The Civil War and Virginia

There is, arguably, no state in the Union more steeped in history than Virginia (where I reside).  No state claims more famous Founding Fathers or more U.S. presidents — indeed, four of the first five presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, were Virginians.  And absolutely no state played a more important part in the most important armed conflict in our nation’s history, the Civil War, whose sesquicentennial we continue to celebrate this year.

That last claim stems in part from the fact that this week (May 21) in 1861 the provisional Confederate Congress, then located in Montgomery, Alabama, accepted Virginia’s offer to make its capital city, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, thereby locating the Confederacy’s government just 100 miles from the Union capital in Washington, D.C.  This guaranteed that Virginia would become the main focus of the entire war.

Granted, Virginia would have been a key theater of war in any case, not only because of its proximity to Washington, but also because of its industrial might and naval importance — the Navy Yard at Norfolk, Va., was critically important to the South.   What is more, as Lincoln was well aware, not only did Virginians dominate the officer ranks of the Confederate Army, they were ever present in his own government.  His general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, was a Virginian, as were many of the military bureau chiefs in Washington in 1861.   Lincoln had even offered command of the Union Army to a Virginian, Robert E. Lee, who turned him down — even though that command had been Lee’s lifelong dream — because Lee was more loyal to Virginia than to the country.

Even so, making Richmond the Confederate capital ensured that both the Union’s military leaders and its political leaders would pay even more attention to Virginia.  It is no coincidence that the first major battle of the war, the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), occurred in Virginia.  It is also no coincidence that the last major battle of the war, and Lee’s surrender to the Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant, also occurred in Virginia, at Appomattox Courthouse.   In between, more than 120 Civil War battles were fought in the state — Tennessee, with the next largest number of battles, had fewer than 40 — and many of those battles, including Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and the Second Battle of Manassas, were among the war’s bloodiest.

Perhaps all of this is best captured in a joke that Civil War buffs in Virginia like to tell.  It is said that, had the Confederacy won the Civil War, every single high school in the state of Virginia would be named after a Confederate general.  In other words, there would be four more high schools than are currently so named.