Richmond at war -- a mystery no more

September 22, 1996|By Tom Linthicum | Tom Linthicum,SUN STAFF

"Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War," by Ernest B. Furgurson. Knopf, 432 pages. $30.

As the Civil War ground inexorably to an end in the spring of 1865, a correspondent for the New York Herald, mired in the mud with Grant's troops outside Richmond, wrote of the Confederate capital: "Its history is the epitome of the whole contest, and to us, shivering out thunderbolts against it for more than four years, Richmond is still a mystery."

More than 400 pages later, Richmond is a mystery no more. Not that it was still a total mystery in modern times. Much has been written about Richmond in its official role as the Confederacy's seat of government. Furgurson, a longtime staff writer and former Washington bureau chief for The Sun, sets out to do something different. His goal is "to reach beyond the lives of the celebrated, to the preachers, slave dealers, refugees, spies, nurses, political prisoners, editors, prostitutes and black and white underclass that kept the city going."

He succeeds to a remarkable extent. Skillfully interspersing detailed historical records and newspaper reports with eyewitness accounts of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, Furgurson brings war-torn Richmond to life. We view the ebb and flow of momentous military and political events through the eyes of those inside the increasingly beleaguered city. The cast of characters is long and varied.

There is John B. Jones, a Confederate War Department clerk who kept a meticulous diary. There is Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union sympathizer who later risked her life as a Yankee spy. There is Moses Hoge, a Presbyterian minister who slipped through the Union blockade to seek Bibles in England for Southern troops. There is Sally Tompkins, a Tidewater belle with no medical training who volunteered to run a hospital. And these are but a handful of Furgurson's sources.

What emerges is a portrait of a city struggling to maintain its civility despite a steady onslaught of hardship and deprivation. In 1861, life was good and Richmond society entertained lavishly. By war's end, Richmond's elite were attending "starvation parties" with no refreshments, while poor women rioted in the VTC streets for bread and hungry residents flocked to the James River with nets and poles at first word of the spring shad run.

This book is not solely a tale of heroes and heroines. Furgurson includes profiteers, corrupt officials and petty politicians, and he provides constant reminders of how the pernicious commerce of slavery flourished throughout it all. Even as Jefferson Davis' train pulled out of town only hours ahead of Union occupying forces, a slave trader with 50 shackled blacks in tow tried to talk his way on board to salvage his investment.

Furgurson is most effective when he uses quotations from diaries and letters as dialogue with his own vivid description of events. His account of the fall of Richmond, amid panic and looting and Union soldiers racing each other to the capitol, is spell-binding. He is least effective when he digresses into political and military minutiae, offering up windy excerpts from Jefferson Davis speeches and tedious intrigue among statesmen and generals. The good news is that there is more than enough of the former to offset the latter, which makes this book well worth your reading time and a definite keeper for Civil War buffs.

Tom Linthicum, administrative editor at The Sun, is in charge of budget and personnel for the newsroom. He was the paper's metropolitan editor for eight years and before that, a local reporter.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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