Stephen Ash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?
SA: After finishing another book some years ago, I began searching for a new topic. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (Civil War-era social history) but was ready to try something new within that field.
I’d never written an urban history. The subject intrigued me, but at first I hesitated to take on Richmond. Several general histories of the city during the war have been published, and numerous books, articles, and dissertations have explored particular aspects of its wartime experience. But in doing research for my earlier books I’d come across some extraordinarily rich primary sources that were unused, or under-used, by previous tellers of Richmond’s tale. So it seemed to me that the full story of Richmond during the Civil War remained to be told.
The earlier general histories depended heavily on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and militar reports. This dependency skewed them: they have much to say about elite Richmonders, high government officials, and the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into—including census reports, soldiers’ military service files, records of Confederate government bureaus and manufactories and hospitals, and the correspondence of the Virginia governors—opened wonderful new perspectives.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebel Richmond?
SA: Between 1861 and 1865, Richmond experienced a storm of calamities and transformations like no other American city, before or since, has had to endure. The people–men and women and children, whites and blacks, rich and poor, bosses and workers, civilians and soldiers, secessionists and Unionists, long-time residents and wartime refugees–responded to this unprecedented crisis in very human ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes shamefully, but mostly somewhere in between.
JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?
SA: It not only tells us much that we didn’t know about the Civil War but also casts light on the broader question of how human beings cope with extreme circumstances.
In making my case, I emphasize the role of religion. Christian belief was at the heart of Richmonders’ understanding of the Civil War. White secessionists believed that God was on their side and would ensure Confederate victory, as long as believers were faithful to His commands. When the war turned against the South in 1863, some concluded that the sins of the Confederate people had cost them God’s favor; but others saw the military setbacks not as a judgment but as a test of their worthiness in God’s eyes.
Black Richmonders, by contrast, saw the war as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, promising freedom to the captives. As the war went on, they drew comfort also from the book of Daniel (11:15): “So the king of the north shall come . . . and the arms of the south shall not withstand.”
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SA: I turned thirteen in 1961, the year that our nation began its observance of the Civil War’s centennial. That’s an age at which many people acquire a hobby and a focus, and that’s what happened in my case. I fell in love with the Civil War, read all I could about it in the succeeding years, chose to go to Gettysburg College and major in history, worked as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg in the summers, and subsequently went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and wrote a dissertation about Middle Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In all those years, I never really had any other aspiration besides studying the Civil War. I’m one of the lucky few who turned an adolescent fascination into a career.
JF: What is your next project?
SA: I wish I could answer this question. I think I’ve got at least one more book in me, but I haven’t yet found a topic that really intrigues me. If the readers of this blog have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them (email@example.com).
JF: Thanks, Stephen!