Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Difficult Times, 1861-1892

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Difficult Times, 1861-1892

Article excerpt

In these days of materialism, when so much is thought about laying up treasure, is it not more important than ever that we should start the Virginia Historical Society again in its career of usefulness, and reinstate it in the place of dignity?

William A. Maury

The Civil War is considered by most historians-indeed by many Americans-as the defining moment in the nation's history. The defeat of secession conclusively discredited the notions of John C. Calhoun and others that states had created the Union and could leave whenever they chose. The war ended more than two centuries of slavery for African Americans, but the reconstruction following 1865 led to the institutionalization of a racism that is not yet fully eradicated. The war ended disputes about the supremacy of the federal government over the states, the course of economic development that would be followed, and the type of nation the United States would be.

"The War" put its stamp on the defeated states of the Confederacy and accentuated their regional identity. The South, with its distinctive set of characteristics, has since been the subject of scholarly and lay studies, such as Wilbur J. Cash's classic, The Mind of the South (1941). The Lost Cause remains alive to those born a century or more after the war, including groups that still mount a round-the-clock guard of honor at the statue of Robert E. Lee on Richmond's Monument Avenue on the anniversary of his birth.

The war and its aftermath drastically affected the fortunes of the Virginia Historical Society. For many years, however, it proved reluctant to be part of the revisionist efforts to repaint the Civil War as one of northern aggression and to insist that slaves enjoyed their status as bondsmen under white masters.

During the war and afterward, great changes took place not only in the nation and in Virginia but in historiography as well. A new wave of professionalism emerged, demanding higher standards in the writing of history and in its preservation; new journals arose that became models for local societies to emulate; and a new sense of history, for want of a better term, swept across the nation in the latter part of the nineteenth century, rousing people's interest in the early history of the nation and the great men who had once led it. If the creation of the VHS in 1831 had been influenced by the migration out of Virginia and into the Deep South and West, other forces were at work in the years leading up to the war and afterward. These developments would in their own ways affect the Virginia of the last four decades of the nineteenth century, and in turn affect the society through the decisions made by its leaders.

The years leading up to the war, as noted earlier, had been prosperous ones for the VHS. Its membership, holdings, library, and treasury had all grown. The main problem had been to find adequate and permanent housing, a task that had daunted the society's leaders from the time of its founding. With the secession of the southern states and the transfer of the Confederate capital to Richmond, the VHS stood no chance of securing adequate quarters; rather, the burning issue confronting the executive committee was how to store and protect its historical treasures until more peaceful days returned.

In 1861 the Confederate War Department appropriated the Mechanics' Institute for its own use and evicted the VHS from its suite of rooms. It did allow the society to keep one small room about the size of a closet. In that small space, Dr. Charles G. Barney packed the books, stacking them from floor to ceiling, and took the portraits to his own home for safe-keeping. Just as Barney thought he had finished his work, the War Department commandeered the storeroom as well. The city of Richmond then offered the use of a room on the second floor of a brick building at Tenth and Bank streets. Barney supervised the erection of shelves and had locks installed on the doors and windows. …

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