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  • God and Man at the University of Virginia
  • Alfred L. Brophy (bio)
Peter S. Carmichael. The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 360 pp. Illustrations, tables, map, notes, and index. $39.95.

Our country's transformation from the 1960s to the 1990s reminds us that not each generation is more liberal than the previous. There are periodic turns to conservatism. The 1850s was one of those periods, particularly for Southern youth. In the 1850s, students at the University of Virginia and at other schools, such as Washington College, Richmond College, and Randolph-Macon College, led a conservative revival of sorts. While the story we usually hear of college students in the old South is one of drinking, sex, and not a lot of seriousness of purpose, Peter S. Carmichael shows us a different world: one of political engagement and deep commitment to economic progress, Christianity, slavery, and the South. In a detailed portrait of 121 members of the "last generation" of Virginia men to come to adulthood before the Civil War, Carmichael looks to their writings before, during, and after the war and finds that they had an ethos of masculinity based on Christian gentility (p. 6). The trajectory of thought that he plots shows them as eager for economic progress and concerned about Virginia's declining fortunes before the war, as avid supporters of secession and strong supporters of the Confederacy throughout the war, and then devoted to reconciliation afterwards.

Where innovative historians of the antebellum South have previously looked to the writings of a small group of intellectuals (Drew Faust's A Sacred Circle (1979) comes first to mind), Carmichael uses a generational study of many previously unknown minds. He touches important themes from the 1850s through the 1880s, including the role of the intellectual in the old South, the relationship between ideas about progress and proslavery thought, the cultural roots of secession sentiment and their relationship to concern over the security of slavery, affinity for the Confederate nation and attraction to the war effort, re-establishment of local rule following the war, and reconciliation between North and South. Thus, Carmichael turned to 121 young men, born from 1830 to 1843, who came of age in the 1850s. He hand-selected the group, almost all of whom had some college education (68 percent went to the University of [End Page 232] Virginia, another 26 percent went to other schools, such as Emory and Henry, Lynchburg College, Virginia Military Institute, and Washington College), because they left some sort of written record (pp. 7, 241). They came mostly from families of slaveholders, though some were from more modest backgrounds, but seemingly all aspired to a life of wealth and influence. The few for whom political affiliation is known were disproportionately Whig (90 percent) and those for whom religious affiliation is known were disproportionately Episcopalian (60 percent). More than a quarter died during the Civil War. The sources of study are rich and diverse: speeches to college literary societies and local literary and temperance societies, articles in the student literary magazines (like the Virginia University Magazine), nearly forty masters theses, a few books authored by members of the "last generation" (like Henry Clay Pate's 1852 American Vade Mecum), articles in religious periodicals, and letters to family members, often published in books of memorials by their descendants in the early twentieth century. Where previous historians have often either completely ignored those sources or given them only passing glances, as the production of youth, Carmichael has taken their writings seriously.

The picture he creates is one of aggressive young men in a hurry, who face limited opportunities for advancement. The last generation looked around and saw Virginia being left behind economically; they did not see opportunities to become slaveowners. They asked for their own opportunity to become as wealthy and as politically influential as the founding generation. And they blamed the previous generation for the Commonwealth's failures. They were in favor of more opportunity for themselves; they wanted an end to the aristocracy of their society, but there were strict limits on the boundaries of the desire for meritocracy. Thus...