Peter S. Carmichael.The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 343 pages. ISBN 0–8078–2948–X. Reviewed by Luke E. Harlow, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Peter S. Carmichael's The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion is a “generational study” of a group of 121 Virginia men who, born between 1830 and 1843, came of age in the 1850s. These “young Virginians” tended to be college educated and, if not all from elite, wealthy families, they “all looked at the world through the broad intellectual framework of the dominant slaveholding class” (7). They were the last of the antebellum generation, many served as junior officers in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and most lived on through Reconstruction—though more than a quarter of Carmichael's sample died during the war. In studying such a group, Carmichael resists the periodization prevalent in many histories of nineteenth-century America, which either end or begin with the Civil War. Carmichael mines the public and private writings of his actors to determine how they justified secession, came to terms with defeat, and ultimately embraced national reunion. With lively and skillful prose, The Last Generation brings questions about age to bear upon matters of broad interest to historians of the Civil War era—especially economy, gender, religion, and sectional nationalism—and is a welcome addition to literature on the period.

While maintaining that slavery should remain intact, the last generation argued that economic diversification and development . . . would facilitate their rise to social respectability.  


The ideology of the young Virginians coalesced around their belief in the benefits of social and economic progress and notions of Christian manhood. For a previous age group, referred to by the last generation as “old fogies,” social status was achieved by ascending the ranks of the planter aristocracy. Members of Carmichael's sample were desperate to prove their worth as capable men, but they largely believed the opportunities available to their elders no longer existed. The doors to the upper reaches of the planter class had closed and, in the face of advancing northern industrial and free labor economies, an order solely based upon slavery seemed outmoded. Desperate to climb the social hierarchy, “Young Virginians shared with free-labor societies a belief that progress represented an increase in material prosperity, individualism, and bourgeois liberalism” (21). Such ideas did not cause the last generation to change their view of slavery as a divinely sanctioned, central institution. But different than elite proslavery intellectuals in the late antebellum period, none in Carmichael's “sample group expressed concern about slavery's future in a world driven by free-labor capitalism” (19). While maintaining that slavery should remain intact, the last generation argued that economic diversification and development—especially in the opening of professions that might clear the way for the rise of a middle class—would facilitate their rise to social respectability.

Not only had the old fogies' economic narrow-mindedness hurt the last generation's hopes for social advancement, the young Virginians also felt strongly that their forebears had also allowed their home state to decline. Carmichael's group believed old fogydom's excessive dependence upon slavery and their sense of entitlement to a planter class life of leisure prompted the Commonwealth's slide from its early national place of prominence. It was this desire to reclaim Virginia's noted reputation that led young Virginians to embrace secession. The last generation felt that the Commonwealth had been affronted by northern agitators—particularly in the form of abolitionists and Republicans, who were wedded to the “evil forces” of “Northern Unitarianism and Universalism” (180)—and saw their state's honor in need of defending.

Drawing on a conception of “muscular Christianity,” Carmichael's group firmly supported the war effort and did not lose hope even when, by 1865, it was clear the cause had failed. This sustained energy was due in large part to the fact that the last generation firmly believed that God was on their side: “To them, the Confederacy was the realization of the abstract notion of a Southern Christian community. Within this framework, their commitment to Christ flowed into their commitment to the Confederacy” (180). For at least some of Carmichael's subjects, such opinions were the result of serious, developed reflection. Hugh White, for example, a Confederate Captain who gave his life for the South in 1862, worried, “like many Southern clergymen, about the popular idea that wearing the Confederate gray was an act of salvation that could replace conversion. Fighting was not, he believed, synonymous with being saved” (183). Yet, as other studies of southern nationalism in the period have often demonstrated, the war was a matter of utmost religious significance to Carmichael's last generation.

Even as the Civil War smashed to pieces the slave system, it did not completely destroy the young Virginians' progress-oriented outlook. While they temporarily hoped for retribution against Yankees, the last generation ultimately, by about 1880, opted for reunion and embraced the New South with few reservations. As Carmichael succinctly explains, “There was no cynical capitulation to New South propaganda” (236). Because Carmichael's group had always embraced progress, they had little trouble initially reconciling themselves to the new order. Yet as the years went on and the last generation aged, they grew increasingly uneasy about material extravagance brought by an advancing market economy. Carmichael concludes his study by showing how his sample in fact became anxious “old fogies” themselves, personifying a mentality they spent many of their younger years working against.

Carmichael's analysis is cogent and compelling, but it does raise further questions. Most obviously, some might question how applicable the conclusions of The Last Generation might be for the rest of the South in the period. Carmichael could only ascertain the religious affiliation of 35 of his young Virginians—just more than a quarter of his sample—but the majority of that number (sixty percent) were Episcopalians, with only one Baptist, three Methodists, and one Methodist/Episcopal. Perhaps this imbalance in favor of Episcopalians occurs because—as Carmichael admits—he draws mostly on the writings of elites. Carmichael does not offer a deep probing of the relationship between denominational affiliation and ideas about southern identity, but one wonders if a more evangelical sample, more representative of broad southern religious opinion, would have thought differently about southern identity and what it meant to be a Christian gentleman. To be sure, The Last Generation documents an attitude toward progress similar to that exhibited by contemporary Methodists and Baptists, as Beth Barton Schweiger explored in The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (2000). Yet in the absence of such well-researched studies for other southern states, it is difficult to determine how far the implications of Carmichael's work might reach. Though more Civil War battles were fought in Virginia than any other state and it held the Confederacy's capital in Richmond, the last generation took a moderate stance toward Reconstruction, “advocated a plan of economic diversification, internal improvements, and industrial growth,” and as a result, Carmichael explains, Virginians took a more direct path to national reunion (215).

If Virginia might have been somewhat singular, for Carmichael's part, he does not claim more than his study warrants. He does not suggest that the young Virginians necessarily spoke for the Confederate South. As such, The Last Generation is a model study that paves the way for further exploration of questions about the role of generational identity, ideology, and sectional nationalism in other locations in the Civil War-era South.

Luke E. Harlow, Rice University


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