D.G. Martin column: A question for Civil War buffs

  • Posted: Monday, June 16, 2008 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Saturday, December 13, 2008 12:09 a.m.

Who was the greatest North Carolina general in the Civil War?
Wait a minute, you say, we don't play those games anymore. You think it's time we put aside our glorifying the horrible war that tore our country into two factions that waged war on each other for four terrible years. You want us to stop pretending that there was anything good about our region's effort to protect a special social system based on slavery. We should, you continue, put it aside forever, and celebrate instead the historic efforts to overcome the legacy of racial inequality that war symbolizes to so many.
The only good thing about the Civil War, a friend says, is that our country learned a hard lesson that has kept us from ever again trying to settle our political differences with violence and warfare.
Nevertheless, we are fascinated with that violent confrontation, with the battle tactics, the personal sacrifices and suffering of people and the amazing bravery and talents that extraordinary people sometimes demonstrated in those awful times.
So, again, who was the greatest North Carolina general? Lincolnton attorney and historian Dan Barefoot has an answer: Major Gen. Robert F. Hoke.
North Carolinians of today remember Hoke, if at all, as the man who gave North Carolina's 100th county its name. Hoke County, formed in 1911 from parts of Cumberland and Robeson County, took its name from the former general, then still alive and much admired for his wartime achievements.
Today, he is mostly forgotten even by ardent Civil War buffs.
It is for that reason, Barefoot says, that he wrote "General Robert F. Hoke: Lee's Modest Warrior."
Arguably, the honor of naming a county for Hoke came about in large part because he was one of the very few general officers of the "Lost Cause" still alive in 1911. Or, it might have been because of his post war achievements as a successful and public-spirited businessman who put the war behind him and concentrated on building a new South.
But, as Barefoot points out, there was also a strong belief during that time that General Robert E. Lee, late in the war, had designated Hoke to replace him, should something happen to Lee. Barefoot concedes that this "disputed honor" has "never been authenticated to the satisfaction of many historians and scholars." Nevertheless, a hundred years ago many North Carolinians accepted it as fact. When Hoke died in 1912, national newspapers spread the idea.
Hoke was a very young and very junior major general the youngest major general ever to serve in the Confederate Army, being promoted when he was a month shy of his 27th birthday.
What accomplishments could support a belief that such a young general could ever be considered as a possible replacement for Lee?
Here are a two, described by Barefoot:
In April 1864 Hoke led the Confederate forces in the battle of Plymouth , which was the "first substantial defeat" for Union forces in North Carolina.
In June of that year Hoke's troops played such a substantial role in the Confederate victory at Cold Harbor, that years later U.S. Grant said that Hoke gave him "the worst drubbing I ever got."
Who was North Carolina's greatest Confederate general? Don't give any answer other than Robert F. Hoke until you have read Barefoot's book.
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D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.

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