Alexandria Goes to War: Beyond Robert E. Lee

By Dubbs, Carol Kettenburg | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Alexandria Goes to War: Beyond Robert E. Lee


Dubbs, Carol Kettenburg, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Alexandria Goes to War: Beyond Robert E. Lee * George G. Kundahl * Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004 * xvi, 388 pp. * $45.00

The title of George G. Kundahl's Alexandria Goes to War: Beyond Robert E. Lee suggests a volume focusing on that northern Virginia community during the Civil War. Except for a brief introductory history of Alexandria, however, only one chapter, based on the diary of Anne Frobel, relates local events from 1861 through 1865. Perhaps that is because "Anne's notations are the only extant recitation of this period in Alexandria's history from a personal perspective" (p. 256), according to the author. Instead, Kundahl chooses sixteen Alexandrians, including Frobel, the only woman, and presents a chapter-long biography of each with an emphasis on his or her wartime activities.

The chapter on Robert E. Lee is atypical of the book, as it passes over his wellknown war record and recounts instead his close association with the city he called home from the age of three until his entry into West Point. His marriage to Mary Custis brought him back to Alexandria during leaves to reside at her nearby estate, Arlington. Lee, while agonizing over whether to support the North or the South, represented Alexandria's strong Unionist sentiment, at least until Virginia seceded. He happened to be in town at that crucial juncture when he made his decision. Little sympathy for the North could be found in the city after 24 May 1861, when Federal troops marched in to begin an occupation that would last the entire war.

Most chapters in this book concentrate on more obscure characters. Few are subjects of full-length biographies, not even the top-ranked southern general and confidant of Jefferson Davis, Samuel Cooper, whose home on the outskirts of Alexandria was destroyed during the war. Therein lies this book's principal interest and value. Though not as famous as Lee, many of these men made noteworthy contributions to the southern war effort, and their lives often illuminate neglected facets of the war. French Forrest, for example, a distinguished career naval officer and Cooper's neighbor near Alexandria, commanded the Norfolk Navy Yard while the Merrimack was being converted into the CSS Virginia.

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