The Civil War: A Personal Perspective


by Priscilla Knight, Contributing Writer

Priscilla Knight

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 fathers—George 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) country.

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.”

Glory halleluiah!

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 as readers try to satisfy an endless fascination,” The Plain Dealer,

May 29, 2011, 2011/05/great_civil_war_books_stand_out.html. Robertson Jr., James I., CivilWar Virginia: Battleground for a Nation, University Press of Virginia, copyright 1991.


What's Your View?

This column is meant to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to: (please enter “Perspective” in subject line), or send written responses to Cooperative Living, Perspective, Attn. Bill Sherrod, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058-2340. 




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