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To Drive the Enemy from Southern Soil: The Letters of Col. Francis Marion Parker and the History of the 30th Regiment North Carolina Troops (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 47, Number 2, June 2001
pp. 178-180 | 10.1353/cwh.2001.0029

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Civil War History 47.2 (2001) 178-180

Book Review

To Drive the Enemy from Southern Soil:
The Letters of Col. Francis Marion Parker and the History of the 30th Regiment North Carolina Troops

To Drive the Enemy from Southern Soil: The Letters of Col. Francis Marion Parker and the History of the 30th Regiment North Carolina Troops. By Michael W. Taylor. (Dayton: Morningside House, 1998. Pp. xi, 481. $39.95.)

Colonel Francis Marion Parker (1827-1905) was representative of the best field officers in the Army of Northern Virginia. A wealthy, slaveholding planter of Halifax County, in eastern North Carolina, he rose from a lieutenancy in Company I, 1st North Carolina Infantry (the acclaimed "Bethel Regiment"), to the colonelcy of the 30th North Carolina Infantry, and eventually to brigade command. Though never awarded the general's commission many thought his due, Parker led his men effectively and courageously from the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, until an abdominal wound at Harris's Farm on May 19, 1864, precipitated his return home.

In To Drive the Enemy from Southern Soil, Michael W. Taylor has brought together Parker's private wartime letters, almost all to his wife Sarah Tartt Philips Parker (1835-1906), and used them as a framework on which to build a history of his subject's military service and of the 30th North Carolina. The title expresses the strong wish of the regiment as reported by Lieutenant Parker to Sarah on June 2, 1861. The book itself is something of a hybrid, two genres melded together. The first, dating for the most part from before the Battle of Sharpsburg, is composed of 107 letters. These unfold at the pace of life as lived and vividly convey the experiences and concerns of a loving father and husband, always devoted to the Confederate cause, while necessarily absorbed in the topics of clothing, food, health, the doings of friends and relatives, and the whispers of Dame Rumor.

Concern with crops and livestock at home looms large, but not as large as the pleas for frequent, encouraging letters from Sarah. Even if we grant that it comes from a period and place where patriarchy was the norm, Parker's desire to control the actions of his wife can make for painful reading. There are also lively descriptions of places and personalities, many reflecting days of comparative inactivity.

Slavery is taken for granted in Parker's letters. It prompts no particular remarks. The customary closing injunction to "tell all the negroes I am well" is a rare reminder of the subject. It is intriguing to note in this connection that Colonel Parker directed that his plantation be put under the charge of the mulatto Hilliard Parker, evidently a slave, and an individual who is often mentioned in these pages. The Episcopalian estate owner Parker, "devoutly religious in his own measured way" (editor Taylor), put his trust in a higher power, while acknowledging his frailties and "many irregularities of temper." Despite the highly personal nature of these missives, conscientious editor Taylor deduces that, "in truth . . . Francis Marion Parker offers little more than a marble visage to the reader of his letters."

The second book between these covers is the handiwork of Michael Taylor. As we follow Sarah's spouse and his men on the campaigns into Maryland in 1862, Pennsylvania in 1863, and Virginia in 1864 (in each of which the colonel was severely wounded), that officer's epistles home become ever more rare. The letter describing the struggle at Chancellorsville is known to be missing. Indeed, even what survives is sometimes fragmentary. The gaps are filled in with, and the volume eventually devoted entirely to, Taylor's carefully crafted narrative of the 30th North Carolina's activities. It recounts in detail a remarkable record of marching and fighting, one filled with the brave actions and bloody reverses familiar to students of the war, yet made compelling anew by the inclusion of numerous incidents and people the reader is unlikely to have encountered before. An occurrence at Spotsylvania remembered by Thomas J. Watkins, another North Carolinian, for example, makes for riveting reading. Regardless of protests, Watkins ordered five young Delaware prisoners...