An Interview with The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads Author Eric J. Wittenberg.
One month before the end of the Civil War, a little-known cavalry battle took place that contains all the excitement, upset, and drama any Civil War reader could hope for. Historian Eric J. Wittenberg brings to life this climactic encounter of the Carolinas Campaign in his latest work The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign. Eric recently discussed his new book with Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.
: Before we jump into your latest book, tell me a little bit about how you became interested in the Civil War.
EJW: I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. I've had a fascination with history since childhood, and my interest in the Civil War was triggered by two events that occurred while I was in the third grade. School children where I grew up commonly visit Gettysburg, and by the end of my first visit I was hooked. The next day, I went to the public library and checked out the American Heritage book on the Civil War-the one with nifty maps-and started reading, and Bruce Catton's magical prose pulled me in. Later that year my uncle gave me Catton's trilogy on the Army of the Potomac. Before long I had read all of Catton's books and I was on my way.
: Your expertise is in cavalry. How did you become interested in cavalry, and more specifically, the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads?
EJW: My interest in cavalry also dates to that first visit to Gettysburg. There are three things that stick out in my memory about that trip: the rocks at Devil's Den, the death of John F. Reynolds, and the stand of John Buford and his troopers on July 1. That sparked my interest in cavalry, which I began studying in earnest after I graduated from law school.
: And the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads...
EJW: I first learned of the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads when I read Mark Bradley's Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville (Savas Publishing, 2000) and thought it sounded interesting. I have some friends who live close to the battlefield and they arranged a visit for me. There's no interpretation on the battlefield to speak of, and little to read, so by the end of the visit I had decided to tackle this project.
: Because Monroe's Crossroads is not a very well-known battle, can you set the scene for our readers?
EJW: Sure. By early 1865 the Southern Confederacy had been reduced to a fraction of its original size. The Army of Northern Virginia was trapped around Richmond and Petersburg, and defeats everywhere else had wrecked the South's remaining armies. The Confederacy's only chance to avoid defeat was in the Carolinas. As a last effort, General Joseph E. Johnston assembled a patchwork of units to block Sherman and his men as they advanced into North Carolina.
: How did this specific battle come about?
EJW: Major General Judson Kilpatrick's Federal cavalry division was screening Sherman's march. When Kilpatrick found out Confederate cavalry under Lieutenant General Wade Hampton was after him, he decided to set a trap for Hampton near a place called Monroe's Crossroads. Hampton, however, learned of the plan and turned the tables on Kilpatrick by launching his own surprise dawn attack against the sleeping Federal camp on the morning of March 10, 1865. What ensued was some of the toughest, up-close cavalry fighting of the Civil War.
: The battle spun the Carolinas Campaign in an entirely different direction, didn't it?
EJW: Yes. Without Monroe's Crossroads, there would not have been a Battle of Bentonville nine days later. By halting the Union advance for an entire day, Hampton bought William Hardee time to evacuate his troops from Fayetteville safely and to burn the Clarendon Bridge over the Cape Fear River. The burning of the bridge, in turn, halted the progress of Sherman's infantry long enough to permit Johnston to begin concentrating his army near Smithfield. After Hardee delayed Sherman for another full day at Averasboro on March 16, he withdrew to Smithfield, linked up with Johnston's army there, and together they attacked Sherman at Bentonville on March 19. For a four-hour cavalry battle few have ever heard of, Monroe's Crossroads had far-reaching and unexpected consequences for both sides.
: Why do you think Monroe's Crossroads has been virtually overlooked until now?
EJW: The entire Carolinas Campaign has received short shrift from historians for a long time. The publication of Mark Bradley's Last Stand in the Carolinas finally helped to reverse that trend, but there's still a long way to go. This battle is even more difficult to study than most because the battlefield itself is so inaccessible. It's literally in the middle of the parachute drop zones at Fort Bragg and access is severely restricted for security reasons. It takes a great deal of effort and persistence to get permission to go out there. Finally, finding good primary source material-especially Confederate-on this very late phase of the war was difficult. All of these things make it challenging to tackle this battle in any detailed, scholarly fashion. I think many writers turned away for these reasons.
: But not you!
EJW: No, not me. I am a glutton for punishment, and if there is a hard way to do something, I will find it!
: Despite all these obstacles you mention, your new book contains a large number of primary sources, including official reports, diaries, and letter collections.
EJW: Primary documents are always the foundation of my research. I am known for turning up obscure published and unpublished source materials, and that's what I focused on for this book.
: I imagine this can be challenging...
EJW: At times, yes. Further complicating things is that Confederate record-keeping was especially bad at this late stage of the war. It made finding primary source records-such as official reports, dispatches, etc.-all the more difficult. Many of those documents no longer exist because they were destroyed with the fall of the Confederacy, or they were never written to begin with because the war ended shortly thereafter. I spent nearly two years researching this four-hour battle.
: What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
EJW: Monroe's Crossroads is a compelling story that involves some of the most fascinating characters of the American Civil War. Sherman, Johnston, Wade Hampton, Judson Kilpatrick, Joe Wheeler, they are all here! The story itself is high drama, and the outcome was critical to the ultimate conclusion of the Carolinas Campaign. I hope that I have done justice to the stories of the men who fought and died at Monroe's Crossroads, and who sacrificed for what they believed in.
: I also enjoyed your liberal use of maps and illustrations. They really enhance your work.
EJW: Thank you. The maps are very detailed and really illustrate the movements of the troops on both sides as they moved toward their date with destiny. James Acerra, a first-time cartographer, has done an excellent job with these maps. The illustrations are also informative. Virtually all of the major players are depicted, including a number of photographs from private collections that have never before been published. I have always firmly believed that a book can never have too many maps or illustrations.
: I understand your next book is also just around the corner, but this one is not about an obscure cavalry battle!
EJW: J. David Petruzzi and I just completed our upcoming book Plenty of Blame to Go Around: JEB Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (Savas Beatie LLC, 2006). It's an in-depth and we believe very unique look at Stuart and the Confederate cavalry in the campaign. It should make for some fascinating discussions.
: Thank you for your time and for enlightening us on this often overlooked cavalry battle. I am sure readers will enjoy your detailed account.
EJW: Thank you.
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