- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

It is easy to forget, amid martial fanfare and maps showing the sweep and clash of mighty armies, that war is a very personal matter for those involved. "Surviving the Confederacy" provides a reminder of this for those now considering war and peace, as well as reinforcing the lesson of the law of unintended consequences. Neither South nor North expected a conflict of such severity, bitterness or length, and no one expected such vast changes in the very nature of the United States.
John C. Waugh, once a bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor and the author of four previous books on the Civil War, including "The Class of 1846," follows the lives of a remarkable couple: Sara Pryor, a woman of such grace, charm and intellect that a writer 150 years later fell in love with her, and her husband, Roger Pryor, a lawyer, editor, member of Congress and soldier a man who became a general before he served as a private.
Mr. Waugh sought and found in the Pryors a couple who could serve as "pivotal figures to portray the agony of the South and its people."
Both were FFVs, members of first families of Virginia. Roger, the son of a Presbyterian minister, graduated from Hampden-Sydney with high distinction, then went on to the University of Virginia to earn a law degree. Roger met Sara in Charlottesville, where he had accompanied his father to a ministers conference.
After Roger earned his law degree, they were married in 1848 in Halifax, Va., by his father in the parlor of Sara's father's house. On the wedding day, in a taste of things to come, Roger left his bride briefly to vote for the first time for a president against Whig Zachary Taylor and for Democrat Lewis Cass.
Roger's law career was cut short by illness, and he turned to journalism, buying a Petersburg newspaper, making it Southern Virginia's Democratic voice. His forceful writing began attracting national attention, including a visit from Stephen A. Douglas, the Democrats' "Little Giant" of the Senate, who would engage Abraham Lincoln in a series of historic debates. Douglas' wife and Sara and would become fast friends in Washington.
Roger's friendship with President-elect Franklin Pierce got the Pryors to Washington and brought them exposure to the national scene for the first time. The new administration made the Washington Union its party newspaper, with co-editors from North and South. Roger was chosen as the voice of the South.
He was forced out of that position after writing an editorial opposing Pierce administration policy on the Crimean War. Roger returned to Virginia and became one of the editors of the Richmond Enquirer. Pierce still thought well enough of Roger to send him on a special diplomatic mission to Greece.
Roger also began to edge his own way into politics, and in 1859, he won a special election to fill a U.S. House seat after the death of the incumbent. He already had gained a reputation as an orator. In one instance, he took on the most notable Southern orator of the time, William Yancey of Alabama, by opposing the reopening of the slave trade in an 1858 address to the Southern Commercial Convention in Montgomery, Ala. Roger's view prevailed.
On their return to Washington, Sara and Roger entered the elite circles in both politics and society. Sara happened to be standing with President James Buchanan when the president wondered about a commotion in the hall. Sara went to investigate and told Buchanan that it was Southerners celebrating the secession of South Carolina.
The election as president of a "black Republican," Abraham Lincoln, was the spur that drove Roger to call for Virginia's secession. He became known as "Virginia's second Patrick Henry" during his campaign to make this happen.
With Virginia's convention continuing to reject secession, Roger still a member of the House in early April 1861 traveled to Charleston to help make "something drastic" happen. He did. Becoming an aide to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, in charge of Confederate forces there, he soon joined the negotiations for the surrender of Fort Sumter. After the talks failed, Roger was offered the chance to fire the first shot on the besieged fort, but declined; He was still a U.S. congressman, and Virginia had not yet seceded.
This status did not prevent him from carrying Beauregard's official dispatches about Sumter's surrender to the Confederate government in Montgomery. It was there that he learned of Virginia's secession.
Sara, as the nation toppled toward bitter conflict, bided her time with much foreboding, eventually turning with women all across the South to journal writing. All of these women, while waving the men off with smiles, had dread in their hearts. One wrote that each farewell was "something like closing the coffin lid."
Unlike the movers and shakers now pushing the country toward war, Roger was willing to take his body where his rhetoric led. After Virginia's secession, he resigned his House seat and was named the colonel of the 3rd Virginia Infantry, replacing a popular officer in command of the regiment. This led to mixed reviews of his leadership, some condemning him as a martinet, others praising his energy and willingness. He also ran successfully for election to the Confederate Congress. Eventually, he was forced to choose between service in the military and in Congress. He stayed with the troops.
As a colonel and then a brigadier general, he led a regiment, then a brigade and finally a division in the battles at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill, Frayser's Farm, Second Manassas and Sharpsburg, as well as forces on the Blackwater River, where for a time he had, in effect, an independent command.
But then he was tagged as a "political general" and shunted off to administrative-type duties. After six months of begging for active duty, he resigned and enlisted as a private in Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry brigade. Still addressed as "General," he became one of the Army of Northern Virginia's top scouts, and because of his local knowledge, the army's top commanders depended upon him during the Petersburg campaign.
His addiction to newspapers, however, led to his downfall. Trying to trade tobacco for Northern newspapers, an exchange normally made without incident, he was captured by Federal troops. He was sent to Fort Lafayette, in New York's Verrazano Narrows, which had been turned into a prison specializing in political prisoners and had become known as "the American Bastille." It was not unusual for inmates to be hauled off and hanged.
Roger, and Sara as well, had become widely known and respected in both the North and the South for kind treatment of Union prisoners of war during the early campaigns near Richmond. This was known to Lincoln, and editor friends of Roger's used this to gain the president's approval of a prisoner exchange, much to the anger of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This hard case wanted to hang Roger and continued to try even after Lincoln's decision. Roger, however, was hidden and then smuggled back to Sara in time for the death throes of the Confederacy.
Sara had spent the war trying to stay as close to Roger as she could and struggling to provide for her six children, one born during the war. Like many women of the South, she took to nursing the wounded. During the Battle of Seven Pines, she wrote, Richmond had "no language but a cry!"
Survival for Southern civilians during the war was hard, and during the siege of Petersburg, it became even harder. Starvation stalked the city. Children battled pigeons for crumbs, and then the pigeons vanished into human stomachs. And then the dogs and cats. And then the mice. Anything edible, even marginally, was consumed by the owner or stolen. Medicines were being concocted from what grew in the fields or by the sides of roads, using old folk formulas. Sara and her children were caught up in the universal suffering.
The Pryors were not slave owners, but they did rent servants, who seemed to be incredibly loyal to them. In the midst of the Petersburg siege, John, who had been Roger's manservant but was doing all he could to help Sara and the children survive, told her that his owner had ordered him to a plantation in Louisiana for his own safety. John wanted to stay with the Pryors, so Sara used the last of her money to buy his freedom.
Finally, the ordeal ended. Robert E. Lee's 33,000 men no longer could hold off Ulysses S. Grant's 160,000. Then came the march to Appomattox and surrender.
Few people realize that after the Civil War, the South's greatest export was not tobacco or cotton or any agricultural product. It was its people. The war had left a once-rich land devastated, so ruined that broad sections almost a century and a half later are still recovering economically and emotionally. From laborers to military men to lawyers to journalists, throngs left in search of an existence above mere survival.
Sara and Roger and their children were among the first wave of this migration. Roger first turned to journalism in New York, where Democratic editors gave him entry, then returned to the law. After early struggles, he became one of the best-known lawyers in the city. In 1890, he was named a judge of the Court of Common Pleas.
Roger became friends with old foes, including Philip Sheridan. At a dinner in Roger's honor, William T. Sherman "laid a reconciling hand on [Rogers] shoulder and said, 'We would have done this long ago, but he had to be such a rebel.'"
Roger changed from an ardent secessionist to an equally ardent Unionist. In an 1867 letter to the Richmond Whig, he wrote: "When I renewed my oath of allegiance to the Union, I did so in good faith and without reservation; and as I understand that oath, it not only restrains me from acts of positive hostility to the government, but pledges me to do my utmost for its welfare and stability." Roger by then looked on civil war as the "sum and consummation of all human woe."
Sara turned to writing and produced two books of memoirs. Together, they became noted figures in New York society. Their New York years were marred by the early deaths of their two oldest sons. Sara died four days short of 82, Roger at 90. Both were buried next to their sons in Princeton, N.J.
Mr. Waugh did an immense amount of research in primary sources, which provides a nicely gritty feeling to the book. He is also capable of such nice turns of phrase as "snow escorted the president-elect to his swearing in" while telling of Pierce's inauguration, which makes for a readable as well as an insightful volume, one well worth having for those who want to know what it was really like "Surviving the Confederacy."

Stroube Smith is a copy editor for The Washington Times and a free-lance writer.

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