This week I am going to offer a short series of posts on a handful of prominent Confederates whose life stories I find engaging. I’ll explain why that is so as well. All of the subjects made a name for themselves in Virginia. I’m not sure why that is, but while I find several of the Union commanders in both East and West interesting figures of study, the same does not hold true for the Confederates. In some cases I find their non-military careers as interesting as their military service in gray.
I was exposed to several second- and third- tier Confederates at close range when I worked in the archives at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate. My job was to organize collections (or reorganize them) and to prepare a user’s guide for the collection. Among the collections I processed were those of James L. Kemper and John W. Daniel. A prewar lawyer and politician who became speaker of the Virginia House in 1861, Kemper served as a brigade commander with the Army of Northern Virginia and led one of George Pickett’s three brigades forward at Gettysburg, where, although badly wounded, he was the only brigade commander to survive. The collection included rather graphic letters about Kemper’s wartime service, including some blood stains from the Gettysburg wound. After the war Kemper became involved in Reconstruction politics, becoming governor in 1874; during his term in office there was talk that if Ulysses S. Grant ran for a third term, Kemper might join him as a running mate. That would have been interesting (and it was not simply an idle proposal, as I learned).
Daniel was in many ways my firsthand introduction to the internal warfare among Confederates as to what happened during the war. I came to his collection on the heels of reading Tom Connelly’s The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977), a book that does not always get its due in the recounting of the origins of memory studies, although its place in Lee historiography is more secure. Although Daniel had a prominent postwar career in Virginia politics, as a young staff officer he watched as Jubal Early and John B. Gordon fought each other as well as the Yankees, and in Daniel’s papers there is a wealth of material looking to set the record straight about such battles as Cedar Creek (which was curious, for Daniel’s service on Early’s staff ceased when he went down with a wound at the Wilderness). After the war Daniel went into politics, eventually serving as United States senator, but he never forgot his Confederate service.
To work with the papers of both men was quite an opportunity. Since I was charged with organizing them and describing their contents, I wanted to make sure I did a through job of examining the collections, as you might well imagine. Doubtless I also found somewhat reassuring the notion that while Virginia’s Confederates were dedicated to restoring the old order, they seemed to lack the vicious edge one sometimes encountered elsewhere, although perhaps that was due in part to the relatively smooth path Virginia followed to redemption. All in all, it was an interesting introduction to Confederate history firsthand in a town better known for its association with Mr. Jefferson.
Whenever I start to question my decision to work in history, I think of the fascinating things I’ve found in archives. It wasn’t on the order of a general’s bloodstained correspondence, but one of the highlights for me was finding a copy of a letter in a provost marshal general’s records written by a 15-year old boy to his mother, explaining how he had been drugged and enlisted by two men pretending to be drinking buddies, and mom’s efforts to get him released.