Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina - James L. Gaddis Jr.

Jul 22, 2015

"Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina" by Jim Gaddis

INTRO – Lenoir County is an area extremely cognizant of its Civil War history. If you visit Kinston’s website, tops on the list of things to do surround its Civil War past. So as conscious of its history as Lenoir County is, the fact that in this 21st century there was a prominent Civil War personality left to discover was a surprise to a local author. George Olsen has more

For those with an interest in the Civil War Kinston is a must-stop. You have the remains of a Civil War ironclad as the centerpiece of a museum, a full replica of that same vessel, two battlefields, and historic homes dating from that period. In regards to history, Kinston doesn’t seem to forget details. So when Lenoir County resident Jim Gaddis stumbled upon the name of a prominent figure of the state’s Civil War period who was born and raised in-and-around Kinston and couldn’t recall having heard the name before, it was a major surprise.

“I’m not really a Civil War buff or a student of the Civil War but I have an interest in it and I was thumbing through a one-volume Civil War encyclopedia and I saw a little blurb that said Gen. Richard C. Gatlin, born in Lenoir County, NC and that popped right out at me because Lenoir County is where I live. I’d never heard of him before, so I guess curiosity got the better of me.” 

That curiosity resulted in Jim Gaddis authoring the book “Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina.” Richard Caswell Gatlin wasn’t just a General during the Civil War… at one time in North Carolina Gatlin was THE General in North Carolina… a Brigadier General who commanded the Confederate Department of North Carolina and charged with the defense of his native state. But despite his ties to Lenoir County, he’s somewhat unknown, even more surprising given he comes by his middle name of Caswell honestly… he was Gov. Richard Caswell’s grandson, Caswell being the state’s first revolutionary governor, the same Caswell with a memorial site on Kinston’s Vernon Avenue. So given Gatlin’s prestigious title and his family ties, how come he’s not better known? You could put it all down to bad timing.

“Well, Gatlin took over August 21st officially and became the commander of the NC Department and of course a week later before Gatlin could even establish his headquarters the Union attacked and captured Hatteras Island and Forts Clark and Hatteras were taken and the other forts along the coast at Oregon Inlet and Ocracoke were abandoned by their garrisons.”

A week into his command in 1861 and the bulk of his coastal defenses were overrun by the Union. And that was a sign of the way things would go for Gatlin    

“He actually kept his Confederate command until the fall of New Bern in March 1862. That’s when he was relieved of his command, but between that time and August of 1863, about a year-and-a-half he had no active service in the war. He was sick. He suffered from recurring bouts of malaria from his days back in the Indian Territory as a young lieutenant. During the battle of New Bern he fell ill with this fever and could not go to New Bern to assist in the battle there.”

And that was indicative of Gatlin’s time as a Confederate general… though perhaps also indicative of Gatlin’s time in the military as well. A West Point graduate, he was invited to accompany an expedition during the 1832 Blackhawk War in Illinois. It was to be Gatlin’s first exposure to battle and he boarded a steamboat to cross the Great Lakes from New York to Illinois to be a part of war. But Gatlin never faced that particular enemy. Another reared its head during the crossing. 

  “While their boats were traversing the Great Lakes they got into Detroit and cholera had broken out on one of the boats and it was like a mad house, from what I understand. As soon as they docked about 40 miles north of Detroit, men jumped off the boat and ran into the woods just to get away from the scourge. So Gatlin and his other military academy classmates, who thought they were going to be involved in the, I guess, the excitement of war, at least experience a military expedition for the first time, were instead greeted with this death, this sickness, and several … many, many of the soldiers died. He only experienced what most people know the Army knows as its greatest foe… disease… so it was an early experience for Gatlin that I’m sure stayed in his mind for the rest of his life.”

Still, Gatlin served extensively as a U-S Army officer… the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War… and when he came to his Confederate command, he had come to expect a certain support from the government in war time. But when he did, he soon found serving with the Confederacy was not the same as his prior service.

“Gatlin, of course, being a military man, assumed that he would get the kind of support he needed. He put forth a plan to the Confederacy for the defense, or building fortifications, in Wilmington, and also New Bern and Roanoke Island and… but he basically got no response. He got no troops. Just a few regiments were raised in NC but most of those were shipped off to Virginia where things were really heating up, and the Confederate war department, I think, they had their hands full. They were concerned about defending Richmond from Federal attack and capture and didn’t really have much time for NC. Gatlin expected that he would get the kind of support he needed because in the regular military when orders were issued and things were requisitioned they were done. But not so with the Confederate government. They just didn’t have the resources, so Gatlin was pretty much on his own.”

And hence, Gatlin’s near anonymity in his native state. Gatlin did continue to serve in the state after losing his command… he became the state’s adjutant general… basically in charge of military support activities such as clothing troops… a necessary function but one that doesn’t deliver much in the way of headlines.  Gatlin left the state after the war… returning to Arkansas, where he had been stationed prior to leaving the U-S Army… and that may also have something to do with the lack of recognition in his native state. But he also didn’t apparently seek that recognition either. Gaddis says Gatlin kept meticulous records serving as North Carolina’s adjutant general during the Civil War but when it came to writing on his own life and times… not so much.

“He was very low key. I mention in the book his writings are generally very terse. He doesn’t use a lot of words and he certainly doesn’t use any flowery language. His military stance was that he had people working for him. It was the position of the leading officer to direct these people and let them do the work but also give them their head to do what they needed to do. He was a low-key guy and didn’t seek a lot of glory. He just wanted to get his job done. That was his military training and he carried that out.”

Jim Gaddis is a Lenoir County resident and author of “Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina” published by the History Press. I’m George Olsen.