SOL: USI.9.f

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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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Winder, John H. (1800–1865)

John H. Winder was a Confederate general who served as provost marshal of Richmond (1862–1864) and commissary general of Confederate prisons (1864–1865) during the American Civil War (1861–1865). A career military officer, Winder served with distinction during both the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) and the Mexican War (1846–1848), but faced criticism from Union officials and, subsequently, historians for his management of Richmond’s wartime prisons and, beginning in June 1864, the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Described by his biographer as “short-tempered” and “aloof,” Winder was responsible for the Castle Thunder, Belle Isle, and Libby prisons when they became infamous in the North for their poor conditions. While he was at Andersonville, the mortality rate of Union prisoners surged as a result of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and poor rations. Winder’s defenders argue that he struggled with an inefficient Confederate bureaucracy and scarce resources, and that he instituted policies, late in the war, that reduced the number of prisoner deaths. He died of a heart attack in February 1865; his subordinate at Andersonville, Henry H. Wirz, was hanged later that year.

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Wilderness during the Civil War, The

The Wilderness of Spotsylvania was a tightly forested area nearly twelve miles wide by six miles long; it was located south of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, ten miles west of Fredericksburg, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), two major battles were fought there: Chancellorsville, in May 1863, where Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson famously outflanked Union forces under Joseph Hooker; and the Wilderness, in May 1864, where the Union’s new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, initiated the Overland Campaign. The topography of the Wilderness—dense woods and thick undergrowth broken up by a number of small clearings—made the maneuvering of large armies particularly difficult and the experience of fighting claustrophobic. In both battles, burst shells ignited the woods, burning wounded soldiers. At Chancellorsville, Jackson was killed by a volley from his own men and, a year later, Confederate general James Longstreet was wounded, also by friendly fire.

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Civil War Widows

Civil War widows in Virginia are defined as women married to Confederate soldiers who died during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The numbers of these women are difficult to determine—historians estimate between 4,000 and 6,000—but their characteristics are clearer. They were relatively young and their marriages had been relatively brief; if they had children, they were still too young to be of help in supporting the family. About half of all widows remarried during or after the conflict, with the youngest ones the most likely to do so; however, because of the war’s toll on young men, they were substantially more likely to marry men who were much older or younger than themselves. Few of these women worked, but beginning in 1888, some were eligible for a state pension that provided the minimal support of $30 per year.

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Van Lew, Elizabeth L. (1818–1900)

Elizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond Unionist and abolitionist who spied for the United States government during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Leading a network of a dozen or so white and African American women and men, she relayed information on Confederate operations to Union generals and assisted in the care and sometimes escape of Union prisoners of war being held in the Confederate capital. Van Lew, who worked with invisible ink and coded messages, has been called “the most skilled, innovative, and successful” of all Civil War–era spies. While some historians have claimed that she was open about her Unionist politics, deflecting suspicion by behaving as if she were mentally ill, others have argued that these “Crazy Bet” stories are a myth. After the war, Van Lew served as postmaster of Richmond during the administration of U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, one of the generals to whom she had once fed information.

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Tiernan, Mary Spear (1836–1891)

Mary Spear Tiernan was a novelist, essayist, and occasional poet who wrote primarily about central Virginia before and during the American Civil War (1861–1865). She published three novels, as well as short stories, which appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Scribner’s Magazine, Century Magazine, and the Southern Review, among others. Her fiction vividly depicted wartime Richmond , and her novel Homoselle (1881) was based on a Virginia slave revolt and can be distinguished for Tiernan’s remarkable sympathy for African Americans.

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Thomas, George H. (1816–1870)

George H. Thomas was a Virginia native, a veteran of the Mexican War (1846–1848), and a Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865) who earned the nickname “the Rock of Chickamauga” after his defensive stand at the Georgia battle in 1863. He won an early Union victory at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky (1862), and decisively defeated the Confederate Army of Tennessee during the Battle of Nashville (1864). He also served as a subordinate at the Battle of Stone’s River (1862–1863) and the Chattanooga Campaign (1863) in Tennessee and, under his West Point roommate William T. Sherman, the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. Thomas was a slave owner before the war, but his experience commanding African American soldiers led him to change his views, and he became a staunch defender of civil rights during Reconstruction (1865–1876). As senior military commander in Kentucky and Tennessee from 1865 until 1869, he fought to protect African Americans from the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. He died of a stroke in 1870.

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Terrill, William R. (1834–1862)

William R. Terrill was a Virginia-born Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Three of his brothers fought for the Confederacy, two of whom died, including James B. Terrill, who was killed in 1864. Disowned by his family, William Terrill distinguished himself in the Western Theater of the war, including at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. A strict disciplinarian, he was “a drunken old tyrant” in the words of one soldier. Others were more sympathetic, with a Union captain arguing that he was “a first rate fighting man.” Terrill was promoted to brigadier general in September 1862 and, in October, commanded a brigade at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, where he struggled with coordinating both infantry and artillery, raw recruits and professional soldiers. He was killed in the fighting.

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Terrill, James B. (1838–1864)

James B. Terrill was a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). As the longtime colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment, Terrill fought in nearly every major battle of the Eastern Theater. Confederate general Robert E. Lee called the 13th Virginia “a splendid body of men,” while Confederate general Richard S. Ewell noted that it was “the only regiment in my command that never fails.” Jubal A. Early declared that the unit “was never required to take a position that they did not take it, nor to hold one that they did not hold it.” Noted for his bravery and respected by superiors, Terrill was killed at the Battle of Bethesda Church the day before his appointment to brigadier general was confirmed by the Confederate Senate. Two of Terrill’s brothers also died in the war, one fighting for the Confederacy, the other for the Union.

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