What does this have to do with the Civil War?

Posted on October 19, 2013 by


For one… I offer a friendly reminder to consider, again, the title of the blog. It’s not just about the Civil War… it’s more about the area, and, because who I am and because of my interests… yes, it usually comes back to the Civil War, in some way or the other.

Nonetheless, I’ve actually received a couple of emails, asking why I’ve shifted from my focus on Southern Unionists and the Civil War.

My response is that, actually, I haven’t.

I’m still very much involved in rooting out those stories… and, ultimately, the Civil War is the “flow to” point… it is central to my reasoning as to why I’m taking the time to look at life in the pre-Civil War Shenandoah. I think I mentioned it when I started this latest run of examining the prewar culture of the Shenandoah Valley. I believe that understanding who the people of the Valley were, during the war, requires an understanding of who they were before the war.

Additionally, there are some horrible misconceptions about the culture here (thanks much to the emulsion-like way that postwar literature, movies and television have merged 19th century culture of the South into one big “blob”…. as if it was all the same) here. This is part of the way that we have come to remember history… and a flawed memory it is.

As such, I have to ask how can one even dare to exclaim a true understanding of Southerners (in my case, those in the Shenandoah Valley) without truly delving into their world which existed before the war?

I think a good part of that understanding of culture can be had in reading through the area newspapers. We begin to understand just how complex they were… and I’ve especially enjoyed time (and I’m not done) spent looking into both the literature to which they were exposed and the literature that they produced (and those who produced that literature) .

In fact, I’m fascinated to see how the timeline for people in the Shenandoah Valley runs parallel with… and intersects… the larger story of the nation at that time.

I’ll admit, there are some pieces of literature (and the absence of knowing exactly how people interacted with/to the literature) that I’ve run across that may not offer a clear connection with an understanding of the people in the Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War. What, for example, can we take, in the way of meaning, from say… a story in one of the local newspapers that had been extracted from a newspaper in Richmond? What meaning, if any, can we take from its appearance in the local newspaper? As I mentioned, we have no idea as to how people in the area reacted to the story. There is no opinion. The story appeared and we can assume that it was consumed by a finite number of readers. The thing is, however… could you even imagine that this story was something that could have been in the inventory of works read? Not only that, but, it’s often not just one story, but various stories read over long periods of time.

What about the amount of literature extracted from northern presses and introduced to locals via the newspapers? There are many, many examples of this. As such, was the type of Southern culture that existed here, in the Shenandoah Valley, actually as foreign from the North as so often imagined? How can a people consume so many works from another region and yet truly be branded as distant from that other region?

What about literature and religion? What is your perception? They weren’t reading the Bible and Sir Walter Scott all the time, but rather, those were just part of their readings… the Bible more so than Scott. For that matter, I suspect Scott wasn’t necessarily consumed as much, though (as demonstrated by the jousting events all over the place), it might be that Scott’s works were a part of the pop-culture of the time.

That said, however, could you imagine the same people reading… Edgar Allan Poe? Does this seem to contradict existing opinion, or is it truly a “wow, I would have never imagined” moment? I’ll have a couple of items about this, specifically, in two upcoming posts.

Does it have anything to do with the Civil War? Not necessarily. Yet, I think it opens eyes (perhaps raises some eyebrows), as we try to better understand the people of the area in the decades that led to the war. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… do not define the people of the Valley… and the South, for that matter… by the Civil War. There was a life that existed before the war, and one that was much more complex. Personally, I’m enjoying my virtual visit to it… immensely.