Richmond During the War:
Four Years of Personal Observation
by Sallie Brock (1867)
paperback; 389 pages
The cities of the South suffered more during the War Between the States than any community in the Union. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was perhaps the only Union town to know the sound of artillery, the roar of a rifle enfilade, or the cries of wounded men. Baltimore may have been a close second.
Atlanta, Vicksburg, and Charleston all suffered far worse, and the capital at Richmond, Virginia came to know the sting of war on an almost daily basis. That war is hell on the home front was made plainly clear by the diary of "a Richmond lady," published a little over a year after the guns fell silent.
Born in Madison Court-house, Virginia in 1845, Brock was educated by private tutors, an indication that she came from a privileged class that could not spare her from the same privations even the lowliest citizens of Richmond suffered. She married Rev. Richard Putnam of New York in 1883, and published several other works of literature, but is best known for her history of the besieged capital, which was later published under the nom-de-plume, Virginia Madison.
To her credit she could have fled when the city first came under fire, and yet she stayed to document not just the progress of the battles in the region, but the effect they had on the spirits of the non-combatants who fought without weapons, but with a grim determination to outlast the Yankees.
In that sense this diary offers a more honest account of events than the military records or press reports, both of which sought to elevate the cause of either the careers of many of the military men involved, or the politicians-cum-editors who led the cheers from behind the lines.
Brock's narrative begins with the news of the fall of Fort Sumter, delivered to Richmond on a weekend when the city was swathed in its comfortable atmosphere of wealth and prosperity. That atmosphere was quickly dispersed when every man in town took up arms in response to the rumor that the Union gunboat Pawnee was headed up the James River to destroy the capital spread wildly after a Sunday service.
The author is honest, in as much as she admits the people of Richmond were not well-prepared: "In a private way all was done in Richmond that could be done to provide for the wants of the sick in the army. Our commissariat was never judiciously managed and there was great suffering which might have been relieved or alleviated by more careful attention to food for the sick. For this purpose delicacies were preserved and hoarded up by the women of the South, and in Richmond the suffering from inappropriate diet was slight compared with that endured by the soldiers away from the city" (page 93).
It has never been any secret that the vast majority of the South's fatalities were caused more by inadequate medical facilities after combat, than by the wounds of combat, but most of the "popular" histories have always attempted to blame this upon lack of supplies caused by Union blockades rather than admit to not paying "careful attention" to details.
Brock likewise names Southern names as having taken advantage of the war to enlarge their personal fortunes: "In the recovery of the Valley of the Kanawha, we regained possession of one of the richest and most valuable sections of our state. With salt enough within its limits to furnish a supply for this whole continent, and which had previously sold for scarcely a farthing per pound, while we were at that time paying for it in Richmond the sum of one dollar and fifty cents per pound" (page 167).
In a footnote, Brock blames a speculator operating under Union rule of the territory for the profiteering. Neither of these details was likely to have made her many friends at a time when the South was eager to be seen as conquered by an overwhelming force, rather than undermined by errors on the home front.
She later re-affirms the faults committed at home as an indictment of greed and a betrayal of patriotism to the cause: "On our streets the trickeries of trade, the unremittent pursuit of bargain and sale, were vigorously enacted. The red flag of the auctioneer hung out, and the exciting and fashionable scenes of the vendue entertained those whose selfish and avaricious propensities rendered them more intent upon the accumulation of wealth than upon the greater interests and good of the country" (page 262).
Such comments detract from the aura of the honor and gentility of the South that Confederate historians might wish to ply upon their future generations. That she was published, however, may indicate how necessary the South felt it to be that women should have their observations in support of the lost cause appear in print, rather than have those voices inundated by volumes produced by the North, which continued to slant the historical record in favor of the Union.
Brock's narrative is engaging because it was written form the female perspective, which at that time was just becoming fashionable in Europe, and which may have prompted the book's publication by a New York house. Throughout she appears to have avoided falling into the traps of resentment and recrimination, which are the hallmarks of many similar books written by Southerners. Perhaps it was written with the notion in mind that if the South was ever to rise again, it had to do so fully aware that such problems existed within its citizenry, and that the enemy was often to be found on the home front, as well as the battle front.
— reviewed by Jay Underwood