War! forgotten in Williamsburg

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April 14, 2011

11:46 PM

In a place like Williamsburg, it is easy to forget that the Civil War happened. With such a heavy concentration on Virginia’s colonial history, the city of Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary spend less time telling the story of this area during the Civil War.

Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Very soon afterward, the students at the College asked the College administration for permission to raise a secessionist flag over the Sir Christopher Wren Building. They were rebuffed by President Benjamin S. Ewell.

“He was a unionist right up to the time Virginia seceded,” English Professor Terry Meyers said of Ewell. Meyers has done considerable research on the history of the College in the 19th century.

The students were allowed to raise the flag in the Wren Yard instead — a tactical decision on Ewell’s part. This decision demonstrated the generation gap at the College, as students and younger members of the faculty agitated for succession while those of the older generation, such as Ewell, resisted.

“Sentiment at the time among the younger [generation] was that the older generation had failed them,” Sean Heuvel ’02, M.Ed. ’05 said. Heuvel wrote his masters thesis on the College during the Civil War while studying at the University of Richmond and now teaches at Christopher Newport University.

The men of the younger generation wanted to restore Virginia to the position of leadership it held in the past and believed they could revive the state through secession.

Within one month following the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter, the College closed. All but one student of the College enlisted. The overwhelming majority joined with the Confederacy, but a lone Pennsylvanian returned home to fight for the Union Army. Every member of the faculty, including Ewell, enlisted in the Confederate Army, except for one, who worked in the Treasury of the Confederacy.

Since the relocation of the state capital to Richmond in 1780 and the establishment of the University of Virginia in 1819, the College had struggled to stay afloat. By the time of the Civil War, the College was just barely getting by. The war challenged the College’s finances even further.

“It devastated us, we were wiped out,” Meyers said.

The College invested its meager funds in Confederate War bonds, which were worthless after the war. The Wren Building burned down. According to one member of the first class to graduate after the war, the only lights Duke of Gloucester street came from the bars.

“According to the charter, the bell in the Wren building [had to] be rung at the beginning of each academic year,” Hevuel said.

Ewell traveled from his plantation west of town — near where the Prime Outlets are today — to Williamsburg, accompanied by an African-American tenant farmer to aid him in ringing the Wren bell. The ringing signified the start of an academic year with no students or faculty.

“In a certain way, the College ceased to exist in 1861,” Lemon Project Consultant Dr. Robert Engs said.

The College creates a history

In the 1880s, the Commonwealth of Virginia bought the College and turned it into a school for teachers, saving it from certain demise. The biggest boost to the College came from the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s, a project funded by the Rockefeller family.

As the town shifted toward remembrance of its colonial heritage, the College was swept up.

“Once they restored the Wren building and the President’s house and the Brafferton, that sort of sealed our fate,” history professor Jim Whittenburg said.

With the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, the College was able to reinvent itself as a symbol of the colonial period.

The glory days of the College, the days of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, were during this pre-Revolutionary era. Meyers said he saw the role of Williamsburg before the American Revolution as more important to the story of the nation than its role during the Civil War. In this way, association of the College with the colonial period makes sense.

“The College had such an important role in the formation of the nation that we tend to focus on it,” Dr. Bea Hardy, interim dean of university libraries said. Hardy recently curated an exhibit on the Civil War in the Special Collection in Earl Gregg Swem Library — “From Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union.”

With the emphasis on the Colonial era, Williamsburg become a town defined by its colonial history, not the Civil War.

“I don’t think it’s a question of avoidance,” Whittenburg said. “I think it’s where we identify ourselves … I think there was a lot more Civil War memory at the College before the restoration.”

The War comes to Williamsburg

The Battle of Williamsburg was fought just outside town May 5, 1862. The battle was part of Union General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, during which he intended to come up the peninsula, seize Richmond and end the war swiftly and with as few casualties or changes to Southern life as possible.

Despite the lack of attention today, the Battle of Williamsburg was a major battle at the beginning of the Civil War. For the first time during the Civil War, two armies of considerable skill and strength faced one another.

“If all the things that happened in Colonial Williamsburg hadn’t happened, and only the Battle of Williamsburg [had], we would remember it much more,” Meyers said.

The battle ended when the Union army took over Williamsburg. The College was transformed as the Wren building became a hospital for the many men injured during the battle.

Randolph Abbott Shotwell, a Confederate officer, wrote of the horrific battle.

“[There were] wounded, dying and dead – here, there, everywhere — halls, recitations rooms, dormitories — all were crowded with bloody bodies!” Shotwell wrote.

Williamsburg remained under Union control for the rest of the war, which encouraged a considerable amount of espionage.

“Where the Sadler Center is today, that was kind of a no man’s land between Union and Confederate territory,” Heuvel said. “William and Mary was sort of literally on the border.”

A complicated past

Despite a rich Civil War history in Williamsburg, it is rarely discussed by the city of Williamsburg, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation or the College. This differs from the rest of Virginia, where the Civil War is often the primary history discussed.

When teaching history, educators are charged with the difficulty of recreating and explaining complex historical issues, often falling back on a simplistic presentation of history. Colonial Williamsburg faces a similar problem. After dedicating so much time to a specific period of time, adding the Civil War into the fray presents serious issues.

“They’ve got a problem with pushing history — what can the average visitor absorb?” Meyers said. “To talk about the Civil War is to complicate that history.”

This difficulty with presenting a dual history expands when dealing with the changes brought about by the Civil War. After the war, the Southern way of life, which hinged on slavery, was destroyed.

A forgotten story

“I think its hard for the people who presume to have the right to preserve memory to deal with the Civil War,” Engs said.

For African Americans this meant a freedom unlike anything available to them in the South before the war. African American communities began to seize their rights to determining the direction of the nation.

“The freed people decided they had an agenda of their own,” Engs said.

This was especially true in Tidewater Virginia, which was one of the first places to see the freedom of slaves with the decision in 1862 to allow slaves of Confederates to seek shelter with the Union army as the contraband of war.

“Suddenly the old system of slavery was in abeyance because of the contraband decision,” Engs said.

As enslaved people ran to freedom behind Union lines, the people of Williamsburg felt these decisions, in their pocketbooks, but it impacted their psyches as well. Slaveholders in Williamsburg had difficulty dealing with the fact that their slaves would desert to the enemy.

As with many things in the history of Williamsburg, an important shift in race relations came with the creation of the Colonial Williamsburg foundation. The heads of the foundation refused to segregate the historic area, in violation of Virginia law. This situation, in conjunction with the pervasive military presence in the area, created a more benign racial climate than in other parts of the American south.

Today, the results of this can serve the community well, according to Engs.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for William and Mary and Williamsburg to observe the Civil War in a more rational way than perhaps anywhere else in Virginia,” Engs said.

Engs points out that the College is in a similar position to create a dialogue, especially among the students, about the meaning of the Civil War but is in danger of failing to do so.

“People who come here don’t want to deal with unpleasantness,” Engs said of the students at the College.

The Lemon Project, which investigates the history of African Americans at the College, aims to challenge the unwillingness to look into a less than pristine past.

“History is all around us, especially at a place like this,” Engs said.

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