Losing Virginia in 1861 to the new Confederate States of
America ripped the heart out of the United States. The state of America’s
birthplace, Jamestown, had spawned throughout the colony great founding
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John
Marshall, George Mason, and “Light Horse” Harry Lee. Virginia’s size,
wealth, manufacturing, and influence cannot be underestimated.
What happened? Emotions building like volcanic lava for
decades over states’ rights, slavery, and economics erupted in 1860 when
Republican Abraham Lincoln became president. In 1861, no one could stop the
young nation from tearing in two along the Potomac River and plunging into
civil war. In protest to Virginia joining the Confederacy, West Virginia
tore away from the Commonwealth. Harry Lee’s son, Robert, remained loyal to
his state—his “country”—and the West Point graduate took command of the Army
of the Potomac (renamed the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862). Over the
next four years, the War Between the States hurled Lee’s country
into battles, blood, and brokenness. Much of that devastation
occurred in what is now Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC)
While driving from Centreville to my NOVEC office in
Manassas, I cross Bull
Run and the battlefield where some 4,000 Southern and Northern
soldiers fell in July 1861 and 25,000 more in August 1862. I try to imagine
Centreville scraped of every tree like a soldier’s shaven face after
thousands of Confederate, then Union soldiers, cut them down for firewood
and defenses during two winter camps. I see courageous, cowardly, cold,
sweltering, frightened, patriotic, tired, and homesick soldiers: glory for
some, tragedy for most.
Like many of us, I’m a mixed breed of Southern and
Northern ancestry. My great,
great grandfather Crump’s Confederate Army fought my great, great
grandfather Perrin H. McGraw’s New York 157th infantry at the
1862 Manassas battle. State Senator McGraw and Granddaddy Isaac
Brown helped formed the Republican Party in Cortland,
N.Y., in 1855 for the sole purpose of halting and abolishing slavery.
McGraw conducted runaway slaves through
McGrawville to Canada along the Underground Railroad.
When my New York father met my mother’s family in
North Carolina in 1952, the patriarch sized him up with chagrin: “Not bad
for a d--- Yankee, and a Republican.” And a Yankee Dad was. While growing up
in McGraw, he recited the Gettysburg Address every Memorial Day for the
village next to the Civil War memorial.
While growing up in Arlington, Va., my family attended
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. During services, I
sometimes envisioned the Lincoln family sitting in the pew they rented,
still there among modern pews. In the Lincoln parlor I studied the tall
man’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation complete with his edit marks.
The church revered Lincoln.
Across the Potomac, I worked one summer as a tour
guide at the Custis-Lee Mansion inside Arlington National Cemetery. Pulling
a hoop skirt and three petticoats over my head sent me through a time tunnel
to the 19th century where the revered Robert E. Lee and his family lived.
When I looked from the house in my hot hoop skirt, billowing dress, and
ringlets curled with egg whites, I absorbed acres of gleaming white Civil
War tombstones. I found the contrast between
glory and the tragedy of 650,000 people
wounded or killed during the war unsettling.
Why did so many people have to die?
I’m not alone in having questions about
the war. We as a nation cannot seem to get
enough of it. Historian Gary Gallagher says
in his massive bibliography about the conflict,
“Books about the Civil War have accumulated
at the rate of more than a title a day since fighting
erupted at Fort Sumter in April 1861.”
Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American
studies at Lawrence University, observed, “We as a nation are completely
compulsive on the CivilWar. I tell my classes that bad books on the
Civil War sell better than good books about just about everything else.”
I wonder what side I would have chosen had I lived in
1861 in Northern Virginia. Many Virginians
remained loyal to the Union, but many more refused to let Lincoln’s soldiers
march through the Commonwealth to put down a
rebellion further south. The horror of slavery pulls me to my Yankee side,
but witnessing “northern aggression” and Union soldiers taking over Virginia
homes would have made my hair
curl—without egg whites.
I find peace in knowing the war made Lincoln’s words from
his 1863 Gettysburg Address, echoing Virginia’s
Founding Fathers, ring true: Americans “gave the last fullmeasure of
devotion” to preserve a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal.”
Priscilla Knight works in NOVEC’s Public
Relations Division as communications specialist.
She has worked on energy on Capitol Hill, for
Solar Energy Industries Association, American
Public Power Association, and NOVEC, but her
passion is history.
SOURCES: Long, Karen R., “Great CivilWar books stand out
readers try to satisfy an endless fascination,”
The Plain Dealer,
May 29, 2011, www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/
Robertson Jr., James I.,
CivilWar Virginia: Battleground for a
Nation, University Press of Virginia, copyright 1991.
This column is meant
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