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VIRGINIA AT WAR: 1861
Edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, Jr.
2005, University Press of Kentucky

Reviewed by Dave Walter

This is the first book in a new series which will examine each of Virginia's five years as a Confederate state. The authors are two of the most widely known and acclaimed writers on the Civil War. Dr. Davis has authored more than fifty books, and Dr. Robertson, more than two dozen, including an award-winning biography of Stonewall Jackson. No one is more qualified to serve as editors on essays on all aspects of Virginia's experience during those trying times.

Virginia's role in the Civil War stands central to the secession of the Confederate states, though it did not secede until late (after President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebels who fired on Ft. Sumter.) Once seceded, Virginia became the political and military center of the Confederacy by virtue of its proximity to Washington and projected Federal routes of invasion, by its large population and industrial capabilities, and - certainly not least - by its association with many of the giants of the American Revolution in whose footsteps the leaders of the Confederacy believed their cause walked.

No another state suffered worst from war than Virginia. But, in 1861, few could foresee the consequences of secession, the perseverance of the North, or the inability of "one Southron to lick three Yankees" in combat. For 1861 was the "Spring" of the Confederacy, and, by a six to one margin, Virginians heartily approved of alliance with the Deep South. In the essays in this book, the optimism and pride of the white people of Virginia shines through as they brace for a war they welcome. And for the slaves, of whom Virginia had more than any other state, it is a time of "wait and see:" don't antagonize the masters while the outcome is uncertain.

The book consists of nine essays on various topics. Even if you are widely read, you'll find nuggets of new information. Here's what caught my eye:

The Virginia State Convention of 1861: Political invective of today can't hold a candle to that of 1861. The Richmond "Examiner" referred to President Lincoln as a "hideous Chimpanzee from Illinois" and the "Abolition Kangaroo of the White House." The final vote was 103 in favor of disunion and 46 against. At the May 23 statewide referendum, the margin was even more clear-cut: 125,950 to 20,373. However, the four counties of the northwestern panhandle voted twenty to one against (and later formed the foundation of the new, loyal, state of West Virginia.)

Land Operations in Virginia: The fighting in 1861 merely set the stage for the bloodier fighting to come. The fiasco at Ball's Bluff, the death of Lincoln friend, Sen. Baker, and the scapegoating of Gen. Stone closed out the action. Interestingly, it was Stone who later supervised the construction of the platform for the Statue of Liberty.

Confederate Soldiers in Virginia: This essay debunks the assumption that soldiers from rural areas were vastly superior to those from urban areas. In fact, they were more susceptible to disease and less to discipline. By the summer of 1861, the army around Manassas was larger than the 1860 population of Richmond (only New Orleans and Charleston were larger in the South.) While cities grew up over decades, the army camp grew almost overnight. Thus the logistics and sanitation problems were overwhelming and no one, North or South, dealt with these problems well initially.

The Virginia State Navy: Very interesting discussion on Virginia's contribution - in vessels and experienced naval officers - to the Confederate Navy. One such officer was Capt. Sidney Smith Lee, Robert Lee's older brother. Smith Lee served as commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis at the same time Robert Lee was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Afro-Virginians' Attitudes on Secession and Civil War: Another eye-opening essay which discusses pro-Confederate leanings of some slaves and free blacks ( of which there were one for every 8.5 slaves). How much of this support was of the "finger in the wind" variety is hard to gauge because there was no black press in the South during the Civil War. One slave demonstrated his intentions: 14 year old Richard Gill Forrester, whose duty it was to raise and lower the U.S. and Virginia flags over the state capitol, rescued the national flag after secessionists "tossed it in the trash." He kept it hidden under his bed for the duration of the war, hoping for Union victory.

Richmond Becomes the Capital: An interesting account of why Richmond was deemed the proper place for the Confederate capital, precisely because of its front-line position, and how Jeff Davis, Alexander Stephens and the Virginia delegation kept it from being in a "safer" location.

The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia: The granary of the South entered 1861 firmly opposed to secession. Indeed, even with Lincoln's call to arms after Ft. Sumter, the Valley's delegates still voted in the majority to remain in the Union. Yet, it provided some of the most storied regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia, and suffered years of invasion and destruction.

The Tarnished Thirty-fifth Star: Through political machinations, West Virginia gained statehood on June 30, 1863. Thus, the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad remained in friendly hands. But the Republicans who created West Virginia included many, many pro-secession counties that had been conquered militarily. By 1870, pro-Southerners had retaken political leadership, moved the capital to Charleston from Wheeling, and amended the constitution in ways which helped keep West Virginia backward. Indeed, a statue of Stonewall Jackson stands in Charleston.

Diary of a Southern Refugee: Far less famous than Mary Chestnut's diary is the diary of Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, an upper class women who chose to flee Alexandria when the Yankees crossed the Potomac. Some of her daily jottings are prophetic, as when she wrote after First Manassas, "It is true that we have slaughtered them, and whipped them, and driven them from our land, but they are people of such indomitable perseverance, that I am afraid that they will come again, perhaps in greater force." And, on learning of the appointment of Gen. McClellan to command the Army of the Potomac, "It was his luck, for it seems to me, with his disciplined and large command, it required no skill to overcome and kill the gallant Gen. Garnett at Rich Mountain. For this he is feted and caressed, lionized and heroized to the greatest degree. I only hope that, like McDowell and Patterson, he may disappoint their expectations."

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