Author Interview--Stephen V. Ash (Rebel Richmond)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature Stephen V. Ash to talk about his book Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital, which came out in October with the University of North Carolina Press.

Stephen V. Ash is professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His extensive publishing record includes: A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War (Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013); Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War (W. W. Norton, 2008); A Year in the South, 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History (HarperCollins, 2004); When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Middle Tennessee Society Transformed, 1860-1870: War and Peace in the Upper South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).

To start, Steve, could you tell us a little about how you came to write a city biography of wartime Richmond and what the book's argument is?

SVA: Thank you, Niels, for the opportunity to talk about the book.
    A few years ago I was searching for a new topic to explore and hit on the idea of trying something different (for me): an urban history. But I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (the Civil War era, broadly defined, and from a social history perspective).
    At first I hesitated to take on Richmond. There are several published general histories of the city during the war, and a good number of books, dissertations, and essays on particular aspects of the wartime experience. Two of the general histories are first-rate in their own ways: Emory Thomas's
The Confederate State of Richmond (1971) is a splendid study, scholarly but highly readable, that has stood the test of time; Ernest Furgurson's Ashes of Glory (1996) is a colorful account aimed at a popular audience but well researched and deserving of scholarly attention.
    The more I thought about it, however, the more I was convinced that the full story of wartime Richmond remained to be told. Doing research for previous books, I'd looked at several very rich official manuscript sources that had been unused, or underused, by previous tellers of Richmond's tale. These include the Letters Received by the Confederate Secretary of War, the Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, the Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers, the records of various War Department facilities in the city, and the papers of the Virginia governors.
    The heavy reliance of the earlier general histories on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and miltary reports skewed them: they say a lot about the lifestyle and attitudes of elite Richmonders, about the Confederate Congress and president and cabinet, and about the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into opened wonderful new perspectives.
    They illuminate, for instance, the plight of a semiliterate Confederate soldier named W. B. Martin, who suffered for months in Chimborazo Hospital with a hernia; "I am rupturd," he wrote in 1862, "and am in agrate pane nearly all of the time." They tell also of James Mondy, a machinist in a Richmond factory and a member of the Local Defense Forces, who was taken from his work in 1864 to help man the city's fortifications; while in the trenches, he was notified that the rent for the place where he and his large family lived was going to be raised by more than 50 percent, forcing him to plead for a ten-day leave to find a new residence. Without these sources, we would not know of Catherine Baxley, a middle-aged woman who burned with resentment because she was fired from her job as a Confederate government clerk while certain other females--"young and pretty girls," as she described them--were retained. Nor would we know of a free black man named William Smith who was hounded by a white woman convinced that he was stirring up trouble among her slaves; she prevailed on the authorities to remove him from the city. Likewise unrecorded would be the experience of some slaves hired out to a Confederate army bakery in Richmond; in 1862 they complained to their master about their treatment and persuaded him to hire them to a different employer--infuriating the bakery's manager, who had spent a lot of time training those workers. Stories such as these, untold in the usual sources, enormously enrich our understanding of life in the Confederate capital.
    My book's central point is that Richmond's Civil War experience was not only significant but also unique in American history, and it evoked a remarkable range of responses from the leaders and ordinary folk of the city as they confronted the many crises (and opportunities) that arose.
    A city of modest size and modest political and economic importance in 1860, Richmond abruptly became the capital of a new nation, its military headquarters, and its primary industrial center. As the war got under way, the population multiplied, the economy was deranged by land and sea blockades, government and citizens clashed fiercely over access to vital resources, and the city was targeted by a powerful enemy army.
    No other Southern (or Northern) city in that era--or any era before or since--has had to grapple with a comparable onslaught of transformations and calamities. Civil War Richmond stands alone in the American experience in the nature and severity of the challenges it confronted.
    And what happened there mattered. Events and conditions in the city--which were shaped by people of every class, color, sex, and age--were meticulously reported by journalists and others and were followed closely all across America, by the Confederacy's enemies as well as its friends, for the city was viewed as the heart and soul of the Rebel nation and a key signifier of its fate. Tales of Richmond's ordeal helped shape Americans' understanding of the war as a whole--not only while it was being fought, but also after it ended.

And an impressive undertaking it is on your part to write such a multifaceted book. You mentioned that the city underwent some dramatic changes. How did the city transform as a result of becoming the Confederate capital? Richmond had, with Tredegar and others, industries and transportation facilities. What did being the capital add?

SVA: The first and most apparent transformation was the population explosion. After the war began in April 1861, and especially after Richmond was designated the new Confederate capital in May, people began crowding in; this influx continued all through the war. The newcomers included Confederate government employees, soldiers in training and in the garrison force, men and women seeking jobs in the city's expanding industry, refugees from regions of the South held or threatened by Union forces, slaves and free blacks brought in from all over the state to construct the capital's fortifications and do other tasks, Union prisoners of war, civilian prisoners held for suspected disloyalty, and hospitalized Confederate soldiers. By 1864 the city's population had probably at least doubled, and possibly more than tripled, from its 1860 total of 38,000.
    Richmond's industry likewise burgeoned. In 1860 the city was a major manufacturing center only by Southern standards: it ranked thirteenth among U.S. cities in industrial output. But as soon as the war began, existing manufactories expanded into war-related production and new ones sprang up. All sorts of items needed by the Confederate government were manufactured there: carbines, pistols, swords, cannons, ammunition, uniform buttons, tents, knapsacks, ambulances, hospital beds, field desks, engraved plates for government letterheads and currency, and many more. By 1862 Richmond was truly an industrial city--which it had not been before the war--with a very large proportion of its population (including women and children as well as men) engaged in manufacturing.
    The list of transformations does not end there. The population explosion put tremendous pressure on housing, but the concurrent expansion of Confederate government facilities and the advent of military conscription in 1862 severely restricted the available accommodations and the labor, lumber, and hardware needed to build more. Confederate government demand also competed with citizens' food requirements, monopolizing transportation and restricting the city's market supplies. By 1862 the costs of housing and food were spiraling upward, and ordinary Richmonders were scrambling to secure homes and meals. Residences that before the war had housed single families were now crammed with roomers; two skimpy meals a day became the rule in many households.
    The influx of newcomers--especially soldiers, many of whom got drunk and rowdy whenever they could slip away from their camps--triggered a surge of disorder in the city. Soldiers brawled in the streets and saloons and threw eggs at actors in the theaters. Civilians got drunk and rowdy, too, and also committed a lot of serious crime. Burglary, mugging, shoplifting, and pickpocketing all increased, while the size of the police force failed to keep pace. The perpetrators included blacks as well as whites, women and children as well as men, and upper-class as well as lower-class citizens.
    The city's multiplying problems were not just practical but also ideological. Confederate sympathizers--the vast majority of white Richmonders--began the war certain of the justness of their cause and its ultimate triumph. But as the war turned against the Confederacy, many wavered. They were disheartened, too, as they saw the city fill up with hundreds of thousands of sick and wounded soldiers, many of whom ended up in coffins in the cemeteries. Moral issues also plagued Richmonders. Many agonized over the perceived breakdown of individual decency and civic spirit: drinking, gambling, money-grubbing, frivolity, official corruption, Sabbath-breaking, and any number of other sins and weaknesses seemed to be on the rise, leading Christians to fear that God would turn against the Confederacy.
    Meanwhile, white Richmonders worried that black Richmonders were taking advantage of wartime disruption. These fears were well founded: enslaved and free-black people in the capital were in fact pushing against the strictures of white supremacy and gaining a little more breathing room. For one thing, wartime crowding allowed some slaves to slip away from their masters and lose themselves in the teeming neighborhoods for days, weeks, or even months at a time; some even managed to escape the city altogether and find refuge with the Union army.
    As the economic pressures of war intensified, white working-class Richmonders suffered, on the whole, worse than their social superiors. One result was the bread riot of April 1863. That outbreak of mob violence and looting--perpetrated mostly by women--was quickly quelled, but the grievances of the white underclass persisted and were repeatedly manifested in public meetings, in written petitions, and in graffiti scrawled in public spaces. The upper classes remained, through the rest of the war, deeply frightened by the possibility of another uprising.

--To Be Continued--