- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005


Edited by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown

University of Virginia Press, 303 pages, illus.

In what could be titled the New Historian’s Handbook, “Virginia’s Civil War” consists of 20 disparate, well-documented stories, always informative and sometimes very controversial, with an emphasis on the long-ignored roles that society, sex and religion played in the Civil War.

Several concern the elevation of white Virginia women to center stage. “Surviving Defeat” narrates the saga of Julia Tyler, just one of many plantation widows faced with the daunting task of surmounting “the trials of genteel penury and diminished social position.”

Tyler was left with only the memory of a dead Confederate husband who happened to be a former president of the United States. Her views were so staunchly Confederate that a Union soldier believed she deserved the title Her Secession Ladyship.

Her deceased husband’s august political position didn’t warrant a Federal pension or sympathy, and neither did her unpopular political leanings. She worked relentlessly to survive in her upended world and eventually managed to get Congress to authorize a Federal pension.

“To Honor Her Noble Sons” gives descriptively solid insight into some of the turn-of-the-century efforts by women’s groups “to keep Confederate flames aglow.” One group — the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had 412 chapters and 17,000 members in 1900, espoused among other goals “to endeavor to have used in all Southern schools only such histories as are just and true.”

“War Comes Home” illustrates how some slaveholding women, relentlessly encouraging their Southern men, were “outright secessionists” and “not necessarily demure belles and shy matrons.” They had quite a fight keeping home and family together without any support or assistance.

When a Confederate woman complained about soldiers’ actions to a Union general, the response was steely and warlike: “He told her, he was glad of it, for that the [Confederate] women & children were the very fiends of this war, sending their husbands, fathers & brothers into the army.”

Twenty-eight ladies of Harrisonburg attempted to get involved by proposing to raise a full regiment of ladies, armed and equipped to perform regular service.

Some stories defy categorization but are fascinating.

“Queen Victoria’s Refugees” cogently asserts the important role escaped-slave narratives had in diminishing the chance of English assistance to the Confederacy. Two slaves made their way to Europe, where each of their narratives of the horrors of slavery were published in 1863. Even strong Southern sympathies would be hard-matched against these wicked realities of hell.

“Contested Unionism” lays out the investigation the three-member Southern Claims Commission conducted in an attempt to discern whether Southerner William Pattie’s claim for $1,700 in property damages caused during the war should be allowed. Chiefly, Pattie’s loyalty to the Union had to be deemed “iron-clad,” from secession to surrender.

Obviously, living on Southern soil during the war required the suppression of pro-Union sentiment. Pattie, like many other Southerners, told the commission he really had the Union in his heart but knew it was too dangerous to show it. This lively tale discusses some of the items and testimony obtained and considered by the commission.

“Navigating Modernity” portrays seminarian Robert Dabney’s difficult struggle to balance the tension between modernity and Scripture. He seems to have genuinely tried his best, and along the way, he came up with some pithy platitudes: “Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good.” On history: “Be sure that the former issues are really dead before you bury them.”

An epitaph suggested by his son reveals the storm he lived under in this trying time: “He was what he was. Let the Heathens rage.”

This book will be especially enjoyable for those with an interest in the societal issues of the Civil War rather than soldiers or battles. In fact, it would have been much better if the editors had excluded any analysis of soldiers or battles because their single foray into that area proves disastrous.

They delve into a study of Gen. Robert E. Lee with not one, but four stories, filled with such venom and contempt that you might wonder why the editors would include these hate-filled diatribes to detract from an otherwise unique and highly readable book.

When the authors could not find sufficient anti-Lee rants, they borrowed from others: “A Hitler … a Stalin” (Richmond City Council member Sa’ad El-Amin) … who “valued his own honor more than the independence of the South” (Allen Tate in 1929). …”His life was replete with frustration, self-doubt and a feeling of failure” (Thomas L. Connelly in 1977’s “The Marble Man”). … “The deracination of Lee from his historical context of rebellion and resistance was all mythic, all historically inaccurate, and all ideologically indispensable” (“Robert E. Lee,” a story in the book). … “The longer I’ve contemplated [Lee] … the more I’ve hated him” (Allen Tate in 1931).

One anecdote that reveals the antipathy to Lee relates to an actual event that occurred in Richmond’s St. Paul’s Church in June 1865, when a black man was the first to respond to the call to receive communion. At the time, this was unheard of. “Gasp. No one moved, except Lee, who walked forward and knelt beside him.”

The stories in the book use this incident to criticize Lee unfairly and maliciously. One suggests Lee may have been trying to shame the black man. Another author suggests that the black man may not have been given the Eucharist and then points out that it is not known if Lee made any gesture of Christian welcome after the service. Granted, many things could have happened, but it seems grossly mean-spirited to ascribe malice to Lee’s simple, quiet deed.

The editors perfectly sum up the overarching theme of all the essays. It’s a line from William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun”: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Paul N. Herbert lives in Fairfax and can be reached at pherbert@cox.net.

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