An American Turning Point features nearly 200 original objects from the collections of the Virginia Historical Society, numerous museums, and private collectors—many of which will be on public display for the first time. Look carefully and the stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia's Civil War reveal themselves. They can be found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.
Henry V. L. Bird
Henry Bird, a twenty-one-year-old store clerk, enlisted in the Petersburg Grays (Company C, 12th Virginia Infantry) two days after Virginia's secession. In July 1862 he caught a mild strain of typhoid fever that kept him out of the war for seventeen months. Returning to his unit in 1864, he fought alongside them through the Overland Campaign and into the trenches at Petersburg. At the October 1864 battle of Burgess' Mill, Bird became a prisoner-of-war and was confined at Point Lookout, Maryland. Following Appomattox, while he waited to be released, Bird received a letter from his father:
"The state is quieting down and people are going to work, and the war will soon be a thing of the past. I [have] been to see Genl Lee and he told me that all the soldiers who desired to return to their native places . . . should take the oath of allegiance to the U. States and become god citizens."
Bird returned to Petersburg in June 1865. Apologizing to his fiancée, Margaret Randolph, he took the oath of allegiance—the prerequisite to receiving a marriage license. Facing an uncertain future, Bird penned a note to Margaret, "My darling, we are all strangers in the land now…" Bird lived in Petersburg until his death in 1903.
(Pictured left: Henry V. L. Bird, Virginia Historical Society, Accession no. 1994.108.6; Pictured right: Margaret Randolph Bird, Virginia Historical Society, 1994.108.8)
Two months after its famous March 1862 battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the USS Monitor lay at anchor on the James River. Although told that "the Yankees would carry them [escaped slaves] out to sea, tie a piece of iron on about their necks and throw them overboard," Siah Carter, a twenty-two-year-old enslaved African American from Shirley Plantation, rowed a small boat out to the ship—the first of eighteen slaves that year to escape from Shirley seeking freedom with the Union army.
Taken aboard the Monitor for a three-year term as a "first class boy," he became first assistant to the ship's cook. He served on the Monitor for seven months and survived its sinking on December 31, 1862. He was discharged from the Union navy in May 1865 and returned to Shirley Plantation where he and Eliza Tarrow, also a former slave, were married. The couple settled on Bermuda Hundred, Virginia where they raised thirteen children.
(Pictured: Detail from Sailors on deck of USS Monitor, July 9, 1862, Library of Congress)
Jubal Anderson Early
Jubal Anderson Early, a profane lawyer and former army officer, argued strongly against disunion at Virginia's 1861 convention, and even after Lincoln's call for troops, he was among fifty-five delegates who voted against secession on April 17. Why is he wearing a Confederate uniform?
Many Virginians shifted their allegiance once the state convention voted to secede; others shifted when the state's voters ratified the ordinance of secession on May 23. Jubal Early accepted the white majority's decision. He gave his full energy to fighting against the Union he had previously struggled to save, and when the war ended, he chose exile to Mexico and then Canada. When he returned to Virginia, he became a leading spokesman for the "Lost Cause" and was an unreconstructed rebel until his death.
(Pictured: Portrait of Jubal Anderson Early by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster, Virginia Historical Society, Accession number: 1974.25)
In December 1862, a Union army of 110,000 soldiers was halted by 75,000 Confederates at Fredericksburg, a small community of 5,000 residents. Confederate general Robert E. Lee ordered women and children to leave Fredericksburg for their safety. They took refuge in churches, barns, and tents. Among them were Anne Gordon, shown in the daguerreotype, her husband Douglas, and their three children.
On their return, the Gordons found "every room" in their house "torn with shot, and . . . all the elegant furniture and works of art broken and smashed." One ambitious soldier even carried off the Gordons' heavy bronze replica of a European statue of Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, a sixteenth-century soldier-prince. The Gordons had acquired it on a wedding trip to Italy. The looter sold the statue to Union colonel Joshua Owen of Pennsylvania.
Less than a year after the December 1862 battle, Anne Gordon's sister-in-law, Anne Thomas, overheard a Union soldier near her Baltimore home remark to a comrade that the best thing he saw looted during the war was in Fredericksburg. He gave such an exact description that Mrs. Thomas knew he was talking about her brother's statue of Emmanuel Philibert. Using President Lincoln's physician as an emissary, she demanded and got General Order No. 360, which ordered the return of the statue to its owner. The Gordon's woes had not ended. Through the winter of 1862−63, Confederate troops pilfered private property and dug trenches in the Gordons' yard. After a second battle the following spring, the Gordon house bore the scars of more than twenty artillery shells.
In May 1865, the town's postwar federal garrison seized the Gordon house for use as a hospital and confiscated a portion of the family's property for the site of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. To resume any business or profession, Douglas Gordon sought and received this pardon from President Andrew Johnson.
(Pictured: Ambrotype of Anne Eliza Pleasants Gordon, Virginia Historical Society, Accession number: 1970.4)
Elizabeth T. E. Munford
At her home in Richmond on July 1, 1862, Elizabeth Munford heard the thunder of cannon fire from the nearby battle of Malvern Hill, where her son Lt. Charles Ellis Munford served with the Letcher Light Artillery. She wrote her daughters that she expected to "hear from Ellis tonight." Late that evening, his lifeless body was brought home directly from the field. Charles Munford, Sr., suffered a "dreadful attack." Following the funeral the next day he consoled himself with the thought that his son died "standing up to his duty like a true born Virginian defending his home & his Country."
(Pictured: Carte de visite of Elizabeth Thorogood Ellis Munford, Virginia Historical Society, Accession number: 1992.140.9.C)
The attitudes of Virginia's two thousand Jewish residents regarding slavery, secession, and war differed little from those of their non-Jewish neighbors. Approximately three thousand Jewish southerners served in the Confederate army. Nevertheless, tensions regarding race, immigration, and war profiteering prompted a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
Twenty-year-old Aron Rosenstock joined tens of thousands of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the 1850s. Taking the name Anthony, he spent five years in New York City, the Midwest, and Albany, New York, before settling with an aunt in Petersburg, Virginia. There, in 1859, he opened a dry goods business. The war soon interrupted his new life in the South. Rosenstock was drafted but received an exemption because of poor health and did not serve in the military. By 1863, he had few goods left to sell in his dry goods store.
Rosenstock was allowed to travel to Wilmington, North Carolina. From there, he and his wife and two children boarded a blockade runner to Nassau. In April 1864 they moved to Albany. After Lee's surrender, Rosenstock returned to Petersburg, resumed his business, and set it on a path to become one of Petersburg's most successful department stores.
(Pictured: Photographic print of Anthony Rosenstock, Virginia Historical Society, Accession number: 2000.59.2)
George Henry Thomas
In 1848, residents of rural Southampton County had presented Lt. George H. Thomas with an engraved silver sword for gallantry in the Seminole and Mexican wars. He wore it only once—at his 1852 wedding to Frances Kellogg of Troy, New York. Some blamed her for his later pro-Union stance. Because of his army travels, he left the sword in the care of his sisters in Virginia.
In April 1861, Thomas chose to remain in the U.S. Army. His sisters disowned him. His letters were returned unopened and his appeals for the return of the sword ignored. Judith Thomas wrote that he "had been false to his state, his family, and to his friends." The sisters were never reconciled to their brother, who died in 1870.
(Pictured: Photograph of George Henry Thomas, Library of Congress)