The Virginia Historical Society had been in existence for nearly three decades when civil war enveloped the commonwealth in 1861. Over those early years of its history, officers and members of the society, along with many interested citizens of the Old Dominion, had contributed to a small but growing collection of books, historical manuscripts, and artifacts, gathered by the society's leaders with the motto of the organization, "To Preserve and Hand Down," ringing in their ears. With the advent of war, and without a permanent home in which to house this nascent collection, the society's leadership distributed its holdings among its various members during the war, while at the same time they patriotically invested the organization's tiny endowment in Confederate States bonds. Through this quirk of fate, most of the society's collection was saved; its endowment was not.
Within several decades of the end of the war, with the surviving remnants of the collection rejoined and forming a solid base on which to build, the society's leadership again cast out the net widely for new historical materials to preserve and to interpret for new generations of Virginians. Among the many items that began to flow into the society's rooms were materials created or used by Confederate officers, soldiers, statesmen, and officials, as well as by members of many families, black and white, pro-Union and secessionist, who had populated the cities and counties of the commonwealth during the conflict.
The success of those leaders and of their successors in acquiring the raw materials of historical study has now resulted in a collection of the highest quality and significance, nationally recognized and heavily used by researchers from across the country and throughout the world. Along with its extensive manuscript holdings, which this guide more readily identifies, the VHS also holds a major collection of Confederate imprints, published reminiscences, memoirs, letters, and diaries, and countless nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of battlefield and home front. Its museum collection contains hundreds of images of Civil War–era individuals, both men and women, in a variety of formats (daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visite, and portraits), as well as images of places and events from the period. Among the museum's artifacts are a superlative Confederate weapons collection, a window from Libby Prison fashioned by slaves, U.S. Army memorabilia, and many other items relating to the war in the Old Dominion. Other holdings include the well-known Jeremy Gilmer Confederate Corps of Engineers maps and a strong collection of Civil War-era newspapers on microfilm and in hard copy.
This guide, however, focuses strictly on the society's manuscript holdings, the very heart of its research collections. The original letters and diaries of soldiers and members of their families, the scattered records of Union and Confederate military units and of enslaved and free persons who inhabited the Old Dominion, the official papers emanating from the pens of Confederate officials and war clerks (the latter both male and female), the postwar reminiscences and scrapbooks of combatants, widows, and the children of veterans, all help to tell the story of Virginia's extraordinary role in the American Civil War. We hope this guide will attract attention to the society's widely diverse manuscript holdings, provide ready access to specific items or record groups, and encourage future scholarship in the history of a time and event that continues to capture the imagination and to stir controversy in this country.
This online guide, which was compiled and edited by Graham T. Dozier, was originally bound in published form and supported through a grant from the Roller-Bottimore Foundation.
How to use this guide
In compiling this guide, project staff reviewed and analyzed collections and individually cataloged items for Civil War content. We were initially led to materials through the Virginia Historical Society's existing card catalog of manuscripts and through information in our automated collections management database. Analysis of items and collections included the review of materials not previously highlighted for Civil War content but that fell into the appropriate time period or to which the staff's attention was drawn by some other means. Consequently, this guide provides detail about far more materials than could be found by an initial review of Civil War-related subject entries in the card catalog or database.
At the same time, we should make clear that our search of the manuscripts collection for Civil War materials has been comprehensive but not exhaustive, given the constraints of time, staffing, and the sheer size of the collection itself. Certainly, other materials than those listed in this guide may be located in our holdings through imaginative research strategies.
Another important point to which the attention of users should be drawn involves the types of materials that make up the society's manuscripts collection. Although some military service records, muster rolls, orders, and the like may be found in our holdings the society's collection consists primarily of letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and related materials and is not the place to launch a search for official documentation. Queries about such records should be directed to the Archives Division of the Library of Virginia in Richmond or to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
Each entry in this guide contains a main heading and a full description of its Civil War-related collection content. The headings (in bold) include the title of the collection, the date range of the collection, the item count for the whole collection (not just for the Civil War items), and the manuscript call number for the entire collection.
Guide entries include a brief contextual description of items or collections as a whole, followed by information about specific Civil War materials or references. In the case of collections, indications of the physical location of items are often also included, such as an item number or series (for example, a401 [item number] or Section 3 [series level]).
A number of the society's manuscript collections have been microfilmed to provide greater access and to aid in the preservation of the original items. If an entire collection, or a significant portion of one, has been microfilmed, the microfilm reel number appears in the heading. If a microfilm reel number is listed, the library patron will be served film and not the original manuscript. Some microfilm of VHS collections may be leased through interlibrary loan. Please contact the society's reference department for additional information.
In a number of instances, materials within collections have been published in their entirety or as excerpts. In those cases, a full citation for the published version is included in the collection description. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the VHS, is cited as VMHB, and The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C., 1880–1901) is cited as Official Records.