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Virginia’s Holy City


ISSUE:  Autumn 2001
American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond. By Gregg D. Kimball. University of Georgia Press. $35.00.

To the Civil War researcher, it sometimes seems that every general, politician, refugee, and prisoner who set foot in Richmond kept a diary or wrote a memoir about those desperate days in the Confederate capital. But their works, valuable as they are to today’s historians, tell more about the writers’ personal experiences than they do about the city where they lived from high hopes to disappointment. No one, not even the wartime diarists Mary Boykin Chesnut and John Beauchamp Jones, nor the Richmond journalists John Moncure Daniel and George William Bagby, told as much about the capital itself as Gregg D. Kimball reveals in this outstanding study.

Kimball’s book grew out of his University of Virginia dissertation, overseen by Edward L. Ayers, creator of the ground-breaking “Valley of the Shadow” Civil War web site. And that dissertation grew out of Kimball’s years of full-time work among the primary sources, mainly at the Valentine Museum, an institution devoted to the history of Richmond. Very few Ph.D. projects result in such a readable, clearly organized book, one that could easily cross the line to become popular history (a suggestion meant as a compliment).

The author sweeps away any lingering romantic assumption that Richmond was all cavaliers and crinoline in the years before the war. Plantation manners and old city-country family ties still set the tone of polite society, but the mercantile class, typified by the prosperous Valentine dry-goods family, swung the greatest political and economic weight. The doomed master-slave pattern still dictated relations between the races, and Richmond was a major center of the slave trade, sending surplus labor from Virginia’s tired tobacco fields to the cotton South. Anti-black laws became increasingly harsh in the decades after the Nat Turner uprising in Southampton County in 1831. Yet the city’s African-Americans lived in a much more sophisticated sub-society than their brethren on the plantation.

Shortly before the war, about 4,000 hands sang as they sweated in more than 50 tobacco factories, working as hard as farm labor did in the counties of Southside. But many other blacks in Richmond, slave and free, were literate, despite laws prohibiting the education of slaves, and many were respected artisans. They were the backbone of a complex labor force that included not only African-Americans, but a surprising number of Germans, and Irish immigrants brought in to build the canal linking Richmond with the Shenandoah Valley. Joseph Reid Anderson’s Tredegar Iron Works, the most important heavy industrial plant in the South, owned, housed and fed scores of slaves while it also imported skilled technicians from the North and from abroad.

Jefferson Wallace, son of a Scottish immigrant merchant and an Irish-born mother, left Richmond for the California gold fields in 1851, only to return disappointed in 1854. Kimball describes Wallace’s dismay on finding that the “natural, orderly” city he had known had been penetrated by “Yankee people, goods, ideas and behaviors. . . . Bourgeois striving, Northern dress and free-labor ideas offended him. . . .” In fact, Wallace and many of his commercial peers approved of railroads, steamships, and other tangibles of material progress; what concerned them was the changing social order. His father wrote to a sister in Great Britain that “I do not hesitate for a moment, in pronouncing [slaves’] actual condition to be much more happy, and comfortable, than the one fourth of the population, who fill up our cities, and manufacturing towns, who are in the possession of free suffrage.”

Kimball writes that “Unlike the easy, natural gallantry of the old aristocracy, Richmond’s urban bourgeoisie strained to be even more Southern in manners than their country cousins,” while their black counterparts strutted in Sunday finery that set them apart from their own rural kin. He makes extensive use of the records of the First African Baptist Church, which had nearly 3,000 congregants by the time of the Civil War. By law aimed at preventing abolitionist agitation, black churches were required to have white pastors. For 25 years, First African’s preacher was Robert Ryland, himself a slave-owner, who courted trouble by unknowingly passing mail to and from parishioners involved in the underground railroad.

Though Kimball’s subtitle promises a study of antebellum Richmond, he continues past Appomattox, describing how some of the conditions and attitudes of the mid-1800’s changed while others outlasted the siege, hunger, and occupation of the war years. Pre-war militia companies, each distinguished by class and ethnic background, felt a common bond with their fellows in the North; when the Richmond Blues visited Philadelphia in 1855, their captain, John Patton, made a speech that “neatly wedded belief in militia brotherhood and the civic religion of Union.” Then, when their hosts returned the visit the following year, he toasted “The Union—may the forked lightning of Heaven blister the tongue that would advocate its dissolution.” But soon came John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, and then Virginia’s internal struggle over secession, and then Fort Sumter—and after that any Union loyalist speaking aloud in Richmond was likely to be clapped in the political prison, Castle Thunder. Underground Unionists had to speak in whispers, but they carried on a bold campaign of military espionage, and helped draft-dodgers and escaped Federal prisoners find their way North.

During the war, loyalty to North or South could be a life-or-death question. Afterward, says Kimball, “the meaning of freedom— political, economic, and social—and citizenship would be the central issues, and working people and Africans would set much of the agenda.” He wonders how those Richmonders struggled and resisted as long as they did before racism and elite control prevailed. The answer, he suggests, may reside in their hard experiences in the years that he describes so skillfully.

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