Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital,Stephen Ash, University of North Carolina Press, 296 ppages, illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, 2019. $35.00.
Reviewed by Michael E. Woods (Marshall University) Published on H-CivWar (January, 2020)
A fresh-faced lieutenant screams from a hospital bed. Shopkeepers
fence stolen goods, while an equally entrepreneurial embalmer smuggles
deserters and draft dodgers out of town in coffins. Neighbors hear a
confectioner lashing an enslaved girl with a leather strap; the next
day, the four-year-old child is found dead. In a filthy shack near the
wharves, a young prostitute dies alone from a laudanum overdose. These
kinds of stories are rarely commemorated with monuments or dramatized in
reenactments. But they are all Civil War stories, and they all find a
place in Stephen V. Ash’s outstanding Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital.
Richmond was a national capital and a target for attack, a commercial
hub and a manufacturing powerhouse, a haven for refugees and a place of
captivity. But although historians have thoroughly documented the
city’s political and military histories, the experiences of its humbler
residents, whose numbers swelled to more than 100,000 during the
conflict, have received less attention. The purpose of Ash’s book is to
explore “how ordinary Richmonders”—black and white, enslaved and free,
male and female, rich and poor, civilian and soldier—“fared in the
maelstrom of war” (p. 3).
Ash quite logically emphasizes Richmond’s
uniqueness, but the city’s prominence in both history and historiography
means that this book will fascinate not only local historians but also
readers interested in everything from common soldiers and women’s
history to class conflict and slave resistance.
Ash surveys life in wartime Richmond in a series of thematic
chapters. The city’s diverse population was fractured along lines of
wealth, status, and occupation, but most Richmonders faced an
increasingly severe struggle to get by as neighbors multiplied and
resources dwindled in what one local paper aptly called the “metropolis
of the South” (p. 19).
Richmond’s population may have tripled during the
war as bureaucrats, soldiers, refugees, impressed slaves, and drifters,
driven by force or free will, crowded into the city. With housing
scarce and rents soaring, civilians squeezed into rented rooms, hotels,
and offices while soldiers and enslaved laborers lived in nearby
barracks and encampments and a growing number of captives—including
political prisoners and captured Union soldiers—languished in jails and
camps. And although proximity to a rich agricultural hinterland had kept
antebellum Richmond well fed, wartime disruption and overcrowding
created a parallel crisis of sustenance. As with the housing shortage,
public efforts to increase food supply met with mixed results: most
Richmonders did not starve, but the poor and the wards of the
Confederate government waged a desperate struggle for subsistence.
Unlike food and shelter, jobs were plentiful in a city where fierce
competition for workers pitted private manufacturers against
public-sector employers and the military. Even though Confederate
officers detailed soldiers to work in factories and other productive
enterprises, the labor shortage remained acute, so considerable numbers
of enslaved people, free blacks, and white women and children filled the
void. Of course, with so many strangers coming and going, old fears of
insurrection and new apprehensions of disloyalty fostered an atmosphere
Deserters and Unionist agents did not topple the city’s
Confederate power structure, but the prevalence of crime and immorality,
coupled with resistance by enslaved people, made many affluent white
Richmonders fear the worst. The outbreak of Richmond’s infamous bread
riots in April 1863 seemed to portend a more general uprising of the
city’s motley underclass, and for the last two years of the war, local
officials mixed poor relief with paramilitary repression in an effort to
keep order. The proximity of military force reassured Richmond’s elite,
but the proliferation of military hospitals, complete with the sights,
sounds, and smells of suffering and death, provided a constant reminder
of the war’s costs.
Ash has indeed brought “wartime Richmond to life as a city of
flesh-and-blood men, women, and children of many sorts who responded in
very human ways to extraordinarily trying circumstances” (p. 5). The
success of this rich social history stems from diligent archival
research. Ash delved into a variety of manuscript materials, including
personal correspondence, the records of the Southern Claims Commission,
church and hospital records, and letters received by the Confederate
Provost Marshal’s Office and the Confederate Secretary of War.
dusty files yielded a trove of poignant stories that demonstrate how
Richmond’s diverse residents navigated a city shaken to its core by an
increasingly revolutionary conflict. From the arrest of an African
American bartender who allegedly spoke to a white man with “insolent and
provoking language” (p. 175) to hospital matrons’ attempts to brighten
their dreary living quarters, Rebel Richmond compellingly
illuminates how Richmonders lived, labored, and died in a city where the
war sometimes reached the suburbs and was never far away.
This book complements previous accounts of wartime Richmond by Emory
M. Thomas and Ernest B. Furgurson, which relied (particularly in
Thomas’s case) more heavily on published materials. It also will
provide opportunities for comparative analysis if read alongside other
urban histories, such as Wendy Hamand Venet’s study of Civil War-era
Atlanta and William Warren Rogers Jr.’s work on Montgomery. Indeed,
what Richmond shared with other Confederate cities may be as important
as what set it apart. Richmond’s status as a political, industrial, and
military center certainly made it a distinctly attractive target for
Union strategists and a singularly powerful symbol of Confederate
nationalism, and Ash quite reasonably underscores its uniqueness.
many aspects of Richmond’s story had parallels in other Confederate
cities. Union war planners coveted New Orleans and Atlanta;
manufacturing boomed in Selma and Augusta; refugees streamed into
Raleigh and Columbia. Rebel Richmond therefore underscores the
centrality of cities to the story of the Confederacy. As Andrew L. Slap
and Frank Towers have pointed out, for all the obvious importance of
Southern plantation agriculture, and for all the Lost Cause paeans to an
agrarian way of life, cities were at the heart of the Confederate
project, from the meeting of secession conventions to the manufacturing
of war materiel and the marshaling of armies. Rebel Richmond
demonstrates this point brilliantly and poignantly. Regardless of where
they came from or why they were there, Richmonders—all 100,000 or more
of them—experienced an emphatically urban Civil War.
. Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971); Ernest B. Furgurson, Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).
. Wendy Hamand Venet, A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); William Warren Rogers Jr., Confederate Home Front: Montgomery during the Civil War (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).
. Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers, “Introduction: Historians and the Urban South’s Civil War,” in Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era, ed. Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015): 1-23.
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