Author Interview--Stephen V. Ash (Rebel Richmond) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature part 2 of our interview with 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.

You are pointing to racial and class problems being exacerbated by Richmond’s urban growth during the war. Was that unique? You mention in the book that you avoided making comparisons, but I am curious: how different was Richmond's experience from that of other cities in the war?

SVA: I would argue that the storm of afflictions that Richmond suffered during the war was unique, and that it provoked an unparalleled array of responses. Certainly many other cities, Southern and Northern, experienced wartime social and racial friction--the New York City draft riot being the most dramatic example. But no city that I'm familiar with had to contend with as many dire challenges as Richmond.
    Washington, D.C., probably came closest. It, too, experienced a population explosion, a vastly enlarged governmental and military presence, overcrowding, and a wave of crime and disorder. But it was not its nation's primary industrial center, never endured blockades or shortages or transportation disruptions that threatened the survival of the populace or government, and was never seriously in danger of capture by an enemy army.
    Moreover, the extraordinary efforts of Richmonders to deal with the challenges of 1861-65 were unmatched by those of any other Civil War urbanites that I know of. A few examples will have to suffice here.
    The severe labor shortage--a consequence of the military enlistment and conscription of white men and the impressment and conscription of enslaved and free-black men as army laborers--forced the Confederate government and private employers to hire white women and children in unprecedented numbers. Those workers not only provided unskilled labor but, in the case of educated women, served as bureau clerks and hospital matrons. Even this failed to solve the labor problem, however, forcing the War Department to seek skilled and unskilled workers from among the Union army deserters and Northern civilians locked up in the city--many of whom were more than happy to work for the Rebel war effort in order to get out of prison.
    The labor crisis also sparked a running battle among laborers, employers, and the Confederate War Department over which workers would be excused from military service. Eventually all able-bodied white men of military age in the city--even those who were draft-exempt or detailed from the army--were required to enroll in the Local Defense Forces. They were supposed to be called up only for short periods in emergencies, but when Richmond was repeatedly menaced by the Union army between mid-1864 and early 1865 they were summoned to duty for weeks, even months, at a time. Government bureaus and war manufactories periodically verged on collapse because so many of their clerks and artisans were in the trenches. At one point the Tredegar Iron Works could not even bill its customers for lack of clerks. The men themselves protested vehemently against the extended call-ups, and many shirked service or even deserted to the enemy.
    The city's food shortage also evoked responses both creative and desperate. Many people planted vegetable gardens in their yards; but other hungry Richmonders sometimes pillaged those gardens in the dead of night. Chicken coops and smokehouses were also frequent targets of midnight raids. Certain Confederate hospitals in the capital likewise grew produce, on adjacent vacant lots, and one even assembled a large dairy herd. Some citizens pooled their money to form purchasing cooperatives, and then sent agents into the farther parts of the Confederacy to buy commodities at prices much cheaper than those in the Richmond markets. Some large employers did the same, and also sent agents surreptitiously into Union-occupied regions to swap tobacco and cotton for foodstuffs. Meanwhile, the city government experimented with unprecedented welfare measures to keep the poor fed.
    My book explores many other examples of Richmonders' responses to the transformations of war. These include the efforts of blacks to make the most of wartime disruption, and the efforts of whites to suppress them; the attempts of the local, state, and national authorities to stifle disorder and subversion in the city (including shutting down saloons and imposing martial law); the exertions of civic and religious leaders to counter war-weariness and moral decay; the attempts of upper-class Richmonders to recruit and arm enough civilian volunteers to deter the much-feared proletarian uprisings; and the efforts of the War Department and civilians to heal the immense number of sick and wounded soldiers in the city, to comfort the dying, and to dispose decently of the bodies of the deceased.

You are adding to a growing literature on urban studies during the Civil War era. I am thinking here of Frank Towers or William Rogers’s book on Montgomery, AL. What makes Civil War era urban studies such an important field? How does your work and that of others studying urban environments change our perception of the war?

SVA: Perhaps we shouldn't think of America's Civil War-era experience as so starkly divided between urban and rural. The topics of my own research, over the last forty years and more, have ranged from the most rural parts of the South to the most urbanized. But what has always struck me is the close connections between the two.
    I could not have told the story of the Confederate regions occupied by the Union army without connecting the towns and the countryside; they certainly had distinctive experiences, but those experiences were so closely intertwined that they must be explained together. Nor could I have made sense of the Memphis race riot of 1866 without telling of the migration of rural blacks to the city during and right after the war. And Richmond's experience from 1861 to 1865 was, as my new book points out, shaped in great part by the travails of Virginia's rural areas.
    My work has focused on the South, but I suspect that the North experienced something similar. I'd be very interested to hear other historians' thoughts on this question of rural-urban connections in the Civil War era.

I agree your book will hopefully encourage other studies of urban environments. To close, how would you like to see your book and its contributions integrated into the understanding of the Civil War? What lessons would you hope students gain from your book? And having done so many excellent studies, including your work on individual experiences in 1865, African American soldiers, and the sad events in Memphis in 1866, among others, where are you headed next?

SVA: I hope my book will help us better understand the Confederate home-front experience. Despite the abundance of studies on the subject, historians have not fully exploited all the useful primary sources, and much remains to be learned. I would be gratified to see more research on both urban and rural areas. In a broader sense, I hope my book sheds light on the reactions of people in extreme circumstances, a part of the human experience that transcends any particular time and place.
    I hope students will gain from my book an appreciation of the moral complexity of the Civil War (and of the past in general). The war was not a simple story of good guys vs. bad guys, nor a matter of easy, clear-cut choices. It was an ordeal that entangled millions of ordinary people, forcing them to confront unprecedented circumstances and then try to get along the best they could. Some responded nobly, some shamefully, most somewhere in between. Then as now, people had to make hard decisions in dire situations, and had no crystal ball to show them the outcome of their choices.
    As for my next project, I'm undecided. I think I have another book in me, but haven't yet found the perfect topic.


Steve, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.