I Thank God I am a Virginian

I am writing from the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia, where I am going through some files related to body servants and impressed slaves.  Here is a little nugget from the John H. Claiborne letters, which I’ve spent quite some time with over the past few years.  This collection of letters and other materials really needs to be published.  Claiborne was the chief surgeon in Petersburg during the final year of the war.  Here is an excerpt from a letter to his wife, dated July 17, 1864:

Oh when will the day of retribution come?  Can this conquer the South?  Let the spoiled and bleeding and exiled and starving people of Virginia answer.  Not a murmur – not a complaint not a craven cry for peace have I heard — but war — blood for blood — let us perish and our little ones — but let the fight go on — better to fill freemen’s graves than to live as yankee serfs.  You see their undying spirit in the thin – compressed lip and fierce hungry eye.  One of my Surgeons told me the other day that his wife who is in N.Va. wrote him that she was penniless — that she was soon to be confined and that she did not know what she should do.  Another — a man for a long time was a captain in a Va. Regiment and a noble brave fellow and a good soldier until his health forced him into the Med. Dept. told me that he had a letter from his wife a day or two ago and that she was working in the cornfield day by day trying to make break for his little ones.  These were people of affluence & refinement before the war.  Both of the gentlemen were educated in Europe or partially educated there and accustomed to all the elegance & luxuries that wealth could supply.  There is suffering but you see it only in the earnest face & compressed lip — and you hear it in the muttered denunciation of wrath against the yankees.  No whining for peace or stop the war.  It is said we Virginians are too proud of our State.  It may be so — but none will deny we have cause to be proud of her.  I envy no other & detract from no other but I thank God I am a Virginian.  We may be blotted out of the book of nations but the name of Virginia & of her sons & her daughters can never perish.

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4 comments… add one
  • London John Jun 17, 2011 @ 7:40

    Would it be the case that by the time of writing all Virginia gentlemen regarded re-union as “to live as yankee serfs”? And if so is it possible to trace how their feelings evolved to that position? The writer’s devotion to slavery suggests he may have jumped to that position at the Emancipation Proclamation, even felt that life without slaves was “serfdom”, but on the other hand I believe there were Confederates who were prepared to consider abolishing slavery if it would help secure Confederate independence.

  • Jonathan Dresner Jun 16, 2011 @ 9:58

    Interesting reference to Virginia as a “nation.”

  • Emmanuel Dabney Jun 16, 2011 @ 7:39

    These letters do need to be edited and published, Kevin. As my friends always say I love Virginia more than probably any person I can appreciate the sentiments in the final lines of this note.

    Thanks for reminding me of it! Claiborne, as you know, has some interesting comments about the care of wounded USCTs after the battle of the Crater.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2011 @ 7:41

      I just re-read one of his letters concerning the Crater. His letters are so incredibly rich.

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