Virginia at War, 1861
Virginia at War, 1861 is the first of five planned volumes, "each to deal with a discrete year" in the history of Virginia during the Civil War. The prospect of such a series certainly will excite the interest of students of the history of the Civil War, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The team of authors gathered by the editors have brought fresh and often neglected subjects to the pages of the first volume. Collectively, the essays reflect the authors' combined academic and public history perspectives and are written in a style that is accessible to all interested audiences.
What spoils the style, subject range, and the promise of a thorough treatment of Virginia's Civil War years through upcoming volumes is the resurrection of old sectional rivalries. The book is decidedly Virginia-centric, not merely in subject (as would be expected), but in attitude and analysis. Virginia at War, 1861 hearkens back to the age of Southern apologists. This bias severely damages the work.
In the first essay, "The Virginia State Convention of 1861," James I. Robertson Jr. provides a thorough account of the convention which culminated in the secession of Virginia from the Union. Robertson's depiction of the convention sheds greater light upon the crucial events of the convention than perhaps any other account. Robertson aptly recounts actions on the part of both North and South that exacerbated the secession crisis, but fails to maintain a balance in assigning fault. The author portrays Abraham Lincoln as disingenuous and refers to Lincoln's "hostility to Southern rights." While Robertson provides pointed detail on the number of pro-secession votes cast by western delegates, he overlooks accounts of intimidation which hastened the departure of pro-union delegates from Richmond before the consummation of the state's secession.
The editors chose Craig L. Symonds, formerly a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, to write about the land war in Virginia in 1861. In spite of a sometimes precarious grasp of local geography and scattered use of citations of mostly secondary sources, the essay is thorough and interesting. By contrast, Joseph T. Glatthaar's essay on "Confederate Soldiers in [End Page 102] Virginia, 1861" makes liberal use of primary sources in its quest to trace the life of the common soldier. As might be expected, the book contains no similar treatment of life for Union soldiers from Virginia in the first year of the war.
John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy provides arguably the most original and worthwhile of the essays, "A Navy Department, Hitherto Unknown to Our State Organization." This fascinating article describes the history of the short-lived Virginia state navy and its administrative and combat actions in the opening phases of the war.
Also of importance and often overlooked is the history of African Americans in Virginia during the war. Ervin L. Jordan, special collections librarian at the University of Virginia, furnishes an essay on the subject. With its citations of the patriotism of "Afro-Confederates" and tales of the forced labor of free blacks and runaway and contraband slaves behind Northern lines, this essay leaves the impression that there was no difference between the North and South for blacks. Jordan makes the surprising assertion that 25 percent of the state's free black population was loyal to Confederate Virginia, despite his own caution about "inherent difficulties in discerning black Virginians' true feelings about secession."
The most opinionated of the essays is C. Stuart McGehee's "The Tarnished Thirty-Fifth Star." Without the use of one primary source, McGehee delivers a selective interpretation of the creation of the pro-Union government of Virginia, the state of West Virginia, and a superficial and slanted account of Reconstruction in West Virginia (a stretch for a book about Virginia at war in 1861). McGehee continues the pro-Southern theme with the inference that ex-Union officers exploited West Virginia's natural resources following the Civil War, while completely ignoring the role of Virginians such as William Mahone and Jed. Hotchkiss. McGehee spends an extraordinary amount of space in a diatribe against West Virginia University historian Charles Henry Ambler and the "Morgantown school of interpretation."
Two other essays, "Richmond Becomes the Capital" by William C. Davis and "The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia" by Michael Mahon, give important insights on little-known, pivotal aspects of secession in Virginia. The book ends with a version of the diary of Alexandria resident Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, edited by James I. Robertson Jr. The choice of a diary to depict the women's perspective on Virginia in 1861 seems rather odd and out of place considering that secondary accounts cover the other topics of the book. Also odd is the choice of McGuire's diary since it has been previously published. [End Page 103]
Virginia at War, 1861 adds to the knowledge and appreciation of the state's place in history during the secession crisis and Civil War. However, the straining efforts to justify the Confederacy and Virginia's place in it dampen the scholarship of the work. What's more the pity is that such efforts are unnecessary. Balance has been brought to the historical record of secession, the Civil War, and the separation of Virginia and West Virginia. The efforts in Virginia at War, 1861 only exhibit an unoriginal approach that tempts the reader to view the book as secondarily important.