Help With the Historiography of the War in Virginia, 1861

Among the writing projects that I need to complete over the course of the next 12 months is a 7,500 word historiographical survey of military affairs in Virginia in 1861.  The essay will be included in A Companion to the U.S. Civil War edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and published by Wiley-Blackwell.  The completed book, which will be published in two volumes and encompass roughly sixty chapters, will provide scholars with a comprehensive survey of the historical literature on the Civil War.  The goal of the Companion series is to summarize the historiography of a given field, the essays for the U.S. Civil War volume will focus on how historians have developed and modified their interpretations of the topic over time.

While I am familiar with a fairly large chunk of the literature related to the actual battles and campaigns I do have to think about how broadly to cast my interpretive net.  In other words, what should a historiography of military affairs in Virginia in 1861 include?  And here is where you come in.  I would love for you to share your suggestions for the following:

  • Important campaign/battle studies going back at least 50 years
  • Biographies of both military and political leaders
  • Military command structure
  • Home front studies
  • Slavery (contraband, First Confiscation Act

What other categories should be included in such an essay and why?  For those of you familiar with the literature I would love to hear what you think are some of the most important analytical shifts that have taken place within this literature.  What are some of the questions that you would like answered surrounding this body of scholarship?  Thanks for your help.

14 comments… add one
  • Meg Thompson Jun 20, 2011 @ 4:48

    Well, I am a middle school math teacher, so there ya go. Don’t sell my efforts short. I was this close to getting my history degree when I caved to the pressure of being told I’d never get a job as a historian. I have regretted it ever since. I have high hopes for my efforts.

  • Meg Thompson Jun 19, 2011 @ 18:59

    I am writing a biography of Elmer Ellsworth, and thought I should include a chapter on “another point of view.” I am working on it currently, and would be glad to share it. I am not, unfortunately, under the guidance of a dissertation committee, so am making my own way. Having a Union point of view, I am especially desirous of having readers from the
    other” side read my rough drafts of this chapter. I want it to be fair and show that, indeed, Ellsworth may have been a tad hasty entering civilian property and attempting to remove a flag without due process. Let me know.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2011 @ 1:17

      Thanks for the offer, Meg. I will definitely keep you in mind.

  • Thaddeus Romansky Jun 14, 2011 @ 20:00

    I think devoting a little bit of time to the death of Elmer Ellsworth and what it meant to how the Union early on came to define “the cause” would be worthwhile. There are considerations of how the enemy would be defined by the North in the specifics of his death. He was a vital icon for the Union war effort whose place in the memory of the war evolved over time as well. Considering the incident in the Southern popular mind might surface important attitudes about how the Confederacy used the incident to define its emerging national identity.

    Here’s what the Library of Congress subject heading pulled up:
    Randall, Ruth Painter, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth; a biography of Lincoln’s friend and first hero of the Civil War, 1960
    n.a., Life of James W. Jackson, the Alexandria hero, the slayer of Ellsworth, the first martyr in the cause of southern independence: containing a full account of the circumstances of his heroic death, and the many remarkable incidents in his eventful life, constituting a true history, more like romance than reality, 1862
    Burns, Jeremiah, Patriot’s offering, or, The life, services, and military career of the noble trio, Ellsworth, Lyon, and Baker, 1862

    Another connection to Virginia via the subject of commemoration (for what it’s worth from Wikipedia): “The Fort Ward Museum in Alexandria dedicates a section of their museum to Ellsworth, displaying the kepi he wore when he was killed, patriotic envelopes bearing his image, a piece of the Confederate Flag (on which Ellsworth’s blood is visible), and the “O” from the Marshall House sign that a soldier took as a souvenir.”

  • Doug didier Jun 12, 2011 @ 17:17



              Valley pike.. Dr wayland wrote book..



    Sneden. Alexander va..  Camp.. 

       Seven corners..  Area
    Longstreet in falls church..
    Balloon observation of bull run..
    Clear cutting around Washington..  Virginia to beltway..

    Robertson .. Jackson.. Lexington..  “draw the sword” black flag war..

      Then and now photos..


  • Charles Bowery Jun 12, 2011 @ 15:11

    Kevin, I don’t think any historiographical essay on 1861 would be complete without Ethan Rafuse’s _A Single Grand Victory_, about the First Bull Run campaign. Ethan does a great job of placing the campaign within the context of Northern politics, and of demonstrating that both sides in fact went in with the idea that they would win one big battle and end the war.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2011 @ 15:30

      It’s an excellent study. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Woodrowfan Jun 12, 2011 @ 5:22

    Any good local histories you could include?

  • Bob Huddleston Jun 10, 2011 @ 18:36

    The Secession Convention. The dates/process of the start of secession in Virginia — what happened in what order.

  • R. Alex Raines Jun 10, 2011 @ 5:56

    I think you need to add a category on civil war memory. 🙂

  • TF Smith Jun 9, 2011 @ 6:43

    Scott and Kevin –

    Actually, that was the first thing that came to mind, since the internal civil war within Virginia in 1861 is so unique; as bloody the contest was in Missouri and Kentucky, only in Virginia did it lead to internal secession within a seceded state. Granted, a big part of that was due to the Appalachians (topography is destiny!), but it still provides a case study for the border states that is unique.

    Speaking of the geographic setting (a la Braudel) one of the constants in military operations in Virginia/West Virginia was the climate and topography; have there been works that focus on those issues? Has anyone ever looked at the region from an annaliste perspective, and brought that into consideration when examing the ebb and flow of the war? If so, has the approach been used over time, and how has that changed?

    Focusing on secession, the evolution of work on the activities of the deep south’s commissioners in Virginia could be helpful – Dew is a great start, of course, but the situation in Virginia seems key to the viability of the CSA. Lincoln needed Kentucky, but I’d argue the Davis needed Virginia as much if not more so. Had anyone other than Dew worked that vein?

    I know there have been some recent studies of “free people of color” in Virginia; examining how thoses stories have been told since the 1860s would be very interesting, and – I’d expect – dovetail with some of your own work on USCTs, forced labor in the CS Army, and memory.

    From a demographic/military sociology point of view, have there ever been any studies (other than individuals) of Virginian/West Virginian West Pointers/RA/militia veteran types, in terms of who went south, who went north, and who simply stayed home? Lee and Thomas are the archetypes, but there were others – and if anyone has done anything significant on the thid category (I’m thinking of the equivalent of Alfred Mordechai Sr., Alexander Doniphan, or Sam Houston) among the Old Dominion’s population?

    So there are some thoughts. Sounds like a great project.


  • Scott MacKenzie Jun 9, 2011 @ 4:12

    I recommend including the status of northwestern Virginia in 1861. Surely the intentions of many to separate the region from the rest of the Commonwealth gave Confederate leaders cause for concern. Remember too that the first battles of the War were fought in the northwest. Lee’s first command tried to resist the Union tide, without success. So, from political, cultural and other perspectives, the division of Virginia should be included in this book.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2011 @ 4:31

      Thanks Scott,

      This is just the kind of tip that I am looking for.

      • Scott MacKenzie Jun 9, 2011 @ 5:36

        You are welcome. I lament that everyone seems to forget West Virginia.

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