Identifying With “Old Virginia’s” Youth

My four Civil War students spent the class discussing Peter Carmichael’s recent North and South article, “Confederate Crusaders: Virginia’s Last Generation Fights the Civil War.” The article examines those Virginians born between 1831 and 1843 who came of age during the 1850’s. They were from the planter class, single, graduates of the University of Virginia and reared on the sectional debates of the decade. They cared a great deal about the decline of Virginia throughout the 19th century and blamed their elders (they employ the term “old fogeyism”)for not exploring the possibilities of increased industry and other progressive ideas. During the war these men served as staff or field officers in the Army of Northern Virginia and viewed the war in providential terms well into 1864 when many white southerners had grown sufficiently weary of the cause.

We spent the first few minutes just looking at the lithograph of UVA on the first two pages as our classroom is literally three block from the campus. I enjoyed listening to the students formulate Carmichael’s thesis; it is clearly stated at the beginning of the article and provides an excellent example of the importance of stating your conclusions up front. More importantly, it was nice to see that they were able to identify with the idea of young adults coming of age during turbulent times. I made the point that they are now in a similar position following 9/11. It is important to remember that teenagers in the junior and senior range probably don’t remember a time without the “fear” of terrorism. Their minds have been shaped by a post 9/11 world and rhetoric. The article gives students a way to connect with other moments in history when the heightened rhetoric raises the expectations of some of the most impressionable members of the society. I look forward to reading their thesis summaries.

This article is based on Carmichael’s recently published book, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. The book is beautifully written and provides an important perspective on the Civil War and more specifically the history of Virginia. Carmichael’s earlier study of Willie Pegram provides a more focused example of how one young Virginian viewed the war. Both studies clearly reflect the continued evolution and sophistication of Civil War studies. Perhaps these books don’t sell millions, but it is comforting to people who actually read these books that there is still much to learn about this important time in American history.

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