Life and Death in the Confederate Capital
Stephen V. Ash
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2019, 296 pages
Book Review published on: November 27, 2019
The role of Richmond, Virginia, as the capital of the short-lived Confederate States of America has been the subject of many books, not least of which were first-hand accounts of rebels who spent the Civil War in Richmond either as civilians or in the Confederate government. More recently, there have been several books addressing the topic: Sword Over Richmond by Richard Wheeler (which is more about the Peninsula Campaign than the besieged city), Curiosities of the Confederate Capital by Brian Burns (which simply highlights a few of the more unusual events that took place in Richmond during the war), and Ashes of Glory by Ernest B. Furgurson. Stephen V. Ash’s new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital, takes a unique approach to the topic because of its detail and use of vignettes designed to illustrate certain aspects of life in Richmond during the war.
Rebel Richmond concentrates on the human aspects of life in the city. It is one thing to discuss runaway inflation; it is another thing entirely to explain to the reader what this meant to government clerks and workmen when simply getting food to feed their families seemed impossible. It is one thing to talk about the housing shortage; it is another to discuss the horrible options that many newcomers were left with when vainly trying to find a decent place to live. It is one thing to expound on the horrors of war; it is another to describe a loved one’s slow, painful death resulting from combat injuries. Ash’s writing makes life in wartime Richmond real to the reader.
The unfortunate geography of the Civil War saw the capitals of the USA and the CSA a little over a hundred miles of each other. Washington, D.C., of course, had straddled the middle line of the country since it was made the capital but the Confederacy made the conscious decision to locate its capital in Virginia, once that state seceded. This doesn’t make much sense at first glance but as explained in Rebel Richmond, the city was recognized as a key asset to the successful prosecution of the war; it was a key rail junction (five railways served Richmond, but did not connect to each other), it contained a large percentage of the South’s industrial base (including the only facility able to make cannon or armor plate), and the state itself added “gravitas” to the cause, having been the home of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In hindsight, military necessity would seem to dictate locating the capital away from the enemy frontier, possibly in New Orleans or Atlanta. The selection of Richmond as the capital meant that a huge burden was placed on the city, first as a military base, then later as a frontline fortress.
In effect, the Confederacy recognized that the loss of Richmond would have strategic implications. By doubling down and making the city the capital of the new country, the confederates guaranteed that the member states would provide all the resources they could to protect the primary front of the war. Who is to say they were wrong? As it happened, both New Orleans and Atlanta fell before Richmond did. It is telling that when Richmond finally fell, its loss fulfilled the prophecy of doom and ended hopes for the Confederate States of America.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. James D. Crabtree, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas