Author: Aerika A. Wright

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Women during the Civil War

Although women were not permitted to bear arms on the battlefront, they made invaluable contributions to and were deeply affected by the American Civil War (1861–1865). This was particularly true of women living in Virginia, since they witnessed more battles than did the women of any other state engaged in the conflict. The removal of hundreds of thousands of men from their homes, farms, and businesses necessitated the vastly increased participation of women, both black and white, in areas that they had been previously discouraged, if not forbidden, from pursuing. Differences of race and class, however, sometimes sharply divided their views and experiences. Some devoted everything they had to the service of the Confederacy, while others openly rebelled against it. The end of the war brought the collapse of both the Confederate government and slave society, and while freedom created a new commonality between the races and between women and men, it challenged them to redefine themselves and their society. In the words of diarist Lucy Buck from Front Royal, “We shall never any of us be the same as we have been.”

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Stuart, Flora Cooke (1836–1923)

Flora Cooke Stuart was the wife of Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart and the daughter of Union general Philip St. George Cooke. She met Stuart, a dashing subordinate of her father, while living in the Kansas Territory in the 1850s, and after marrying, the two settled in Virginia. Secession, however, split their family, with Cooke, a respected cavalryman, remaining in the United States Army and Stuart eventually becoming chief of cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. “He will regret it but once & that will be continually,” Stuart said of his father-in-law’s decision; he even renamed his and Flora’s months’-old son, Philip St. George Cooke Stuart, after himself, James Ewell Brown Stuart Jr. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Flora Stuart spent as much time as possible in camp with her husband, and chafed at the generous attention he received from admiring women in Virginia and across the South. When Stuart died after being wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern (1864), she donned mourning garb and wore it for the remaining fifty-nine years of her life. During that time, she served as headmistress of a women’s school in Staunton that was subsequently named for her. She later moved to Norfolk, where she died in 1923.

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Staunton during the Civil War

Staunton, Virginia, the seat of Augusta County, was a key target in two major campaigns during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and remained strategically important throughout the entire war. With a population of about 4,000 in 1860, Staunton was situated at a vital transportation crossroads in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Confederacy sought to utilize and protect its infrastructure and wealth from the recurrent threat of destruction by Union forces. Various Confederate leaders, including the generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard S. Ewell, used the town as their headquarters, and it served almost continuously as an army depot, quartermaster and commissary post, and training camp. Union troops targeted Staunton for more than two years before they were able to break the Confederates’ protective hold and lay waste to much of the town and miles of nearby railroad track.

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Lexington during the Civil War

The town of Lexington is the seat of Rockbridge County in the Shenandoah Valley. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), it was home to Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and the Virginia Military Institute. Although not of great strategic importance, the town nevertheless smoldered in the atmosphere of war long before many other Virginian communities felt the conflict. In November 1859, a detachment of its resident corps of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute was deployed to Charles Town (in what is now West Virginia) to provide security at the execution of the infamous John Brown for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Unionist sentiments prevailed, however, until U.S. president Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops, when many of Lexington’s male citizens enlisted in service of the Confederate States of America. Events such as the burial of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Union general David Hunter’s fiery raid brought the quiet mountain town momentary attention from the wider world, but the demands of the Civil War also siphoned its resources on a daily basis.

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Letcher, John (1813–1884)

John Letcher was a lawyer, newspaper editor, member of the United States House of Representatives (1851–1859), and governor of Virginia (1860–1864) during the American Civil War (1861–1865). In a career that lasted decades, he weathered radical shifts of opinion and power by consistently positioning himself as a moderate, supporting, for instance, increased commercial ties between the eastern and western portions of the state and more political representation for western counties, codified in the Convention of 1850–1851. He advocated for a gradual emancipation of slaves and resisted the entreaties of radical secessionists while still arguing on behalf of states’ rights. Western support and a divided Whig Party helped him narrowly win the governorship as a Democrat in 1859, but his term was often a difficult one. He ably mobilized Virginia for war and then threw the state’s tremendous resources behind the Confederacy. But his willingness to requisition for the Confederacy needed supplies such as salt caused controversy at home, as did his support of impressments. Letcher returned to Lexington in 1864, ran for the Confederate Congress and lost, and was briefly imprisoned at the conclusion of the war. After his release, he resumed his law career, returning to state politics before dying in 1884.

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Lee Chapel

Lee Chapel, whose spired clock tower rises above the tree-shaded campus of Washington and Lee University (formerly Washington College) in Lexington, Virginia, is the final resting place of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and is popularly known as “The Shrine of the South.” Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). During his tenure as president of Washington College from October 1865 until his death in October 1870, he recommended the construction of and helped design a new chapel for worship and assembly. His wife, Mary Custis Lee, selected the chapel as Lee’s burial site, and he was interred in a vault in the chapel basement. A mausoleum addition was dedicated in June 1883 that housed sculptor Edward Valentine‘s evocative memorial statue of the recumbent Lee. The nondenominational chapel was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and continues to accommodate large gatherings and special events. A museum on the basement level and tours of the chapel are available to the public.

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Danville during the Civil War

Danville, Virginia, in Pittsylvania County, is situated on the banks of the Dan River just three miles from the North Carolina border. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), its relative remoteness spared its citizens from many of the hardships experienced by other Virginians. It successfully converted its pre-war tobacco industry–related buildings into a variety of facilities that supported the Confederate war effort, such as hospitals, factories, and prisons. Because of their relative prosperity throughout the war years, Danville’s residents extended charitable assistance to the families of soldiers and other needy individuals. The same isolation and wealth that protected Danville throughout the war made it the object of widespread interest at the end of the war. After the fall of Richmond on April 2, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet relocated to Danville, and following Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox Court House, many homeward-bound Confederate troops found the town an attractive passing-through point. Union forces occupied the town briefly at war’s end, leaving by the end of 1865.

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Gaines’s Mill, Battle of

The Battle of Gaines’s Mill, fought on June 27, 1862, and one of the Seven Days’ Battles, was a Confederate victory and remembered by many of its participants as the most intense fight of the American Civil War (1861–1865). As Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson arrived with his troops from the Shenandoah Valley, Robert E. Lee determined to take the offensive against Union general George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac, which threatened the Confederate capital at Richmond. On June 26, Lee was turned back at Mechanicsville, but McClellan retreated anyway. The following day at Gaines’s Mill—named for the nearby grist mill of Dr. William Gaines—Lee attacked again, finding Union troops positioned behind a stream that was entirely absent from Confederate maps. While Richmond’s elite looked on, Confederate generals A. P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell charged up a steep hill, suffering horrific casualties, before Jackson’s men—late-arriving and slow to engage—finally joined the fight. At dusk, the battle turned in the Confederates’ favor, and an evening cavalry charge led by Union general Philip St. George Cooke was a costly failure. In nine ghastly hours of fighting, Union and Confederate casualties totaled about 15,000 men.

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