The Sacred Soil
The sacred soil of Virginia, in which repose the ashes of so
many of the illustrious patriots who gave independence to their
country, has been desecrated by the hostile tread of an armed enemy,
who proclaims his malignant hatred of Virginia because she will not
bow her proud neck to the humiliating yoke of Yankee rule.
-Richmond Enquirer, May 25, 1861
On April 17, 1861, a special convention of Virginians voted on a resolution about whether their state should secede. The mood in the chamber was emotional and caustic. The final tally was far from overwhelming for either side. Of the 143 delegates present that day, only 88 accepted secession-62.5 percent. The opposition, many from the western counties of the state, remained adamantly opposed. The convention's leaders concluded it would be prudent to involve the state's citizenry in such a critical matter. They decided on a popular referendum, to take place five weeks later. On May 23, 1861, Virginia's voters lined up at polling places; a majority agreed that their state must secede.
Late that night a Federal army crossed the Potomac from the District of Columbia. Before the sun rose on May 24, Arlington, Virginia-part of "the sacred soil"-was controlled by Lincoln's troops. When, a few hours later, Federal soldiers arrived in Alexandria, five miles downriver, a battalion of Virginia militiamen began to slip out of town. Moving nervously through the morning's shadows, they eluded the Union troops and marched quickly out along the railroad tracks. On most mornings a train made a regular run westward from Alexandria. On this day it was halted before it even reached town, and the battalion clambered aboard its flatcars. Some citizens, roused by the morning's events, were on hand to watch them leave, and a few civilians, frightened by the unknown, joined the troops on the train. A Virginia soldier noted that many of these citizens were prosperous gentlemen who were leaving behind full warehouses or well-stocked shops or barns packed with grain. In their misguided dementia, or at least their impulsiveness, they were fleeing without thought of their unprotected families still at home.
As the train chugged away, its civilian passengers, peering back toward Alexandria, spontaneously began to sing an old hymn. The soldiers joined in. One of them would recall: "It was madness, it is true, but yet a transcendent madness, in which greed, envy, and malice had no part, and so these elderly fellows-deacons, vestrymen, and communicants-sat in the crowded flats, and as their homes, their families, and their fortunes were left behind, they joined in the jubilant chorus, 'We'll be gay and happy still.'" The train shuddered westward.
Late that morning, the locomotive arrived at the tiny depot, Manassas Junction. The battalion alighted, wondering: Would Lincoln's army follow them?1
During that day and the next, as Southerners became aware of the "invasion" of northern Virginia, their reaction bordered on hysteria. Their newspapers expressed shock and rage. Their correspondents rifled their memory banks for appropriate terms. Part of this ranting reflected genuine hatred, part was simple literary tap dancing, the kind of riff journalists in 1861 played when they had the spotlight and could indicate, among other things, how well educated they were, sprinkling their paragraphs with multiple allusions drawn from ancient history and the Bible. Union troops, they said, were rapists: "The monsters have been hunting married females from house to house, for the gratification of their brutal lusts." They were urban scum: "thieves, pickpockets, loafers, and scoundrels," or "greasy mudsills," or "swinish groundlings," or "lewd fellows of the baser sort," or "barefoot, dirty and degraded." They were depicted as mindless savages: as "minions," "brutes," "barbarians," "hordes," "myrmidons," and "diabolical fiends." As money-grubbing thugs: "mercenaries," "hirelings," "pirates," "Vandals," "plunderers," and "Hessians." Southern reporters linked the "invasion" to abolitionism and "Black Republicans," and especially to "the despot" Lincoln: "that Baboon in the White House," "that wicked tyrant," "that corrupt and arrogant creature in power." And so on.
These Union murderers had just defiled Virginia-and they seemed certain to be thrusting soon toward Richmond.
Several weeks earlier, on April 27, 1861, the leaders of Virginia had written Jefferson Davis that they would welcome becoming the home of the Confederate capital. Davis and his colleagues were receptive. The benefits of moving from Montgomery, Alabama-the Confederacy's temporary capital-were many. Montgomery was a small city and something of an eyesore. Besides, summer was approaching and central Alabama was likely to be stifling. On the other hand, transferring the Confederate capital to Richmond had certain drawbacks. Ever since the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Union troops had been pouring into Washington, only 123 miles away. The land between the two cities would almost certainly become bloody. But the advantages were also manifest. Among other things, the transfer would cement the Upper South to the Deep South.
On May 20, the Confederate congress voted to relocate to Richmond and agreed to reconvene there two months later, on July 20. Jefferson Davis began his own move to Virginia within a week, along with a thousand civil servants. Before his departure, Davis's wife, Varina, had lunch in Montgomery with Mary Chesnut, the wife of James Chesnut, one of South Carolina's most prominent politicians. The two women were intelligent, strong willed, charming, and clever. Over their meal, they shared with each other their relief about the transfer. The hotels here, they agreed, were ghastly. So was the food. But Mary mentioned that her husband was opposed to the move because he considered Montgomery more central. Varina Davis shrugged off that concern. "The Yankees will make it hot for us," she said, "go where we will. And if war comes..."
Mary Chesnut interrupted, "And it has come?"
"Yes," Mrs. Davis replied, and peered around the dining room. "I fancy these dainty folks may live to regret the fare of the Montgomery hotels, even."
"Never," snorted Mary Chesnut.2
Jefferson Davis was a person with many fine qualities. Of middle height, he seemed taller because he was slender and held himself stiffly erect. An intelligent man, he had read broadly and deeply. He had few bad habits. He drank little, worked hard, and always strived to be at his best. He was proud and stubborn. He would need these qualities to hold together his new "country," based as it was on the concept of states' rights. His weaknesses were not immediately evident. He was not blessed with wit or humor or empathy for others, and he could be a devout hater of anyone who provoked him. He himself admitted it. "I have an infirmity of which I am heartily ashamed," he said. "When I am aroused in a matter, I lose control of my feelings and become personal." Perhaps his efforts to rein in his emotions made him suffer an extraordinary menu of ailments that tortured him with long bouts of pain, aching joints, and intestinal problems. He drove himself hard, striving to work through the searing headaches and the dizziness. Sometimes he succeeded, other times they laid him low. His most troublesome illness was trigeminal neuralgia, sometimes called tic douloureux, a disorder of the fifth cranial nerve. The condition may have resulted from a bout of shingles (an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus-essentially a recurrence of childhood chicken pox). Shingles can lead to postherpetic neuralgia, a nasty and painful reaction, and when PHN attacks the trigeminal nerve, the resulting agonies can be excruciating, and those suffering from it often commit suicide. (D...