After the Civil War, the University of Virginia and its alumni played a leading role in propagating the mythology of the Lost Cause. Determined to “vindicate the character of the South,” they defended secession, valorized Confederate soldiers, and declared the postwar experiment in biracial democracy a failure. Few alumni challenged this culture of Confederate orthodoxy, and even fewer openly defended Reconstruction. Among those who did, however, was Alexander Rives, an eccentric but fiercely principled Charlottesville jurist.
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The vast majority of UVA alumni opposed Reconstruction and worked to dismantle its achievements. As political and cultural leaders, they played a major role in reasserting white supremacy and constructing the southern “Lost Cause” memory of the war. Even most UVA Unionists were political conservatives who fiercely defended the South’s racial hierarchy. Once the war was over, Unionists like William M. Fishback and James O.
Like most nineteenth-century Americans, UVA’s Unionists were mainly political moderates who hoped to restore rather than radically alter the Union. Many, for example, supported emancipation as a military necessity but hoped to keep southern society essentially unchanged. For a few alumni, however, the war and its aftermath were radicalizing experiences that forced them to cast off old convictions. For men like Benjamin F. Dowell, the only way to permanently preserve the Union was to punish Confederate leaders, empower African Americans, and dramatically reconstruct the southern states.
In his fifth and final letter from the front, Sergeant J. T. S. Taylor reported on how the end of the war had affected the 2nd USCT’s service in Florida. The regiment would finally muster out on January 5, 1866.
FROM THE BOYS IN BLUE.
HDQRS. 2d U. S. C. INFANTRY, }
FORT TAYLOR, KEY WEST, Fla., }
July 26th, 1865. }
In his fourth letter from the front, Sergeant Taylor describes a general inspection of the 2nd USCT and subsequent festivities that took place on January 22, 1865. He closes his letter with a heartfelt plea for the Black men of his regiment to be allowed to rise to the rank of commissioned officers. “Are we still to be deprived of all those rights and privileges which, by our sacrifices, we justly merit?” Taylor asks. Only around 100 Black soldiers were ever commissioned during the war.
FROM THE REGIMENTS.
In his third letter from the front, Sergeant Taylor described how a detachment of the regiment successfully captured the Confederate-held town of Tampa, Florida. Citing the recent massacre of Black troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Taylor promised his readers that the men of the 2nd USCT would “never... be taken prisoner by the rebels and butchered in cold blood by them.” Instead they would rather “d[ie] upon the battlefield, fighting for liberty and freedom to the oppressed of our native land.”
FROM THE 2d REGIMENT COLORED U. S. TROOPS.
James T. S. Taylor Reports the Civil War (Part 2): Arrival at Key West
In his second letter to the Anglo-African newspaper, Commissary Sergeant James T. S. Taylor described the 2nd USCT’s sudden move from Ship Island to Key West, Florida. This brief letter describes the regiment’s experience of being “the first regiment of colored troops that ever paraded [Key West’s] streets” and looks forward to the day when James and his comrades would first meet their enemy on the field of battle.
FROM THE SECOND REGIMENT U. S. COLORED TROOPS.
Sometime in 1862, a free Black man named James T. S. Taylor (1840-1918) ran away from Charlottesville, Virginia, to freedom in Washington, D.C. Describing his harrowing journey two years later in a letter to Abraham Lincoln, Taylor went on to serve as the commissary sergeant of the 2nd USCT regiment.
At least 65 UVA students, alumni, and professors served in the Union military during the Civil War, passing what historian Carl Degler has called the “severest test” of wartime Unionism. For southerners, in particular, service in the Union military was one of the most direct and powerful statements of enduring loyalty to the United States. Widening the scope, however, reveals dozens of other UVA alumni who affirmed their Unionism as civic and political leaders during the Civil War.
On July 31, 1866, Susan Jackson, a freedwoman living in Virginia’s Albemarle County, stood before William Tidball, Charlottesville’s agent for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. The transition out of enslavement had been difficult for Jackson. In ill health, penniless, and virtually alone, she relied on an allotment of Bureau rations to keep body and soul together. But it was not her physical state that brought her to Charlottesville that day.