Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates. By John G. Selby. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2002. ISBN 0-8420-5054-X. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Bibliographical essay. Index. Pp. xliv, 264. $65.00.
Virginians at War marks the eighth publication in the excellent American Crisis Series edited by Steven E. Woodworth. As such, it exhibits the strengths of the preceding volumes: its commendably brief text gives an overview of a significant Civil War subject, based on printed sources (though locations for pertinent manuscript collections are supplied in a comprehensive bibliographical essay). Simultaneously published in library-quality hardcover and inexpensive, durable paperback (convenient for classroom use), Virginians at War and the other books in the series have to date presented engaging treatments of varied topics, carefully drawn from up-to-date surveys of the literature—a necessity, considering the continuing cascade of books relating to the Civil War.
John Selby's contribution to the series suggests, through its subtitle, a fairly modest agenda. But the book itself is quite rich, moving past the experiences of seven young Confederates to try to determine their reasons for fighting (or for supporting the war), their persistence in continuing the fight, and their postwar assessment of what the conflict had meant. Given the last of his criteria, the author necessarily chose survivors. Indeed, all lived at least a decade into the twentieth century, and the majority saw the start of worldwide war in 1914.
To previous generations, the title of Selby's book would probably have suggested soldiers alone. But, though four of these Virginians were fighting men, the remaining three subjects were women (though as much "Confederate nationalists" as their male counterparts). That the three lived in northeastern Virginia (with one of them in the center of Mosby's Confederacy) assured them frequent encounters with soldiers from both sides.
At her family's home near Front Royal, the somewhat dour Lucy Buck plays hostess to General James Longstreet and his staff—and finds majors Moxley Sorrel and Thomas Walton her "ideal of the chivalrous knights of yore, so courteous and delicate in their manner" (p. 98). Amanda Virginia Edmunds, a vivacious belle, proves less impressed with a "Dutch" Union soldier, who visits her family's Fauquier County plantation. Having heard him sing "I vish I vas in Dixie, avay, avay," she hopes that he "may find a resting place in Dixie—and soon" (p. 54). As the only wife and mother of the group, Susan Caldwell of Warrenton offers a different perspective on Union occupation, and her bureaucrat husband's presence in Richmond provides, through his letters, a wider focus for the narrative.
Of the four warriors (two officers and two enlisted men), the most well-known is John H. Worsham, author of One of Jackson's Foot Cavalry. Worsham's vivid descriptions of battlefield incidents are complemented by accounts from two artillerists in the Army of Northern Virginia, Henry Robinson Berkeley and William T. Poague. [End Page 247]
Berkeley's ultimate imprisonment at Fort Delaware also offers a prisoner-of-war's experiences. The last of the soldiers, Alexander F. Fleet, performed garrison duty for most of the war (though he finally took a wound at Petersburg). Fleet comments incisively on what Selby identifies as one of the greatest enemies of soldiers—boredom, and another major foe, disease, also receives its due share of attention.
Selby's solidly researched and lucidly written book will appeal to
scholars and buffs alike. Satisfyingly illustrated with portraits of its
seven subjects (as well as a generous number of maps), Virginians at
War offers a thoughtful, objective look at "ordinary people [who
rose] to the demands of extraordinary circumstances" (p. 236). Deftly
and convincingly, the book also places these seven lives fully within
the context of the Virginia theater, from secession to surrender.
William Harris Bragg
Georgia College & State University