"Fighting for General Lee," a nonfiction book released in February 2016, details the life of Rufus Barringer, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and Confederate general during the Civil War. Last week, it was awarded the North Carolina Society of Historians’ 2016 Historical Book Award.
Staff writer Andrea Gonzales spoke with the author, Butch Barringer, about his work studying General Barringer, Civil War history and what he has planned next.
The Daily Tar Heel: You used to be a mechanical engineer for NASA? That’s impressive in its own right — I’m curious how you transitioned into writing about Civil War history from there.
Butch Barringer: Well, even when I was working at NASA Langley I was interested in history and Civil War history. So I had been studying General Barringer for some time, collecting information on him all along, so it was kind of a part-time thing until I retired.
DTH: And then once you retired, you decided to write a book about General Barringer?
BB: Yeah. Yeah, actually, I had started it before I retired, and had an earlier version that I eventually took another look at, made a lot of changes and just kept working on it for several years.
DTH: That’s amazing! I guess you were related to General Barringer, but how did you decide or find out about and then decide to start studying him?
BB: Well, I kept running up against him when I was doing some pedagogical research on my families — my great grandfather was named Rufus Barringer and may have been named after the general, in fact. So I kept running up against information on the general, so I started collecting it. Then, I met the general’s grandson, who lived in Rocky Mount, and we took some tours together and just kept working on it.
DTH: How long ago did you start doing research on him?
BB: Probably about 20 years ago, but you know — bits and pieces that I put on the shelf for a while, then I put together a draft, sent it off to people for comments, got all those back, and did another draft and kept doing that for several years.
DTH: What kind of sources did you come across when you were researching him? Was it online research or did you end up going to libraries?
BB: I came down to Chapel Hill, and stayed at the Carolina Inn, and went over there to Wilson Library and went to the Duke library, and went to the North Carolina State Archives, and the Washington D.C. National Archives, Richmond, I went down to Charlotte — I went to a bunch of places. I also did a lot of online research. You could do a lot more today than you could back when I started.
DTH: So you were able to find diary entries? Maybe drafts? Maps?
BB: Yes, I have diary entries, journal entries, letters — which his handwriting was hard to transcribe, but I was able to do it sometimes with the help of others. We would tackle a letter and between the two of us we would figure it out.
DTH: Did you know what you were getting into when you kept running into General Barringer, and did you expect this to be a long project or that you would come out of it with a book and then multiple awards?
BB: That was always the goal. His grandson and great-grandsons wanted someone to write his biography, and I really wanted to do it, so they were thrilled. And it’s worked out very well, obviously. And he was, by the way, a brother-in-law of Stonewall Jackson and Daniel Harvey Hill, who lived in Charlotte.
DTH: Have you had people who are researching Stonewall Jackson or the general reach out to you for information and your sources?
BB: One or two have asked me for my stuff on Stonewall Jackson and Barringer and their discussion of Jackson’s proposed black flag policy, and stuff like that, just a few though.
DTH: What else do you have in the works after this?
BB: I finished another biography of a Virginia cavalry commander named Thomas Lafayette Rosser who lived in Charlottesville after the war and he was a division-level commander under J.E.B. Stewart and then Wade Hampton...a very controversial figure.
DTH: How was he controversial?
BB: Well, he was a bit arrogant and contestable and it was his way or the highway, so we run into all sorts of feuds with this guy, he feuded with practically everybody, even challenged one or two to a duel…he’s most interesting and I had all his letters and stuff like and so it’s made for a great book and it’s going to come out in the spring.
DTH: Did you run into General Rosser through General Barringer?
BB: No, they didn’t really know each other, as far as I know. They may have met, but they weren’t familiar with each other. Rosser I got interested in after I read an early biography of him that I thought was not, not that good, and...my publisher and I talked about it and I told him I thought I could do a better job and he agreed, and I think I am.
DTH: What was your reaction when you won the Historical Book Award by the NCSH?
BB: Well the first one, they sent me a letter and I was completely surprised. This was my first book and I never expected to win any award which is amazing, and it has set some standards for my next book — at least I snagged one somewhere!
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.