Book Review: Tar Heels in Gray: Life in the 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War

 In the past three decades, dozens of Civil war regimental histories have been published covering units North and South but few if any have quite taken the track that historian Dr. John B. Cameron utilized to craft his recent release entitled Tar Heels in Gray: Life in the 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War. In a noteworthy departure from the usual construction of regimental histories, Cameron employed statistical analysis combined with a deft use of primary source material to examine who these men were, rather than just publishing a recitation of soldiers’ letters, battle accounts, and official reports. “I have sought to write the history of the men of the 30th North Carolina as they were,” Cameron notes. “Soldiers in time of war are motivated to fight, kill, and die for many reasons. We need to understand even those whom we now see as deeply flawed or tragically mistaken in their willingness to defend the indefensible.”

          Formed in the late summer of 1861, the 30th North Carolina would see extensive service in eastern Virginia. “Over the course of three-and-a-half years, 1,506 men, approximately 1,000 volunteers and 500 drafted men, would be part of the 30th North Carolina Infantry,” Cameron wrote. “In June 1862, it was assigned to what became the Army of Northern Virginia where the regiment would find itself center stage for many of the decisive events of the Civil War, fighting under D.H. Hill, Thomas Jackson, Jubal Early, and Robert E. Lee in nearly all the major battles of that army, surrendering at Appomattox.”

While Cameron gives a brief general overall history of the regiment’s service with Lee’s army, the focus and thrust of the work is a deep dive into the character and personal experiences of the men in the ranks. Chapters cover topics such as conscription and discipline, attitudes concerning the war, slavery, and religion, but I think the strongest chapters feature Cameron’s analysis of the medical aspects of the regiment’s experience: battle related casualties, disease, starvation, and desertion. Abounding with charts and statistics, the reader learns that of the 1,506 men in the ranks, 23% died of disease, 20% deserted, 18.6% were discharged or detailed away from the regiment, 14.3% were killed or died directly from battle wounds, 7.8% became prisoners of war, and only 10.5% of the men survived to be present and on the rolls at Appomattox. The text abounds with charts examining the relationship between survival rates from injury or disease, deaths by numbers of days in service, etc. Cameron does a fine job threading the needle between taking an overtly academic approach and keeping the narrative lively, making the final chapters of the book the most insightful and engaging.

“Disease was the greatest enemy of both armies in the Civil War,” Cameron argues. “By the time the 30th suffered its first battle casualty at Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862, 56 men had already been discharged for health reasons and 47 were dead of disease. The 1860s were the last years in the Western world that produced such terrible rates of sickness and death. Everything was bad, from the general health of the men to the poor medical knowledge of physicians and surgeons. Hospitals were little better than incubation pools for disease.” Quoting extensively from primary source accounts, Cameron examines the types of diseases that afflicted the regiment, accompanied by extensive charts showing disease rates, and discusses how those diseases hampered the regiment’s ability to function throughout the war. If you ever wanted to know why regiments of a thousand men at enlistment dwindled down to roughly 300 men by the middle of the war, Cameron’s book serves as a road map to gaining that understanding.

This is not a long book, totaling about 130 pages of text, and sparsely illustrated at that, but what Cameron has written packs a punch. To be honest, it was not at all what I was expecting in a regimental history, but I enjoyed the book regardless. I think I enjoyed it in large measure because I appreciated the unexpected approach to the subject which, combined with Cameron’s detailed analysis, makes this work a noteworthy addition to the literature, opening a new vista through which to study the experiences of the common Civil War soldier. Tar Heels in Gray: Life in the 30th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War is available through McFarland Publishing or through Barnes & Noble.

Unfortunately, Dr. Cameron passed away in September of this year at the age of 81. A veteran of the U.S. Army where he was an instructor in the Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, Tar Heels in Gray represents Dr. Cameron’s final published historical work. Cameron’s Civil War-era novel, The Roads of War, was published by TouchPoint Press in 2022, and his historical novel about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, The Price of Freedom, will be published posthumously by TouchPoint Press in 2023.


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