederacy, and hagiographers of its leadership.

The legacy of the Civil War in North Carolina would have been far different had the conflict been brought to an end only a month or so earlier than it was. For it was only during the final throes of Confederate resistance that William T. Sherman’s army marched into the state from the south.2 Nearly sixty thousand Union forces crossed the border from South Caro-

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