Thoughts on Civil War 150

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Events in South Carolina at the end of 1860 were escalating rapidly toward war. On 20 December, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. On the 26th, Major Robert Anderson withdrew the federal troops under his command into the supposed safety of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Things then remained relatively calm until 9 January 1861 when the Star of the West arrived in the harbor to resupply the troops garrisoned at the fort. Cadets from The Citadel fired on the ship resulting in its hasty departure for New York. The first shots had been fired. In early February, South Carolina joined other southern states that had seceded over the preceding several weeks in Montgomery, Alabama, to approve a constitution establishing the Confederate States of America.

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the epic struggle known alternatively as the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, or “The Late Unpleasantness.” The importance of this sesquicentennial observance is seen in the growing number of articles and upcoming events appearing in journals and newspapers. For example, in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine (January 2), an article entitled “Best Bets: Civil War events” included information on exhibits at the National Archives, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (Frederick, Maryland), the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond), and the Virginia Historical Society (Richmond), as well as a Blue and Gray Ball to be held in Manassas, Virginia, and a play, The Carpetbagger’s Children, to be debuted at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Also in the same issue of the Post reviewer Hank Stuever, in a decidedly lukewarm review of a new documentary on Robert E. Lee to be aired as part of public television’s “American Experience,” made the point that not much has changed in our understanding of Lee’s life and the conflict in which he served. Stuever suggested that what might have been more interesting to the documentary’s viewers would have been the inclusion of “domestic details of the 1860s, nuggets of everyday life on the periphery of the Civil War…In the 21st century, we are more emotionally and academically equipped to revisit the war era through the eyes of blacks, Native Americans and women. We are more able to have conversations about culture, fashion, food, song – all the things that exist on the margins. To use ‘Robert E. Lee’ for one handy example…, it barely glimpses the life of Mary Custis Lee, who, for a number of reasons, sparked my interest this time – perhaps even more than my interest in her husband’s role in the Civil War…it would be a shame to squander the sesquicentennial on too many trips to the same old battlefields to reexamine well-documented troop movements; to spend more time quoting the letters sent to and from Richmond; to enumerate body counts and reassess failed strategies once more.”

Again in the same issue of the Post, Parade Magazine published an article entitled “Reboot for the New Year!” which outlined “ten fun ideas, smart strategies, and useful nuggets to help you make 2011 your best year yet.” Number three on the list of ideas and strategies was “Track down your ancestors.” Not only does this inclusion of genealogy in a top ten list of things that are fun/smart/useful illustrate the general population’s significant, and still-growing, interest in genealogy, but it also suggests that this 150th observance of the Civil War has the potential to become personal for individuals as they take an opportunity to research their ancestors who were part of the Civil War generation and as they piece together the stories behind the battles and famous names. For me, that is the essence of the genealogical experience – telling the story of every-day life of every-day people within a larger historical context.

There are many “Civil War 150” projects being established across the country. Virginia’s Civil War 150 Legacy Project is a partnership between the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission and the Library of Virginia to “identify and locate original manuscript material concerning the Civil War,” including letters, photographs, diaries, and maps. The Library of Virginia sends archivists to localities to scan privately-held material which will then be made available on the websites of these two organizations. These scanning opportunities are being sponsored by libraries and historical societies around the commonwealth. This project was featured in a Washington Post article in November 2010.

I looked at the Library of Virginia site to see what types of documents were available (currently 91 documents, with additional documents are being added on a regular basis). While many of the letters are written by men from the field, they are worth reading for the background information they provide on life in camp as well as information about their families back home. In particular, I looked for diaries written by women during the war and discovered Camilla Frances Loyall’s diary, written in Norfolk, Virginia, between 1 May and 14 June 1862. Library descriptive notes indicate that the diary “details the capture of Norfolk during the war, news of family and friends, friends fleeing Norfolk, feelings and thoughts of residents who remained in Norfolk, interaction with Union soldiers, and freed blacks. Loyall also notes of British citizens in Norfolk and the hopes that European nations would intervene for the Confederate cause. Also includes information on her cousin, David Glasgow Farragut, admiral in the Union Navy and conquerer [sic] of New Orleans.” Loyall’s diary is provided in thirty pdf pages. If you were researching a Norfolk family during this period, or were interested in life in Norfolk during the early years of the war, Loyall’s diary might offer interesting reading. The legacy collection can be searched by keyword, by battle, or by region (Central Virginia, Chesapeake Bay-Eastern Shore, Hampton Roads-Southern Virginia, Northern Virginia, Shenandoah Valley, Southwest Virginia, outside of Virginia), or can be browsed in its entirety.

Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and New Jersey, among others, have also established CW 150 projects. These projects may differ in content, but repeat visits to these sites will be valuable as additional information on events and original documents are posted. Check your state’s CW 150 activities to see what resources may be available.

As researchers, the opportunities provided by CW 150 legacy projects and our own heightened awareness of resources and research methodologies will not only allow us to identify our Civil War ancestor and his (and sometimes her) military activities, but will also allow us to look more deeply into the life of the women who supported them, as well as the African Americans, both free and enslaved, who supported efforts to keep farms and homes operational during the war. Hopefully, by April 2015, we should more fully understand life in the 1860s and have a richer appreciation of our ancestors’ existence.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.