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Review of Peter S. Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.

The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion

Throughout Peter S. Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion, Carmichael uses a sample case study of 121 Virginians of the generation of the youngest fighters in the Civil War to validate his thesis that the last generation to come of age during the time of American slaveholding society formed their political identity in the years immediately preceding the Civil War due to their shared experiences. They did so regardless of the religious and economic circumstances within their white slaveholding position in the American social hierarchy of the 1850s. The last generation’s emphasis on individualism and Christian manliness is made evident through Carmichael’s extensive reliance on such primary source documentation as wartime letters and diaries of these young Virginians, as the Civil War is shown to have been a means through which the last generation could attain self improvement and reputations of masculinity. Carmichael contends that the uniformity of the experience of these young Virginians, from their secessionist antebellum ideologies to their reconstruction era modernization efforts in Virginia, is apparent through the experiences of his randomly selected case study participants; as shown through the evidence of their writings and records. Providing a daunting amount of information regarding a numerous array of individuals, Carmichael validates his thesis, however leaves the reader feeling overwhelmed with details in an unclear organization of his analyses. In his attempt to explain the last generation’s quest for “southernness,” Carmichael loses the reader in a tangled web of details and names.[1]

Peter Carmichael’s analysis of Civil War era young Virginians uses an overwhelming amount of details derived from primary source substantiation to validate Carmichael’s thesis with a vast repository of evidence. Often detailing the minutiae of the Civil War and reconstruction era activities of upwards of four and five individuals per page, Carmichael loses his reader in an abundance of detail. Using a thematic rather than chronological organization, the monograph requires a constant return to earlier chapters and other sources for the reader to grasp the context of the historical study presented by Carmichael. The continuous listing of participants in events and ideologies leads to a confusing list of people involved in the varying aspects of Carmichael’s study of the Civil War’s last generation. For example, Carmichael’s vague discussion of five men’s religious identities’ relevance to their political ideology in one page of Chapter three is followed by a seemingly endless list of similar individuals.[2]

Carmichael’s study embraces the themes of economy, gender and masculinity, religion, sectional nationalism, generational identity, Confederate political ideology, and Reconstruction activities in his overview of many individuals belonging to the last generation of young Virginians. Carmichael uses a confusing and oftentimes overwhelming inclusion of faceless names and minute details to discuss the social Darwinism, industrial capitalism, lassiez-faire economics, imperialistic ideology, and romantic sentimentalism of the last generation. Whereas some names such as William Gordon McCabe reappear throughout the monograph for apparent continuity, dozens of other names such as William Blackford appear only once, often in lists of individuals in similar positions as others more extensively analyzed, never to be expounded upon further within the study. The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion is a patchwork of names and details, sewn together with a broad range of themes through Carmichael’s strategic placement of Civil War era primary sources; instilling in the reader a sense of disorganization of Carmichael’s analysis and confusion as to the intended thesis Carmichael seeks to prove through his inclusion of such complex details; leading one to revisit the introduction of the analysis upon completion of reading the monograph to remind oneself of Carmichael’s thesis.[3]

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[1] Peter S. Carmichael, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) Pp. 109, 18, 76, 236.

[2] Ibid., 125, 48-56, 73-75.

[3] Ibid., 215, 236, 180, 21, 235, 76.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!

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