- Defend This Old Town: Williamsburg during the Civil War
This book began as a study of the rain-soaked battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, the first major engagement in George McClellan's failed attempt to capture Richmond by moving up the James River from Hampton Roads. Neither side could claim a clear victory, and neither could be said to have lost, but the immediate local outcome was Union occupation of the old capital of colonial Virginia.
Dubbs's spirited and detailed narrative of the battle is the central dramatic episode in this well-executed first book and should earn the author the thanks of admirers of battlefield narratives, long the staple of Civil War history. The book is much more and should also appeal to readers who appreciate one of the fastest-growing and most interesting genres of Civil War history, the community study. More than half the volume is devoted to a rich and detailed account of life in Williamsburg during the war. Good battlefield maps and a nice collection of illustrations complement the text.
Beginning with the secession crisis and concluding with a short coda on the postwar lives of some of the little city's inhabitants who figure largely in the narrative, Defend This Old Town vividly recounts the experiences of the town's people and its occupying force during the war. Because the Civil War period is remarkably well documented, a diligent researcher like Dubbs can present a thorough and detailed account of the human drama in which both non-combatants and soldiers participated. Dubbs uses their diaries, letters, and memoirs to very good effect. Evidence about Williamsburg's African Americans is unfortunately less well represented here than we might wish, but evidence about Williamsburg's white women is extremely interesting. As can be seen in other social histories and community studies, as well, white women were very intensely partisan, often more so than the men. That partisanship continued in some places for decades after the war, a period not thoroughly covered in Defend This Old Town.
That leads me to one criticism that I have, which I regard as part compliment. The very interesting detail about the experiences of the townspeople during the war makes me wish that the author had researched and written even more and stretched the story back in time to before the secession crisis and forward in time through the first years after the war to explain more about how the war, and what took place in Williamsburg, changed the people and the place. The volume opens with the secession crisis, but we do not learn how [End Page 229] the district voted in the presidential election of 1860, who won the election to represent the district in the secession convention, or whether he was a secessionist, a conditional Unionist, or an unconditional Unionist. Fortunately, though, we finally learn something about the Bowdens, Williamsburg's most determined Unionists. Dubbs may be the first historian of Williamsburg to take serious notice of them. They appear several times in the text but fled late in 1862 and thereafter disappear from the narrative. The family consisted of two adult brothers, two young men, one very young boy, two adult women (one of whom favored secession), and among the young women one who eventually married a Union army officer. The extended family included three members of state constitutional conventions, two members of the General Assembly and two congressman, one attorney general, and one United States Senator. All of them were as committed to the Republican party and justice to the freedpeople after the war (except the senator, who died in 1864) as they had been committed to the old Democratic party before. Their family history is dramatic, important, and illuminating. It is a pity that the author completed her work before volume two of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography (published by the Library of Virginia late in 2001) appeared with Donald W. Gunter's first full scholarly biographies of four of the Bowdens...