Defend the Valley: A Shenandoah Family in the Civil War

Article excerpt

Defend the Valley: A Shenandoah Family in the Civil War. By MARGARETTA BARTON COLT. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1994. xx, 441 pp. $35.00.

Defend the Valley presents the Civil War as a local affair experienced by one southern family. The sons of the Barton and Jones family fought to defend the Valley, some in Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's legendary brigade. The women and men who loved them wanted them to fight but also worried about their safety while struggling to maintain as normal a life as possible in an area that often changed hands as the result of military action.

Margaretta Barton Colt, a direct descendant of this slaveholding family, compiles this story of military and family life from surviving letters, diaries, and memoirs. Mostly, she lets eyewitnesses speak for themselves by reproducing the documents in whole or in part. An introduction and other commentary weave a narrative around the documents. The result is an interesting, but problematic, work. The book is organized chronologically and mostly concentrates on the war years.

Opening and closing chapters consider the period immediately before the outbreak of hostilities and following the return of peace. Unfortunately, the opening chapter relies heavily on long excerpts from two memoirs begun forty years after the war ended and thus serves more as a retrospect on the Old South than a prefiguration of the impending war. Colt never reveals her criteria for selecting documents for inclusion, nor does she explain the extent to which the edited material has been altered. Colt's extensive commentary earns her the designation of author rather than compiler, but her explication of life in the Valley is the least satisfactory aspect of this work. She appears unfamiliar with scholarship on the social history of the Civil War, and in fact her bibliography is limited almost exclusively to volumes concerning military matters. Colt maintains that the people of the Shenandoah Valley were principled men fighting for "states' rights" and "certainly not . …