On the night of April 2nd, 1865, My great-great aunt stood on the southern bank of the James River with her sisters and watched the city of Richmond burn. After staring in rapt silence for a time, the little girl turned to her big sister and asked, “What do we do now?”
I know about this because as an old woman she told the story to my cousin Mary, who in turn told it to me when she became an old woman. Our family has long generations, so there is only a single degree of separation between me and a personal experience of the Civil War.
When the defenses of Richmond could no longer hold, in order to deny the Union valuable supplies the warehouse district in Shockoe Bottom was set ablaze by the Confederates before they retreated southwards. The fire spread from there to residential districts and left much of the city in ruins.
My great-great grandfather, who was also my cousin Mary’s grandfather, was Daniel Weisiger. He owned a small plantation between Richmond and Petersburg. After the war Daniel liked to say that he had been wounded at Second Manassas, but everybody in the family knew he had in fact fallen off his horse and broken his leg. He had to be strapped across the saddle of the same horse, which was then led home by his servant (i.e. his slave).
His brother David had a more illustrious career. Uncle David rose to the rank of general in the Confederate Army and was acclaimed a hero for leading the charge at the Crater during the siege of Petersburg.
There wasn’t much for Daniel to return home to when he came back to Chesterfield County: his plantation had been burned out by the Yankees. He and his family recovered what possessions they could and moved into Richmond. Daniel went to work for the railroad, and his wife turned their home into a boardinghouse in order to make ends meet.
One of their boarders was a war veteran, a colonel in the Army of Northern Virginia. When he was unable to muster the rent, before he departed he paid my great-great grandmother with a set of sturdy dining room chairs in lieu of cash. Those chairs, now rather disreputable, have come down to me, along with all these family tales.
I’m telling these stories to illustrate the fact that the Civil War is still very much a living presence to many Virginians. It’s not about evil slaveholders who resisted the righteous armies of the North that came to free the bondsmen; it’s about our ancestors, people whose stained daguerreotypes still stand on our mantelpieces, men who took up arms to defend their homeland.
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Most of the battles of the Civil War were fought on the soil of Virginia. The place names cut a wide swath across the Commonwealth, starting at the Port of Norfolk, sweeping up the Peninsula to pick up Seven Pines, Cold Harbor, City Point, and Richmond, and then branching to the north to take in Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Brandy Station. The southern half veers off across the Appomattox River to Petersburg, Cross Keys, Saylers Creek, and ends at Appomattox. A separate procession moves up the Valley of Virginia through Winchester, Strasburg, Front Royal, Harrisonburg, and Port Republic.
And these are just the names that I can rattle off without cracking a book; there are hundreds of others. Some are no more than a Virginia Historical Society road sign mentioning a skirmish or an encampment, while others are full-fledged battlefield parks complete with parking lots, visitors’ centers, restored buildings, costumed guides, and crowds of tourists.
When I was a kid it seemed that the red clay of the Virginia Piedmont must have gotten its color from the blood of all the fallen soldiers that was shed into it.
In an earlier post, one of our commenters said this:
An outsider or a fanatic might assume that the people who fly the “stars and bars” want to bring back slavery and leave the Union. But nothing of the kind. The flag means, at least to those who display it, the willingness to defend one’s home, one’s kith and kin, one’s native region and its manners and customs against meddlesome outsiders.
What he says is true, but it’s only partially true. That’s what the Confederate Battle Flag means to me, and to many other people who are descendants of Confederate veterans and respect the traditions and valor of their ancestors.
But there are other people — and I know some of them personally — who mean something quite different when they fly the Confederate Battle Flag. To them it’s all about keeping the descendants of slaves in a subordinate position. The people who hold this attitude may be a small minority, but they exist. This is an unpleasant and unhappy truth, but it’s one that any honest Southerner has to face.
Were I were to fly the battle flag, my black neighbors would take it to have that second meaning. As Dymphna often notes, “communication is the act of the recipient.” So I won’t do it.
And, yes, the war was fought because of slavery, in the sense that the powerful men of the South, the movers and shakers, were the great landowners whose livelihoods and station in society depended on slavery. The end of slavery would have destroyed their wealth and privilege. States’ rights and the tariff and all the other issues were real, too, but slavery was the important one to the people who controlled public policy within the states that seceded from the Union.
However, that doesn’t mean that the men who actually fought the war were fighting to preserve slavery. Stonewall Jackson, the greatest Confederate hero of the war, was a devout Presbyterian who owned no slaves and detested slavery. Most of the infantrymen who bled and died for the South owned no slaves.
Men left their families and took up arms to defend their homeland. Virginia, after all, had been invaded by foreigners.
Yes, that’s right: foreigners. Until 1865 we were the “Sovereign Commonwealth of Virginia”, and recognized our participation in the United States as a voluntary arrangement, one which could be terminated at any time by the consent of the people of Virginia.
The new post-war federal government — in 1865 only in its infancy, and not the bloated and illiberal behemoth it has become in recent decades — changed all that. But not everyone in Virginia has forgotten.
The armies of the North pushed up the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, burning crops, stealing livestock, and taking civilian hostages. What could a God-fearing man do in the face of such an invasion except pick up his musket, saddle his horse, and head down to the courthouse square to join the regiment that was mustering there?
Like most wars, the Civil War in the South was fought by men who were defending the people and places that they held dear.
I’m a Southern partisan who is glad the South lost the Civil War.
Slavery was an unmitigated evil. It stood in opposition to the very principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and would have had to end anyway, sooner or later. Without the war the South would have fallen further and further behind the rest of the country, and would have eventually faced an impoverishment that was even worse than the one brought on by Reconstruction.
No one can understand America without understanding the Civil War. Yet it is almost impossible to understand the Civil War fully. To paraphrase what John Von Neumann said about mathematics: You don’t understand the Civil War. You just get used to it.
The Sovereign Commonwealth of Virginia is the Grail King, and the Civil War is the wound that will not heal.
Every morning the Fisher King awakens, and his wound is still there, causing him unceasing pain. The pain is always there to remind him.
Yet somehow he still lives. Somehow he keeps going.