Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review - "Hidden History of Civil War Williamsburg" by Carson Hudson

[Hidden History of Civil War Williamsburg by Carson O. Hudson, Jr. (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:159/238. ISBN:978-1-4671-4293-9. $21.99]

Carson Hudson's Hidden History of Civil War Williamsburg is a revised and expanded edition of his 2016 book Yankees in the Streets: Forgotten People and Stories of Civil War Williamsburg. Not a narrative account, the volume instead consists of a sizable compilation (nearly three dozen in number) of chapter-length wartime anecdotes, episodes, and biographical features sourced from a suitably diverse collection of book, article, newspaper, and manuscript materials. Though several high-profile events and historical figures are addressed, the author's attention is aimed more toward exploring lesser-known aspects of the town's Civil War history.

In keeping with the "hidden history" focus of the book and series, the most significant single event associated with the town's Civil War history—the May 5, 1862 Battle of Williamsburg—is only tangentially addressed at various places. The town of Williamsburg disappears from most general narratives after the early part of the Peninsula Campaign, but this book largely concerns itself with the 1862-65 period when the town was under almost continuous Union occupation. Lying along the western edge of the Union Department of Virginia, Williamsburg and environs were frequently visited by Confederate troops, both regular and irregular, during this time. Such military episodes are covered in the book, as is the 1863 Wistar Raid on Richmond that was launched from the surrounding area.

Due to their living in close proximity to the no-man's land separating Union and Confederate lines, the town's residents found their lives, occupations, and trade relationships strictly regulated. The Emancipation Proclamation created another border straddled by town and residents, with the dividing line between exempt and non-exempt Virginia counties running right through the heart of Williamsburg. 

Many buildings in and around Williamsburg served as military hospitals for the sick and wounded, and refugees from other parts of Peninsula were also housed in the town. The book also shows how the Eastern State Lunatic Asylum became a bit of an oasis for locals, as the institution's staff and temporary occupants found themselves mostly protected from the harshest aspects of Union military rule. In addition to relating the stories of generals, common soldiers, and units that passed through Williamsburg during the war, the actions and experiences of many local residents of various occupations and dueling loyalties (including spies, doctors, nurses, and traders) are recounted in the book.

Visual aids of various kinds are a key feature of all books from this publisher, and the volume is filled with photographs and other illustrations. Hudson's work also possesses substantial reference value. Contained in the appendix section are a list of town residents from the 1860 census; a roster of the Williamsburg Junior Guard company; Union and Confederate orders of battle for the May 5 fight; a list of Medal of Honor recipients and citations from the battle; and more discussion of army hospitals, historical maps, and emancipation.

Hidden History of Civil War Williamsburg is an informative work of local history that will appeal to those readers whose curiosity extends beyond the town's much more celebrated Colonial past. Elements of the book should also prove useful for those working in occupation studies, a branch of Civil War history that has garnered an increasing share of scholarly attention in recent years.

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