Reviews prepared by staff members of the Library of Virginia
Sara B. Bearss, Editor
Camilla Townsend. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. xi + 223 pp. $25.00 (hardcover).
Books on Pocahontas are to colonial Virginia what books on the Salem witch trials are to colonial Massachusetts. Because of the popular cachet of these fascinating, often mythologized stories, historians have been able to use them to introduce such novel (at the time) interpretive tools as demographics, cultural anthropology, and gender to readers more interested in ripping good yarns than in the shifting strategies of historical research. Camilla Townsend joins the fray with her fascinating new book on the early days of the Virginia colony and the woman with whom, for good or ill, it is most readily identified.
Townsend grounds her account in the theory of civilization developed by Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). Diamond's environmental explanation for why technologically advanced, agricultural societies took root in Eurasia but were slower to develop elsewhere dismantled traditional racial and cultural explanations and has allowed scholars to assess honestly the inequalities that have existed between different peoples. The Powhatan dilemma refers to the problem that technologically superior English settlers posed to a politically savvy and powerful Indian ruler. Given the very real possibility that the English would be planting themselves in his territory on a permanent basis, what strategy was Powhatan to pursue? Townsend captures a sense of the confusion that marked dealings between the English and Indians and fosters a keen appreciation of the diplomatic skills that Powhatan, other Indian werowances, and some English were able to deploy.
Townsend narrates the life of Pocahontas in the context of her society and its political dilemma. Using Powhatan's daughter as a representative figure, Townsend offers a vivid and concise analysis of the Indian world of the Virginia coastal plain. She also captures a good sense of Pocahontas's curious and mischievous personality. Townsend quickly dismisses the myth that has been handed down to us by John Smith and the good folks of the Walt Disney Company–there is absolutely no reason to believe that Pocahontas played any role in saving Smith's life. In any event, the more interesting story involves Pocahontas's real-life marriage to John Rolfe. Although not dismissing the possibility that the two shared genuine love and affection, Townsend argues that the marriage was consistent with the Indians' political stratagem. Having failed to eject the English during a four-year period of escalating hostilities, Powhatan may have interpreted the marriage as a way of cultivating friendlier relationships with them and even of incorporating some English into his political orbit. Other events in Pocahontas's short life attract similar analyses.
That Pocahontas and her people failed to keep the English from taking their land was inevitable, according to Townsend. Yet far from being elegiac, her account illuminates the careful, if not always wise, decision-making that characterized the Indians' confrontation with the alien English. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma makes a welcome addition to any library and classroom.
–reviewed by William Bland Whitley, Research Fellow, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Warren M. Billings. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia. Southern Biography Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. xvii + 290 pp. $49.95 (hardcover).
Without a doubt, Sir William Berkeley (1608-1677) was the most important Anglo-Virginian of the seventeenth century. Governor from 1642 to 1652 and again from 1660 to 1677, he worked for diversification of the colony's economy, promoted its interests at Court, and, most important, helped guide the development of a distinctive and successful tradition of statecraft that served Virginia well for centuries. By encouraging the burgesses to begin sitting by themselves as a separate house of the legislature in 1643, Berkeley introduced bicameralism to American parliamentary practice, one of many important contributions he made to the emerging and distinctly American political culture.
Berkeley is perhaps best known to most readers of Virginia history as the foil of Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676), who in 1676 led a brief, violent, and failed rebellion that has been named for him. By then, Berkeley was old, feeble, partly deaf, and no longer able to wield the deft political skills that had made him by far the colony's most influential and successful governor. Berkeley vacillated, retreated, blundered, and very nearly squandered his entire legacy before the rebellion died with its leader. The old governor then engaged in a temper tantrum of revenge that permanently soiled his reputation; he delighted in hanging his political adversaries and confiscating their property, thus creating a legacy of political bitterness that poisoned the colony's politics for a decade. At the beginning of 1677 the king recalled Berkeley to London, where he died that summer, a sad ending to a distinguished life.
This first full biography of Berkeley should be regarded as essential reading for any student interested in understanding seventeenth-century Virginia and the origins of American political culture. Warren M. Billings presents Berkeley's long and eventful life with skill and subtlety, highlights his achievements (which were many and enduring), and explains his failures (which were few but famous).
–reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Caroline Cox. A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xxii + 338 pp. $37.50 (hardcover).
The popular image of the officers and soldiers of the Continental army during the American Revolution is one of heroic, ordinary people who, fired with the cause of freedom, gallantly left their farms, businesses, and families to expel the British from the independent colonies. An assistant professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, Caroline Cox wondered if this popular image was true or the accumulation of memory clouded by oratory and time. What she found should not be a surprise. Combing pension records, memoirs, and letters, Cox paints a less-than-heroic picture of the army commanded by George Washington. She explores how the concept of class hierarchy persisted in Washington's army. Her research shows the disparities that existed in how officers and soldiers lived, ate, received medical treatment, and were buried. The binding force, Cox argues, was similar ideas about personal honor and the meaning of rank.
The organization of the Continental army reflected what the Continental Congress and the general population understood to be military organization. Officers were gentlemen, and all other soldiers were not. The Continental army was populated heavily with the working poor, for whom the enlistment bounty and promise of regular pay were strong inducements. Generally appointed by state legislatures, officers received commissions through influence, contacts, and recommendations. The soldiery, or common soldiers, were held in much lower esteem by the officers and the general population alike. To mold the army into an effective fighting force, Washington stressed the principle of honor. The army was bound by honor, a slippery and complex philosophy of personal behavior. Officers set the tone, and common soldiers were expected to emulate their superiors. Respect for rank, above and below, and receiving respect from one's peers, as well as from those above and below, were the keys to honor. Although bravery in battle was a measure of honor, battle was an uncommon occurrence during the Revolution. Daily conduct became an equally valuable measure of a man's honor. A soldier who bore himself in a "soldierly" manner was confident and received the respect of those around him. The threat of public corporal punishment for the soldiery reinforced the ideal of "correct" behavior to be pursued.
Cox writes that, generally, those who served in the Continental army did so voluntarily. Regardless of their reasons for being in the army, soldiers who were not officers were often viewed with contempt by the general population, based on colonial interaction with British troops. Cox demonstrates that the soldiery of the Continental army eventually coalesced into an effective fighting force that submitted to public military discipline and concepts of honor.
After the war the soldiery drifted back into peacetime occupations with little or no interest in forming veterans' associations, unlike officers, who quickly established the Society of the Cincinnati to acknowledge their contributions to the war effort and their comradeship. At the end of their service, officers received financial settlements based on their pay. Ordinary soldiers received land warrants and a little money. Not until 1818 did Congress recognize the role of the common soldier and award pensions. More than forty years after the Revolutionary War began, political oratory and public memory began to elevate the soldiery to a higher status than it had enjoyed during the war. Washington's army became an army of heroic ordinary citizens.
–reviewed by Barbara C. Batson, Exhibitions Coordinator
Melvin Patrick Ely. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. x + 640 pp. $35.00 (hardcover).
On February 18, 1796, Richard Randolph, a wealthy Cumberland County planter and member of the Virginia aristocracy, wrote his last will and testament. Although a brother of the future Virginia statesman John Randolph of Roanoke, who famously proclaimed, "I love liberty; I hate equality," Richard Randolph did not share the acerbic conservative's views, as his will clearly demonstrated. A unique, even startling, document that would have won high praise from Northern abolitionists, it featured at the outset a powerful denunciation of chattel slavery and a condemnation of his family's long involvement in the practice. Having unwillingly inherited slaves from his father, Randolph insisted that his children not ever own slaves or become involved with slavery in the "remotest degree." Convinced that the ideals of the American Revolution had been corrupted by those who engaged in and profited from slavery, he attempted to rectify the debt he felt he owed his slaves. He not only granted them their freedom, but also dispensed to them on emancipation a 400-acre tract of land on which they might start a new life. Randolph died several months later, but the execution of the will was delayed for years before his widow was finally able to realize his wishes, and about 1810 some ninety freed blacks started a settlement that they called Israel Hill.
Located just west of Farmville, Israel Hill bordered the scenic Appomattox River in northern Prince Edward County. During the era of Massive Resistance, the county became infamous for closing its public schools rather than submitting to integration; but in the 1800s, these free blacks participated to a surprising degree in the larger white society in what author Melvin Patrick Ely calls an "experiment in black freedom." The details exhumed by Ely were culled mostly from county court papers and, in a feat of imaginative scholarship, reconstructed in carefully nuanced prose that describes the intricate day-to-day social and personal interactions between blacks and whites. The free black world that the reader encounters is different from what one might expect; indeed, it is different from what Ely expected. Much of the book's richness is owed to his receptiveness to materials that modify our current understanding of antebellum race relations. To be sure, the edifice of Old South racism remains steadfastly intact, but the timbers beneath have shifted a little, revealing a range of black experience that extended beyond the restrictions prescribed by law and custom. Blacks at Israel Hill and neighboring whites worked alongside each other, earned the same wages, and even joined together to construct and attend the first Baptist church in Farmville. One black family accompanied a white family heading west to resettle. Blacks successfully sued whites in court and were often cleared of criminal charges by white juries, sometimes in sensational cases. Instances of sexual intimacy and even intermarriage were generally tolerated by the white community.
While the doctrine of white supremacy begat laws that sought to control slaves and freed people, those laws were applied unevenly on the local level. Given this "wiggle room," blacks more freely engaged in the everyday give and take of personal interaction, and whites were forced to take into account the ordinary human complexities of the black individual. In this social laboratory the humanity common to all persons was on display, and both races gained by it. While Israel Hill had its critics, the consensus of white neighbors was that the black township was made up of honest and decent folks.
However much whites openly embraced the racist orthodoxy of the Old South, in their everyday life many recognized the disparity between the prevailing public attitudes about blacks and the actual behavior and abilities of the individuals with whom they interacted. As Ely remarked in a recent interview, despite the malignancy of the slave system, the amicable relations between the residents of Israel Hill and their white neighbors were not an anomaly. Instances of cooperative dealings between the races are documented elsewhere in Virginia and the South. This seeming paradox should not be surprising. As one approaches the personal, human behavior becomes more complex and contradictory, and resists lucid analysis. For this reason, the divided human heart has long been the province of the literary artist, and any study of race relations in the American South could include, for instance, the works of William Faulkner, whose stories uncover the inherent ambiguities in human relations, where the mysterious forces of personality play to the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, regardless of race. In this important book, Melvin Ely draws closer to the personal, presenting an amazing cast of vividly drawn characters, black and white, that together made some small progress in the difficult and divided world of the antebellum South and realized to a greater extent than previously believed the goals of the American Revolution. Israel on the Appomattox is an indispensable addition to Virginia libraries.
–reviewed by Donald W. Gunter, Assistant Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Scot French. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. x + 379 pp. $26.00 (hardcover).
Late in August 1831, Nat Turner led a bloody slave insurrection in Southampton County, leaving death in its wake. By its end, fifty-five whites had died, and reaction to this threat resulted in the deaths of more than one hundred African Americans, many of them innocent of any involvement with Turner or his revolt. Since that time, Turner's image has echoed down through the years as one of the most controversial figures in American and African American history. Scot French's Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory examines Turner's place in memory and history.
Ever since Thomas R. Gray's Confessions of Nat Turner (reprinted in an appendix in this volume) appeared shortly after the subject's execution, the historical Turner has been lost to history and replaced by an icon used by both proponents and opponents of slavery in the years before the Civil War, by advocates for civil and racial rights during the 1960s, and by historians studying slavery and slaves' reactions to the institution. For many Southern whites, Turner became a bloodthirsty madman bent on death and destruction. But for many African Americans and white abolitionists, Turner emerged as a black freedom fighter determined to win liberty for his people.
French skillfully weaves together the various interpretations of Turner used by different factions, including the Virginia legislature, which debated whether to end slavery in the commonwealth, and runaway slaves, who appeared before crowds to encourage the support of abolition. French even details the controversy that swirled around the publication of William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner late in the 1960s. Styron and his supporters felt that this work presented a sympathetic portrait of Turner struggling with his conscience; however, Styron's detractors, including several African American authors and historians, believed that Styron merely perpetuated a stereotype of the black male.
French also discusses aborted attempts to turn Nat Turner's story into a motion picture. He discovers that controversy over Turner, as well as over Styron's novel, served as the major roadblock to such a project. French endeavors to discover what happened to Turner's body after his execution. He examines the legends concerning its disposal and attempts to determine the truth behind them. French's book is an interesting study on how Turner the man was lost to Turner the symbol, and how that symbol, used in many different ways, shaped views on African Americans, slavery, and the meaning of freedom.
–reviewed by Trenton E. Hizer, Senior Finding Aids Archivist
James I. Robertson Jr., ed. Soldier of Southwestern Virginia: The Civil War Letters of Captain John Preston Sheffey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. viii + 239 pp. $39.95 (hardcover).
Soldier of Southwestern Virginia is an excellent collection of letters written by Captain John Preston Sheffey to his wife, Josephine "Josie" Spiller Sheffey, during the Civil War. Readers will find this carefully annotated, soundly edited collection easy to read. Sheffey's letters are arranged chronologically and divided into nine chapters. Each begins with a short introduction that places his letters in their proper historical context and summarizes the chapter's content.
Editor James I. Robertson Jr. notes that Sheffey's "zeal for the Confederate cause is matched only by his unabashed quest for Josie's hand in marriage." The letters begin before Virginia's secession from the Union and include descriptions of Sheffey's attempts to organize the Smyth Dragoons and to convince Josie Spiller to marry him. Later letters record encounters with Union forces in Virginia's southwestern theater, describe Confederate camp life, including the wounded and sick, and portray Sheffey's frustrations with higher command and with Josie Spiller. The two married in 1863, and letters written to his wife reflect his concerns about the Confederacy's future. As the war marched toward its conclusion, the 8th Virginia Cavalry was called to defend the Shenandoah Valley. Sheffey was captured by Union troops near Moorefield, West Virginia, on August 7, 1864. He spent the next six months as a prisoner of war at Camp Chase, where he continuously wrote to his wife. Sheffey returned to Virginia, and Soldier of Southwestern Virginia ends with his letters to Josie describing their home in Marion, Virginia.
Southwestern Virginia's contribution to the Civil War is oftentimes overlooked, and Sheffey's firsthand accounts of military action in this little-discussed theater are refreshing and enlightening; several skirmishes not included in official Civil War histories are described. His letters reveal, too, the everyday concerns of a soldier and the nineteenth-century American interest in literature and poetry. Readers may find interest and amusement in Sheffey's opinions concerning Confederate generals and his attempts to woo Josie into marriage. Anyone interested in nineteenth-century Virginia and the Civil War will find Soldier of Southwestern Virginia an interesting and enjoyable read.
–reviewed by Cassandra Britt Farrell, Research Archivist
Diane Miller Sommerville. Rape & Race in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xiii + 411 pp. $59.95 (hardcover); $24.95 (softcover).
Novelists, journalists, historians, sociologists–and nearly everyone else–are well aware of that terrible time in the American South when African American men were the victims of lynch mobs. The low point occurred between the 1860s and the 1930s. A lynching might come in response to a political or economic act, a personal affront, or an accusation of the rape or attempted rape of a white woman. This image–the lynch mob murdering a black man suspected of raping a white woman–is such a powerful and persistent part of our historical memory and literature that people have not noticed that it was in fact a new phenomenon when the first waves of mob violence appeared very late in the nineteenth century.
Diane Miller Sommerville investigates how Southern courts, lawmakers, and citizens perceived and reacted to the crime of rape (of white women by white men, of white women by black men, of black women by white men, and of black women by black men) in order to understand why the lynching of black men accused of rape arose, and, even more important, why it had not been a notable phenomenon before the 1890s. The investigation reveals attitudes about race and about white people's class-consciousness in the nineteenth-century South and shows the many reasons and many ways in which those attitudes changed during the century. Not until late in the century did the myth of predatory African American men preoccupied with sexual exploitation of Southern white women become a part of American law and culture. That myth was powerfully durable during the twentieth century–so powerful and durable, in fact, that even good scholars have seen in the earlier periods of Southern history what they expected to see, but what was not really there–a pervasive white fear of black sexual assault.
Much of the evidence that Sommerville deploys to trace changing laws and legal practices, as well as to evaluate changing attitudes and behavior, comes from research in Virginia sources, giving this important reinterpretation of Southern history a strong Virginia flavor. It is also, therefore, a major reinterpretation of part of Virginia's history–one that is neglected only at the student's peril.
–reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614, published in John F. Blair's Real Voices, Real History Series (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2004. xviii + 253 pp. $11.95 [softcover]), collects excerpts from twenty primary sources related to England's attempt to establish a foothold in the New World. The readings feature accounts from the expected chroniclers–Captain John Smith, Ralph Hamor, George Percy, Henry Spelman, and William Strachey–but also include some less familiar selections, such as a scene from the 1605 play Eastward Hoe by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston, and a letter from the Spanish ambassador Pedro de Zuñiga. Editor Ed Southern has standardized seventeenth-century spelling and place names and modernized punctuation and sentence structure.
Wesley E. Pippenger's massive Index to Virginia Estates, 1800-1865 is an essential resource for genealogists and for those studying local history. The fifth volume (Richmond: Virginia Genealogical Society, 2004. xxiii + 546 pp. $40.00 [hardcover]) covers the counties of Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell, Charlotte, Halifax, and Pittsylvania and the City of Lynchburg and continues the heroic attempt to index all items recorded in city or county will books during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Organized alphabetically, each one-line entry includes the personal name, city or county, type of account (will, inventory, license, guardian or executor's bond, power of attorney, dower, sale, division), year, and source citation.
Between 1867 and 1894, the Commonwealth of Virginia provided artificial limbs and other benefits to the state's disabled Confederate veterans. The veterans' disability applications, digitized from microfilm, are available online from the Library of Virginia at http://www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/mil/. Ansley Herring Wegner provides a printed index for the Tar Heel State's applications in Phantom Pain: North Carolina's Artificial-Limb Program for Confederate Veterans (Raleigh: Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 2004. xi +261 pp. $15.00 [softcover]). An opening essay outlines the history of North Carolina's program and places it in the context of nineteenth-century medical history. Each entry in the finding aid lists the name of the claimant, his county of residence, the Confederate unit he served in, the date of application, the artificial limb or limbs required, and the location of the record.
Writing Biography: Historians and Their Craft (ed. Lloyd E. Ambrosius. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. xiii + 166 pp. $45.00 [hardcover]) grew out of a 2000 symposium at the University of Nebraska entitled "Biography and Historical Analysis." The six collected essays address problems that all those attempting to tell lives must answer, such as how biographical studies relate to other forms of historical writing. Of special interest to Virginians are the essays by Shirley A. Leckie, who considers among other works Louis R. Harlan's two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington (1972 and 1983), and by John Milton Cooper Jr., who discusses the strategies he used in writing The Warrior and the Priest (1983), a comparative biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
–bookend notes prepared by Sara B. Bearss
Sara B. Bearss is senior editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, published by the Library of Virginia.