Virginians at War: The Civil War Experience of Seven Young Confederates. By John G. Selby.  Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2002.

As part of The American Crisis Series: Books on the Civil War, professor of history at Roanoke College, John Selby offers another contribution to this series and to our understanding of the Civil War by investigating the lives of seven individuals and their respective thoughts and participation during and after this monumental conflict.  Originally, Selby set out to write a monograph that examines the lives of various individuals – confederate and unionists, men and women, white and black – to determine the impact of the Civil War upon them and their memory.  His scope proved far too broad, and he eventually chose to concentrate on seven young Virginia confederates, three females and four males.  By way of their diaries, letters and memoirs, Selby investigates the lives of Henry Robinson Berkeley, Lucy Buck, Susan Caldwell, Amanda Virginia “Tee” Edmonds, Alexander “Fred” Fleet, William T. Poague and John H. Worsham and determines that these individuals shared similar backgrounds and economic and social status.  Furthermore, he finds that while these people witnessed the alteration of their “world”, the fundamental elements that defined their character remained the same after the conflict ended.

In addition to examining the lives of these seven Confederates, the author uses their words to reconstruct events that took place in Virginia throughout the entirety of the war.  Selby’s work begins with the Virginia secession movement and continues through the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, followed by brief chapters on the individuals’ memory and impact of the War.  Allowing his subjects the opportunity to reconstruct these events, rather than detailing particular battles year by year, he presents another avenue to understand this crisis.   William T. Poague, for instance, served at the dramatic Battle of the Wilderness, but rather than expounding upon this event, he only comments on the slowness of the artillery.  Fred Fleet also leaves out dramatic information about his time in battle, choosing instead to focus on the monotony of trench warfare.  Sources left behind by these men provide scholars with another interpretation of the events taking place, and Selby succeeds at weaving their personal stories into a work that presents insight and thoughtful analysis.

Selby’s inclusion of women into his story allows another viewpoint that illustrates the experience of those on the home front.  The author clearly demonstrates the thoughts and attitudes of three young Virginia women and their experiences and excitement before, during and after the war.  Within their diaries and letters, one can see their seamless transition from discussing the war effort and hated Yankees to love interests and concerns over marriage proposals.  Their lucid accounts reveal their concerns regarding certain gender roles and expectation but also concern for their families, homes and country.  The final portion of the book focuses on the aftermath of the Civil War and its impact upon these seven individuals.  Selby ultimately finds that these subjects emerged from the war relatively unscathed as they were shaped by character not circumstance.  After the conflict, they all retained the same personality traits that they harbored before the confrontation.  Of course, the war did force this group to mature and face new responsibilities and challenges, but the nature of their being stayed the same. 

Virginians at War sets out to examine the war effort through a group of ordinary soldiers and civilians.  Rather than focusing on the conflict from the standpoint of famous battles and generals, the author accomplishes his goal of analyzing the Civil War by way of seven Confederate Virginians and their individual experiences.  Overall, Selby’s work remains clear, concise and consistently follows his intended goals.  Yet, the author’s primary objective centers on their stories and determining several consistent themes—continuity, character and circumstance.  While he accomplishes this feat, his methods for determining these conclusions, at time, becomes confusing.  By arranging his text chronologically and citing additional subjects, the author, at times, leaves the reader confused as to whom he is really examining.  Despite this criticism, Selby’s contribution sheds light on the experience of seven individuals that will surely give further understanding to the Civil War as a whole, but also to the general population during this period.

Amber Surmiller                                                                                                               Texas Christian University



Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates.  By John G. Selby.  Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2002.


            John G. Selby began the book Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates with a question in mind, “What did the Civil War mean to those who fought it?”  This led him to ask three more in depth questions: “Why did people fight?  What kept them fighting?  And after the war, what meaning did people find in their experiences?” (xvii)  When deciding how to answer these questions he began looking for something with a greater scope than a biography and he chose not to write a unit history because he wanted to study both women and men.  Still he wanted a small-group focus and determined to study people from a single state, deciding on Virginia he limited his study to this state with the most citizens among Southern states, the most men under arms, most famous generals, and a considerable number of other “mosts.”   Selby then narrowed the group down to seven young white Confederates.


            What emerges from the study of these seven individuals is a picture of a generation struggling to survive the greatest crisis in American history.  While only a few actually wanted war, all seven of these individuals supported the war after their state seceded from the Union and remained supporters of their new country until its defeat.  Selby studies two officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, William T. Poague and Alexander “Fred” Fleet, two soldiers, John H. Worsham and Henry “Robin” Berkeley, and three women, Amanda “Tee” Edmonds, Lucy Buck, and Susan Caldwell.  Selby maintains that these women were as much Confederate nationalists as the men who were fighting.  Tee Edmonds represents the stereotypical Southern belle, so consumed with matters of the heart that she did not concern herself with affairs of state.  Lucy Buck, only eighteen when war broke out, proved more reflective than Edmonds.  Selby included Susan Caldwell in the study because she was a young mother who struggled to survive while her husband fought in the war for four years.  The men represent different military rank and different regions of Virginia.  William Poague was promoted through the ranks of artillery officers from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel.  Alexander Fleet who enlisted as first sergeant of the Jackson Grays saw action defending Petersburg in 1864.  John Worsham fought in many of the major battles on Virginia soil but concluded his service with a wound at the Battle of Winchester in September 1864.  Henry Berkeley remained at the rank of private throughout the war in the Hanover Artillery and saw little action until the last year which still provided him with experience enough to last a lifetime.


            With each individual their responses to the hardships they faced were shaped more by their characters than by their circumstances.  Their character remained fairly constant even through the circumstances they endured, demonstrating that what they carried into the war they carried throughout and even after the war.  All of these individuals also remained faithful to the cause of Southern independence until final defeat.  This faith was sustained through a belief in the righteousness of their cause, a desire to protect their homes, communities, and comrades in arms, along with a strong belief in God and His will.


            This book by John G. Selby provides a vast insight into the turmoil that surrounded the Civil War generation through the study of seven individuals.  The use of Virginians shows the experiences of those constantly at the center of the war since the state provided the land for many battles in the Eastern Theater.  Selby does a great job chronicling the experiences of not only the soldiers but also the women that they left behind.  He makes it clear that the turmoil of this time did not simply affect the men, but rather an entire generation.  Notably he shows that men were not the only ones caught up in Confederate nationalism, but rather that many of the women were just as devoted to Southern independence.  Most important it is clear that although the war changed their lives, it did not change the person as their tested character remained the same.


Leah D. Parker