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“You’ll be Back”: My First Trip to the VHS


Marching Masters by Colin Edward WoodwardWe welcome Colin Woodward as guest author of this post. Woodward used the VHS’s extensive Civil War collections while writing his recently published book.  In addition to being one of our Mellon Fellows in 2003, he also joined the VHS staff as a project archivist from April 2007 to September 2010.

The writing of my first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War took fourteen years to complete. I began it as a graduate student at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Initially, my research involved many hours digging through letters, diaries, and memoirs at the library, which was only a short walk under the live oaks from my history department office. Eventually, though, I realized I needed to immerse myself in archival sources. As a dissertation student, the special collections at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library had rich sources on Civil War life and slavery in the lower Mississippi Valley. But because I was researching the “entire” Confederate army, I knew I needed to travel to an archive in Virginia.

I chose the Virginia Historical Society (VHS). I applied for a two-week Mellon research fellowship. My application was successful, and I headed to Richmond. It was a snowy week in January of 2003 when I journeyed to the former capital of the Confederacy for the first time. I stayed, as have many graduate students before me, at the bed and breakfast on Kensington Avenue across the street from the VHS.

I was impressed by the professionalism at the society. The formality of the place was a bit intimidating when I had to talk at the “informal” colloquium for Mellon fellows. At the Wednesday morning colloquium, I was seated at a table filled with well-dressed archivists and historians who asked me some tough questions about my research. Not only were there men with ties, but there were also men in suits. To put this in perspective, during my eight years at LSU, I never saw my dissertation advisor in a tie, let alone a suit.

My first week of research at the VHS was one of the best of my life. What the VHS had on Confederate soldiers was more than I could ever look at in a week or two. It would’ve been nice to stay for months.

Not only did I have the pleasure of uninterrupted Civil War research, but I also fell in love with Richmond. The city is full of history and interesting people. I found that some of the strangers I met in pubs actually wanted to hear about my research.

I also visited the Byrd Theater for the first time, where I saw Bob Gulledge on the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” Entering the Byrd is like going back in time, and it has the uncomfortable seats to prove it. As I walked home from seeing The Ring, snow fell on RVA.

On my way home after a second visit to Richmond that summer, I was getting out of a taxi at the airport when the cabby handed me his card. “But I won’t be back,” I said. “You’ll be back,” he promised. He was right. Two years after graduating from LSU, I was working as an archivist at the VHS.

My research at the society enriched the book that became Marching Masters. But there is more to an archive than letters and diaries. The VHS benefits from a first-rate staff that is knowledgeable and friendly. The reading room is splendid. Any researcher interested in Virginia should go there.

Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff. The Virginia Historical Society encourages discussion; however, we reserve the right to remove comments that are offensive, threatening, or insulting.

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