Peter S. Carmichael. The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. xiv + 343 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2948-6.
Reviewed by Robert Tinkler (Department of History, California State University, Chico)
Published on H-South (June, 2006)
Civil War Virginia's Young Turks
The Last Generation examines the final cohort of white male Virginians to come of age before the demise of slavery. Its author, Peter Carmichael, should be congratulated for offering fresh insights and interpretations that will engage southern and Civil War historians for some time to come.
The author of two previous books on Civil War topics, Carmichael here studies Virginia men of a particular generation, defined as those born between 1831 and 1843 (or between 1830 and 1842; compare pp. 2 and 6). He uses a sample of 121 men who left letters, diaries, pamphlets, and other literary evidence detailing their personal hopes and frustrations as well as their political and social beliefs. Not surprisingly, these literate Virginians came largely from the slaveholding class and most were college educated, the vast majority alumni of the University of Virginia. So this is a particular segment of the Old Dominion's "last generation" before the Civil War--not only white and male, but also relatively privileged. (References in this review to "young Virginians" and the "last generation" reflect Carmichael's use of those terms to refer to this particular group.)
While recognizing some diversity within this cohort, Carmichael emphasizes a remarkable unity among them. In brief, he argues that these young Virginians came of age in the politically turbulent and economically uncertain 1850s, strongly supported secession, served the Confederacy patriotically as second-echelon officers in the Army of Northern Virginia, and rather easily--despite their fierce wartime Confederate loyalty--accepted postwar reunion with their former Yankee foes during Reconstruction. Throughout the period under study, roughly 1850 to 1870, the last generation held to and acted upon a core set of consistent values. Most importantly, they embraced Whiggish, bourgeois values as a way to restore Virginia to greatness and, not coincidentally, to allow for the realization of their personal ambitions.
Full of rich insights, The Last Generation does exhibit a systemic problem, one that Carmichael acknowledges (p. 8). In creating a generational profile, he tends to smooth over differences among individuals and occasionally makes broad generalizations that seem inadequately supported by the evidence presented. Did, in fact, the last generation "unanimously" support secession (p. 146)? (Certainly not.) Is it true that all "[o]lder people considered ambition a rallying cry for a youthful insurgency that promoted individual action at the expense of social cohesion" (p. 67)? (Highly doubtful.) As long as one does not take such statements of unanimity too literally, one can appreciate Carmichael's larger points.
This well-organized book proceeds both chronologically and thematically. After exploring in chapter 1 the last generation's kind of progressivism (one uncritical of slaveholding), Carmichael next examines young Virginians' fears that their state had lost its regional and national leadership during the 1830s and 1840s through the indolence of their fathers. Virginia's decline meant fewer opportunities for their own generation--with farms harder to obtain, and professions bloated with too many practitioners. Only economic development in the form of railroads, telegraph lines, canals, and so forth could create the opportunity society they sought. Carmichael sees in young Virginians' literary artifacts the articulation of a central generational conflict: ambitious youth who sought personal and state advancement versus "old fogies" (p. 22) who opposed bourgeois notions of progress.
In criticizing "old fogyism" (p. 38), the last generation, Carmichael argues in chapter 3, rejected the cavalier image so identified with the Virginia gentry. Or, more accurately, young Virginians sought to recapture what they considered the original meaning of the cavalier: a Christian gentleman who valued discipline, education, duty, and moral purity--all good bourgeois values that checked the potential for unrestrained ambition--rather than leisure and conspicuous consumption of wealth.
Becoming a Christian gentleman in the 1850s involved, Carmichael maintains, a "softening of Southern manliness" as young men incorporated Protestant values more consciously into their gender identification (p. 73). Two points about this development deserve greater attention. First, what explains the timing of this "softening"? Second, which Protestant values did these Virginians embrace? Were they evangelical, as implied by the example of Lancelot Blackford (pp. 75-78), or more in keeping with the different sensibility of mainstream Episcopalianism? (60 percent of those in his sample whose religious affiliation could be identified belonged to the Episcopal Church; far smaller proportions worshiped in evangelical Baptist or Methodist churches.) Further, how did these Protestant values relate to what appears to be a sort of late-blooming southern Transcendentalism described in chapter 4? As he asserts when discussing the popularity of mountaintop tramps to view the sunrise, the beliefs of the last generation "verged on pantheism" (p. 92). So might their values have had a touch of Emerson about them? Here Carmichael's smoothing over of differences proves problematic.
Chapters 4 and 5 consider questions of nationalism and secession. Although Unionists in the early 1850s, these young men identified with Southern Rights by decade's end--but not because they were fire-eaters convinced by Calhounite sermons about the dangers of free labor. Instead, Carmichael makes the intriguing argument that, with a primary allegiance to Virginia, the last generation believed the only way to preserve their state's distinctiveness and reassert its leadership lay in identification with southern political interests as they came under increasing assault by northerners and Republicans. Hence they fervently supported secession--in the face of their elders' more Unionist stance during the winter of 1860-61. Carmichael's treatment of the creation of the last generation's pro-secession position is generally well supported, although marred by an editorial slip suggesting Lincoln assumed the presidency by February 1861 (p. 146).
Once the war began and their state seceded, the last generation's members enthusiastically donned Confederate gray. As Carmichael persuasively argues with sensitive attention to the sources in chapter 6, young Virginians--mainly captains and lieutenants--served a crucial function as negotiators between nonslaveholding enlisted men and the Confederacy's higher-ranking officers and political leaders. By allowing officially unauthorized leaves and otherwise appeasing the common soldier, second-echelon officers helped secure his loyalty to the Confederate cause.
The final chapter asserts the willingness of this now middle-aged group to reunite with old enemies after the war because Yankees shared their enthusiasm for economic development and agreed to allow home rule. Carmichael's provocative analysis of the reunion process suffers from an admitted "paucity of first-hand documentation from the last generation" (p. 217); it is difficult then to find this section wholly convincing. The lack of evidence regarding how much influence his subjects wielded in Reconstruction Virginia--Carmichael doesn't say how many served in key state posts, for instance--disappoints.
One overarching comment: the book should provide more of a critical assessment of the last generation's arguments. Perhaps that is an unfair critique, a complaint about a book Carmichael did not set out to write. Moreover, we should be grateful for the author's very great service of uncovering the world of these privileged young Virginians. Still, Carmichael might have discussed the reasonableness of their positions, in part to clarify where their views end and his begin. For example, were members of the last generation justified in decrying the "old fogies" as lacking in ambition and opposing "progress"? The reality was not what the heated rhetoric of young Virginians suggested. The state boasted penultimate-generation Whigs, particularly in Richmond, Petersburg and other urban areas, supportive of "bourgeois" ideals. Older planters, too, often advocated the kinds of changes young Virginians pushed. Historians including James Oakes and Stephen Berry have persuasively argued that economic ambition was part and parcel of being a member of the southern elite. Berry, for instance, reminds us of older southerners such as Georgian Thomas Butler King who embodied truly imperial ambitions. Carmichael does note that Virginia's "market revolution" of the 1850s resulted in new "mining, railroads, light industry, and small businesses" (p. 20), but he does not critically contrast that fact with the last generation's economic perceptions. The only exception occurs in a photograph's caption on p. 40.
Despite the few criticisms noted above, this is an important, insightful book. It does what a good work of Civil War history should do: it shines new light on an oft-studied period so that we see it in a new way, thus opening up new avenues of thought and potential research.
. From p. 146: "[B]y February  the last generation was unanimously and vocally in favor of secession. This consensus arose because of specific political acts committed by the Republican administration." The Republican administration did not take office until March 4, 1861. A similar perhaps nit-picking point: the book says the Spanish-American War occurred in 1895 rather than 1898 (p. 232).
. James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982); and Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990); Stephen W. Berry II, All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
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Robert Tinkler. Review of Carmichael, Peter S., The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion.
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