3 out of 4 stars
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For Virginia by Mark R. Brewer is a fascinating exploration of the times surrounding the United States Civil War, focusing on five sons of Virginia. One of them, Robert E. Lee, had no plan to lead any troops against the United States when secession loomed. However, he could not bring himself to take up arms against his home state of Virginia, and so he became a general for the Confederate States of America. As the author posits, how many of us would be able to attack our home states? This is not a political book. The author doesn't debate the causes of the Civil War. His focus is on the motivations and attitudes of this handful of men who found themselves having to decide their loyalties.
Brewer has written a gentle, almost reverential treatment of three of the sons, Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Jeb Stuart. These men were Southern-born soldiers serving with pride in the U.S. Army when war was declared. Brewer presents them as men of honor who had to make the excruciating decision to fight against their first country.
Conversely, the author's treatment of the last two primary characters is not gentle at all. Brewer doesn't hide the fervent bloodlust of Edmund Ruffin, a Virginia planter who is a study in fanatic conviction. From beginning to end, secession consumes him, causing him to make several incautious decisions. The fifth of these sons, John Wilkes Booth, wasn't actually from Virginia, or even from the South. However, his story is that of a self-centered racist bent on pushing his beliefs, using the South's secession as a rallying cry.
Brewer, a former history teacher with an evident love of research, uses a variety of both primary and secondary sources to weave a story focusing on these men as just that, men and not legends. The prose meshes smoothly with the historical quotes, and the book reads like a diary that collected the thoughts of all involved. Adding to the beauty of the book, his eloquent descriptions paint vivid pictures that pulled me into the story.
Brewer describes not only the thoughts of the major players but also the battles and situations around them. There is a great deal of information about the Union Army, but remember the book is called For Virginia, so most of the battles and incidents are seen primarily from the Confederate perspective.A few feet away, a creek trickled past, filling Stuart's ears with the tranquil sound of flowing water. In the background were the muffled voices of his army, broken here and there by the stamping and snorting of the horses. It was such a serene melody that Stuart soon drifted off to sleep. (page 58)
Being able to look inside these men's minds through their letters and journals was a fantastic experience in voyeurism. I feel as though I understand them like I would well-rounded fictional characters. I especially enjoyed reading the correspondence between General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. I was astounded by the respect that these two men held for each other, as well as their shared love of the United States of America.
Because of grammar and editing errors, I rate For Virginia 3 out of 4 stars. Most errors concerned commas and typos, and they should be easily fixed in another round of editing. I would suggest this book to readers interested in Virginia's role in the U.S. Civil War and to people who would like to learn about it. This book's blended format offers an easy way to do that, and the author includes a detailed bibliography divided into primary, secondary, and web sources. However, if you are not serious about learning the day-to-day events, thoughts, and interactions of these five Virginians, I would suggest you pass on this read, especially since it is more than 700 pages long.
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