- Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration
This collection of eight essays by present and recent University of Virginia graduate students and edited by Edward Ayers, Gary Gallagher, and Andrew J. Torget examines various aspects of Virginia life during the Civil War era. Although the topics investigated vary considerably, these essays can be divided into two groups: four that stress continuity and four that emphasize change brought about by the war.
Essays by Andrew Torget, Amy Minton, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Caroline E. Janney suggest that the war brought about significant change in Virginia. Examining newspaper accounts and editorials of three Shenandoah Valley counties (Rockingham, Augusta, and Rockbridge) during the [End Page 425] secession crisis, Torget finds an important shift away from antebellum partisanship after the 1860 presidential election as "people now debated politics almost exclusively in terms of Virginia's interests and geographic position as a border state in the crisis" (19). Minton reveals how Richmond's wartime press "worked tirelessly to promote the virtues of what might be termed a "'patriotic' or 'Confederate' respectability that simultaneously projected an image of Confederates as upstanding moral people and sought to keep Confederate men and women from falling into the immorality of vices they felt would doom the Confederate cause" (82). In the process of defining "respectability," Minton identifies the interesting emergence of a new positive image of the poor emphasizing their "industry, sacrifice, and frugality" (97). Sheehan-Dean argues convincingly that western Virginia's secession from the rest of the state actually "eased the way for the secessionist Virginia to come together" (67). Indeed, he shows that the process of moving Virginia troops throughout the state necessitated by Union invasion caused most remaining Virginians "to overcome regional prejudices and fight for the protection of the state as a whole" (73). Janney finds in the immediate postwar years (1865–67) that Virginia's Ladies Memorial Associations were "the first to organize community efforts to honor the Confederacy in a region still occupied by Northern soldiers, but also that 'memorial' work itself was intensely political and should not be cast aside as insignificant" (166). For Janney the war created conditions that allowed women to exert unprecedented influence. Therefore, whether dealing with party politics, attitudes about the poor, new perceptions of the state's regions, or the role of women, these four essays underscore the role of change during this era.
By contrast, essays by Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, Jaime Amanda Martinez, Andrew Witmer, and Susanna Michele Lee emphasize elements of continuity during this period. Hsieh innovatively analyzes the decision of every West Point graduate from 1820 to 1860 to determine whether Robert E. Lee's choice to side with Virginia and the Confederacy was typical of Southern, and particularly Virginia, graduates of the national military academy. His finding that since over one-third of these Virginia graduates sided with the Union and another one-tenth either resigned their commissions or stayed out of the conflict there is compelling evidence that antebellum participation in a national institution influenced the decisions these Virginians made about their wartime allegiances. While Martinez's study of the Virginia slave market notes how it was altered by the demands of expanded industrial growth and the Confederate government agencies, her most significant finding is that [End Page 426] the state continued to display "an impressive confidence" in the "economic, political, and military prospects of the Confederacy" as seen by the preservation of the slave market through the war's conclusion (108). By examining black and white Baptists in Albemarle County, particularly the First Baptist Church, Witmer observes how the antebellum movement by whites to grant black members more autonomy continued during the war. "Far from being a sign of weakness or despair," he concludes, "the creation of a separate black church was an indication of white confidence in eventual Confederate military victory and the maintenance of the antebellum racial order" (153). Lee looks at pardon petitions of white...