The Civil War in Southwest Virginia


Jim Glanville

“Southwest Virginia is all too often overlooked in histories of the Civil War era. “Our region is far away from the best-known battlefields such as Gettysburg and Bull Run, yet it contains many sites of Civil War significance.”

Those are the two opening sentences of the introduction section of a free brochure titled “Civil War Driving Tour of Southwest Virginia” produced by Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech directed by Professor Paul Quigley, with April Danner of the Smithfield Plantation and Virginia Tech history professor Dan Thorp serving as consultants.

The brochure folds out to become a front-and-back printed sheet measuring 18 x 24 inches. On it, a large regional map shows seventeen sites of Civil War interest, and a smaller map of Blacksburg shows eight sites of interest.

Each of the 25 sites comes with its thumbnail picture and a short description of its significance. The brochure can be picked up at the Smithfield Plantation and the Black House in Blacksburg, the Glencoe Museum in Radford and the Montgomery County Museum in Christiansburg.

In addition to its introduction, other sections of the brochure are “Natural Resources and Railroads,” “Leaders,” “Confederate Monuments,” and, of course, the credits.

For readers with access to the web, the web site is:, which covers everything on the brochure and more.

The brochure misses some sites, such as the Glencoe Mansion in Radford, the home of Confederate General Gabriel Wharton and Minie Ball Hill in Giles County, where Union General George Crook abandoned much of his ammunition and heavy equipment on his march back to West Virginia in miserable weather after the battle of Cloyd’s mountain.

In our region, the Civil War is largely dominated by the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. During the early years of the war, the railroad served as a vital link between Virginia and the Confederate states of the Deep South.

Later in the war the railroad was the focus of attacks by Union generals. An older, but excellent book on the subject is Kenneth W. Noe’s “Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis in the Civil War Era” (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994).

Because of my special interest in the early settlement of southwest Virginia, I have not published much about the Civil War. However, in the 2012 volume of the “Historical Society of Western Virginia Journal,” aided and guided by the Saltville residents and local history experts Roger Allison and Harry Haynes, I did coauthor an article titled “Saltville During the Civil War.” The salt produced there was a vital commodity for the South.

While the Civil War is never far out of the collective Virginia mind, concerns about the War have been especially newsworthy during the summer and fall of this year.

In particular, monuments to Confederate leaders and generals have found extreme devotees and equally extreme detractors. The debate continues as to whether these monuments should be preserved, preserved with modifications, consigned to museums or melted down.

Recently, the remarks of White House chief-of-staff General John Kelly about General Robert E. Lee and the cause of the Civil War have been controversial. As with the monuments, Kelly’s views have attracted both supporters and detractors.

The US Citizens and Immigration Services (a part of the Department of Homeland Security) is responsible for testing persons seeking to become US citizens (as I did in 1972) to see that they are knowledgeable about America and thus properly qualified for citizenship.

USCIS lists online 100 history and government questions and answers for the oral naturalization civics test. A USCIS Officer will ask an applicant up to 10 of these 100 civics questions and the applicant must answer six questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test.

Question 74 of the online list reads, “Name one problem that led to the Civil War.” The three acceptable answers to this question are listed (in order) as slavery, economic reasons and states’ rights.

In his 2001 book titled “Apostles of Disunion” published by the University of Virginia Press, the southern historian Charles Dew wrote “To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war.”

The principal economic reason for the Civil War was for the states of the Confederacy to retain their system of enslaved persons. The principal right that the seceding states demanded was the right to maintain their system of enslaved persons.

This writer’s opinion is that to deny slavery as the central cause of the Civil War is to defy logic.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia.