The residents of New Bern, N.C., awoke on the morning of March 14, 1862, to what sounded like thunder rolling up the Neuse River. It was actually Yankee artillery announcing the landing of Federal troops near Slocum’s Creek south of town. By late afternoon, blue-coated soldiers occupied the coastal Carolina city. Nearby Beaufort fell 11 days later. Union forces occupied the region until the end of the war.
Judkin Browning uses a social historian’s bottom-up approach “to better understand the long term impact of the Civil War on local civilians, while analyzing the effects of war on society and the nature of civilian-military relations.” Rather than chronicling life under Union rule day-by-day, Browning adopts a thematic approach to document “why white residents, slaves, missionaries, and soldiers took the actions they did” and “how their actions affected the economic, social, political, and cultural dynamics of the region.”
Browning’s explorations uncover a treasure trove of information, some of it unique to the two counties he examines and some common to many areas of the occupied South. Two discoveries stand out. First, many white residents held what Browning characterizes as “flexible loyalties.” They readily shifted allegiances depending on individual economic and family needs and which side held the upper hand at any particular time. “Whites took oaths of allegiance and proclaimed themselves Unionists,” he concludes, “though such claims did not necessarily show ideological motivations.”
Second, Browning incisively analyzes the profound changes experienced by the newly freed people who flocked to Union lines and established flourishing and often remarkably self-sustaining communities. Their interactions with their Northern benefactors, both soldiers and missionaries, were not always cordial as they sought to exert control over their own lives.
Browning understands that “Military occupations are messy and complicated undertakings, made all the more so by multiple groups of competing nationalists with decidedly different backgrounds”—which is as relevant now as it was then.