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An American Turning Point

For the past two years, we at the Virginia Historical Society have been up to the brims of our kepis working on the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission‘s exhibition—An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.

As of April 4th, we’re only eight months away from opening the exhibition at the VHS on February 4, 2011. This blog serves as a way for you to follow our progress as we come down the home stretch.

One of our greatest challenges has been how to tell a story as big as the Civil War in a space half the size of a major league baseball infield. Let’s say you were to focus only on wartime Virginia. Your story would include:

  • One million free white Virginians
  • 491,000 enslaved African Americans
  • 2,154 military engagements (more than any other state)
  • 280,000 Virginians who fought for the Confederacy
  • 50,000 Virginians who fought for the Union
  • Hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers from across the country who fought, suffered, and died in Virginia

You’d also have to give some meaning to the death, physical devastation, and suffering that the war brought to Virginia by understanding its causes and effects—both short and long term.

It’s a daunting task. . . . If you were in our shoes, which individuals, stories, experiences, and events would YOU think are essential to understanding the Civil War in Virginia?

Show us your list and we’ll show you ours.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Karri Peifer permalink
    04/14/2010 6:00 pm

    I would like to understand what the cities and towns were like then and how they changed during the war. Also, how awful was it to be a woman? A little, a lot, or a whole lot?


    • Andrew H. Talkov permalink
      05/12/2010 3:54 pm


      One of the things to remember about the experience of Virginians during the war is that one’s location had a tremendous influence on how the war affected you.

      There were essentially four major “zones” throughout the South and, by extension, across Virginia.

      Virginians may find their region occupied by Federal armies (as was the case in much of Northern and Northwestern Virginia as well as the Tidewater) or firmly controlled by the Confederate government.

      Two other regions existed that might determine one’s wartime experiences. The Confederate frontier represented portions of the state that were denied Federal invasion and military occupation for more of the war than not and whose inhabitants saw themselves as Confederates. Much of the Shenandoah Valley (i.e. Winchester and Front Royal) fell into this category as did Central Virginia (i.e. Fredericksburg and Culpeper) and most of Southwestern Virginia. Lastly there was the “no-man’s-land” between the two contending armies. Here, civilians were harassed by soldiers from both armies, had their property destroyed, their livestock confiscated, and their crops trampled.

      If you’re interested in this topic, you might want to take a look at Professor Stephen V. Ash’s book “When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865” (University of North Carolina Press, 1999).


  2. Demetrius Rodriguez permalink
    04/18/2010 10:09 pm

    The most important change about the Civil War is often overlooked, and that is the fact that the Justice Department was created to inforce the 13th Amendment in the south.This is of course after the war being won by the federal law abiding north.As far as the slavery issues they are relativley minor compared to the fact that the African Americans were in America 100 years before the first English colonist,being brought as slaves by the spanish to the Americas.The war aspect provides the most important discovery in U.S. Wars,completly and always overlooked,The only General to never lose a battle? Grant! So that leaves me to the confederacy really just a bunch of guys that ended up being reduced to fighting in the wilderness.


    • Andrew H. Talkov permalink
      05/12/2010 4:17 pm


      I have to admit, I too overlooked the creation of the Justice Department as a result of the Civil War. I took a few minutes to look up the connection and wasn’t been able to find a strong relationship between the origin of the DOJ and the Thirteenth Amendment. Any help you could provide would be appreciated.

      Based on my reading of Seth P. Waxman’s 1989 address entitled “Presenting the Case of the United States As It Should Be”: The Solicitor General in Historical Context, it seems that the DOJ was established for two reasons.

      The first is because the workload of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office had grown beyond their ability to properly prepare arguments for the Supreme Court.

      The second is that reformers believed that establishing a department under which all of the legal officers of the various Federal departments would serve they would “secure uniformity of decision, of superintendence, and of official responsibility.”

      That said, the creation of the DOJ is certainly an example of the growth and strengthening of the Federal authority that did, in fact, result from the Civil War.


  3. Melvin E Fulks Jr permalink
    07/07/2011 10:44 pm

    Regarding your article in BOOMER: The “history student” you quoted is uninformed, the Brits have a lot of interest in their civil war. They re-enact battles, they keep writing books about it. Weapons and other items associated with the war are widely collected and routinely bring more money than much earlier relics. Perhaps the British government does not commemorate a war which executed a king but the Brits certainly do.


    • Andrew H. Talkov permalink
      07/08/2011 11:28 am


      Thanks for taking the time to comment on my article in BOOMER magazine. Clearly the student I met was unaware of continued interest in the English Civil War and unfamiliar with the history of that period. I’ve been working as a historian for nearly twenty years and yet I’m guilty of being more familiar with some historical periods and less familiar with others.

      I don’t know anything about the education system in the UK, but in the United States we seem to be failing our youngest citizens in reinforcing the importance of history. On June 15, 2010, USA Today reported that in the United States “only 20% of fourth-graders, 17% of eighth-graders and 12% of 12th-graders performed at or above the “proficient level” on the 2010 U.S. history assessment.” The students of today will be the leaders, educators, and museum-goers of tomorrow. If this trend continues we may forget the American Civil War much sooner than the year 2225.


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