Virginia & the Virginia Campaigns

Virginia & the Virginia Campaigns

At one time a British colony, Virginia is a state in North America that consists of ‘tide-water’ land in the central-Atlantic coastal plain of the United States of America. The waters drain into Chesapeake Bay and Piedmont on the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains.

    Jamestown was the first permanent British colony, settled in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London, a company given that name by Sir Walter Ralegh in honour of Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. The colonists survived and became prosperous through the growing, sale and shipment of tobacco. ‘White’ tobacco all round the world is still called ‘Virginia’, as opposed to the blackish product originating from Turkey and the Middle East. The name ‘White’ probably comes from the fact that the plant was originally grown and tended by white servants on the farms, but this did not last long. After 1690 tobacco was cultivated (but not owned) by black slaves.

   By the early 1700s a generation of rural gentry had been formed by white plantation owners, ancestors of today’s ‘Southern aristocrats’.

   In the period approaching the War of Independence, Virginians were united in their opposition to British ‘tyranny’, and this is shown in documents such as Henry’s Virginia Resolves (1765), and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence itself.

   In fact, the last major warlike action of the War took place in Virginia, at Yorktown (1781). After independence, all was not as peaceful as the colonists had thought it might be, as jealousy arose in any discussion of State’s Rights. But Virginia (‘The Old Dominion’) provided four out of the five first Presidents of the USA. She became a centre for the so-called Democratic-Republican Party. Coming from Virginia is still associated with ‘being a gentleman’.

Around the same time as this was happening, Jackson pinned down Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Then the second Battle of Bull Run was fought (end of August) where Lee forced the blue-jackets to go back to Washington. The way was at last open for a major incursion by Southern forces into the North; but they were defeated at the Battle of Antietam.

The Virginia Campaigns (1861 – 1865) were not necessarily gentlemanly at all. The words mean a series of engagements, campaigns, blunders, heroics and bloody encounters during the American Civil War. We have already mentioned the last conflict in the utterly dreadful War of Independence, and the first in the Civil War, fought on July 21, 1861, was the first Battle of Bull Run, when in a state of confusion the Confederate forces were saved from defeat by the timely arrival of General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. In the ‘Peninsula’ Campaign of April – June, 1862, Northern forces under Maclellan tried to advance up the peninsula between the James and York rivers, in order to take Richmond, Virginia. The battle took seven days, but Maclellan was forced to retreat by the Southern commander, Robert E. Lee.

   The grey-jackets headed back to Virginia, but a new commander, Burnside assaulted Lee’s positions above Fredericksburg on 13th September. That was no good either, and Burnside had to withdraw, a reverse which severely shook the Union war effort.

    In the spring of 1863 a re-inforced Union army under Hooker took up the offensive again in the Battle of Chancellorville (2-4 May, 1863). Lee was able to stand up to the assault, but Jackson was killed fighting. Lee, nothing deterred, proceeded to invade Pennsylvania, but was soundly trounced at the Battle of Gettysburg following which he was on the defensive for the remainder of the War.

   In the early summer months of 1864 a series of engagements were fought in the wilder parts of Virginia, and Grant was defeated three times before retreating across the River James, to renew his attacks in the Petersburg Campaign. This continued well into 1865. This is the period depicted excellently in the opening scenes of the movie Dances with Wolves.   Three assaults on Richmond, the capital, were repelled by Lee to the disgust of General Grant. Through all winter Unionist forces besieged the capital, so Lee was prevented from sending re-inforcements south to stop Sherman’s advance through Georgia. On All Fool’s Day he lost the battle of Five Forks and was forced to abandon both Richmond and Petersburg. He was virtually surrounded when he decided enough was enough (thousands of young Americans loyal to South or North had already died in this atrocious war fomented by selfish and obstinate men), and surrended at Appomattox on 9 April, bringing this series of campaigns (and the War) to an end.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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