Campaign and Battle of Lynchburg, Virginia

[box]by Charles M. Blackford
Warwick House Publishing, Lynchburg, Reprint 1994
Reviewed by Len Riedel, Executive Director, BGES
Danville, Virginia
January 25, 2012[/box]

Charles M. Blackford was a distinguished citizen of Lynchburg who served in the Army of Northern Virginia; however, he did not participate in the battle or campaign of Lynchburg. A highly regarded speaker he delivered a speech in Lynchburg to a United Confederate Veterans Camp on July 18, 1901. This speech was published in Volume 30 of the Southern Historical Society Papers (SHSP) in 1902. In 1994, Mr. Peter Houck dusted off the talk and annotated it to present a modern text for people to use in this frequently overlooked campaign. It has been locally published and is not widely available.

I picked up this book on a visit to Lynchburg and determined to learn more about the Civil War in and around this city because my daughter had determined to go to school in that historic town. This book is not the definitive work on the campaign and is certainly lacking in many features that would make it useful. Indeed with a little effort one may get the gist of the book by going to the printing of the talk in the SHSP. Sadly, while Mr. Houck took on the thankless task of editing this work, his contributions are of mixed value and do not measurably aid in the understanding of the campaign, battle or legacies of the event. This does not suggest that the book is without value—it merely says that if one is to take on the responsibility for editing such a work it comes with significant expectations and those have not been met.

Having said this what parts of this book work? First, the campaign which peaks at Lynchburg has many interesting and important features which should be placed in context. General Hunter’s operation from Staunton, Virginia is tied to the battle of Piedmont, Trevilian Station and the battle at Lynchburg. I think the activities of Hunter in that two week period have not been studied nor are they understood. But we do get enough of a teaser from his report that we know he is not a very likeable character. Blackford does put events in general context and gives enough detail to satisfy people, like me, who want to go find out a bit more.

Blackford spoke for the purposes of honoring his neighbors and raising community pride in the stirring events that affected so many of them just 37 years in the past. Present at his talk were many veterans of the Civil War including those who had been present. So why Lynchburg? Why 1864?

Lynchburg was a key link within the Virginia rail system which led to Eastern Tennessee and the inner part of the Confederacy. With links to the Virginia Central, the Southside Railroad and the Orange and Alexandria, Lynchburg was a secure long term recovery area for the wounded and a stockpile area for food and materials sustaining southern soldiers. When General Grant assumed command of the Union armies his strategy called for cutting sources of succor for the south. The initial expedition under the command of General Franz Siegel ended in Union humiliation at the battle of New Market. Hunter replaced Siegel and pushed up the valley within three weeks after New Market. Now in early June 1864, Hunter was poised to cut the Virginia Central Railroad and interdict the lines of supply along the Kanawha Canal, James River and on the railroads.

What we learn from Blackford is that Hunter mismanaged the movement, a judgment that I already knew. What I didn’t know was how Hunter approached the city and what instructions he issued to his subordinate commanders. For example there was a move against the Tye River Bridge and Concord Station during a raid that failed. I also benefitted from his very personal relation of the positioning of the defending forces and the federals. I believe using his talk that it is possible to find significant landmarks and mark the battle. Indeed I will plan to offer a tour of the campaign as the director’s annual tour in 2014. I think connecting the dots is not only essential but now possible. When you go to Lynchburg many landmarks are marked by Virginia Historic Markers and other geographic locations such as Diamond Hill and the Lexington Pike (Rivermont Avenue) are the same today as then. Hunter’s main body moves to Lynchburg via the Peaks of Otter—another well known mountain pass.

Blackford also brought us many men and women whose names would have been lost to history. The devotion and response of the Home Guard and invalids under the temporary command of Major General Breckinridge soon to be replaced by Brigadier General Vaughan (who biography has been written by BGES member Charles Gordon). The reactions of the people, including his wife, who wrote to him helped him paint the presentation which is herein presented. That makes the book worth reading.

While I have been critical of Houck for his efforts and shortcomings, what he has done well is present scores of sidebar tidbits of information that enrich Blackford’s larger narrative. Although initially irritating in the layout—a page of text followed by a facing page of sidebar was disruptive. Yet as the 40ish page talk is presented the sidebars are relevant and once I reached a proper break point in Blackford’s presentation I was happy and indeed looking forward to reading the sidebar supporting that section of the talk. For that I salute Houck’s efforts.

Still the lost opportunity of this monograph is what wasn’t done. Aside from the failure to provide proper context, Blackford was so rich in his description I was sure that Houck would present a very cogent and meaningful historical tour—instead he gave us the standard monuments and houses tour. Just a little effort could have built a driving tour that incorporated the battles of Piedmont and Trevilian Station and some fascinating drives along the Federal routes of approach. Then within the city this relatively simple engagement could have been developed into a tour followed by the federal withdrawal. That is something I would like to have seen.

The Battle of Lynchburg is not significant and is not so much a Confederate victory as a Federal bug out. Much has been made of Jubal Early’s role but he really doesn’t play one. So why even care? Well we need to listen to the voices of the past and as Blackford sums up his talk several pull quotes tell us volumes about the people, places and times.

A remarkable incident happened in connection with the depredation of Hunter’s troops at Lexington. When the Corps of Cadets was ordered to leave the institution on the approach of Hunter, they deposited their trunks in the residences of neighboring gentlemen for safe keeping.

Young Mr. Carter H. Harrison, of Staunton, was then a cadet, and, with several others, put his trunk at Professor Campbell’s to save it. When the battle was over at Lynchburg and Hunter was gone, the cadets were not put in the chasing column, but were relieved from further active duty. Mr. Harrison with others of the corps, went to the battlefield, and during the inspection visited the field hospital where the wounded of the enemy were being cared for by our surgeons. He noticed one man who was badly wounded in the leg and whose pantaloons were ripped up that the surgeon might more easily dress the wound. As Harrison looked at the soldier he observed his own initials on his socks, and upon further investigation discovered that all the man’s underclothes were similarly marked and all belonged to him, and were part of those he had left in his trunk at Professor Campbell’s.

The man confessed that they had looted Professor Campbell’s house, and that the underwear was part of the booty.

Aside from the rich detail of the story as a former cadet of the VMI, I recall that in the seventies when I was there we too had our laundry numbers and initials on our underwear and other clothes—some things never change.

A second quote:

It is not our duty to weep over the past or to bemoan the fate which resulted in the final overthrow of the Confederacy; nor should we do anything to keep alive the bitterness of that strife. On the contrary, it is our duty to bow to the logic of what happened and to believe in the wisdom of the all-wise director of the affairs of nations and of peoples; but, it is also our duty to see to it that what is great and good be preserved, and that our children and children’s children keep green the traditions which will nerve them to higher courage and stimulate them to a generous emulation of the deeds of their forefathers.

This benediction tells us that the focus of the society was to honor the character of the men who suffered and died for their children’s future. He was speaking to veterans of that war and telling them to hold their heads high and walk proudly. They were the best of a great generation and now they had to pass the torch with honor. Of course by then, separate but equal was returning balance to the disrupted society. It was still a white male society with a legacy of white pride. This is not a values judgment but rather an unemotional peak back at a time in history. Douglas Southall Freeman had yet to write his first tome but southern identity was being shaped by the nature of the public presentations given in explanation of the events of the past. All were heroes—military and civilians.

I can’t tell you to run out and buy this book—it frankly isn’t very strong. There are other mediocre publications about Lynchburg that are better than this. Yet the book is not devoid of value and at $15 is not a waste of money. If you read it you will be better for it; but, you aren’t missing anything if you don’t.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.