[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series will focus on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to a special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Two interesting histories, and one troubling one, found in the small central Virginia city.
1) A proto-industrial giant: Thanks in multiple ways to its location on the James River—both because of the late 18th century (John) Lynch’s Ferry, which routed the tobacco trade and other traffic through the city; and because of the early 19th century construction of iron and steel factories along that river—Lynchburg became during the antebellum period, as Thomas Jefferson put it in 1810, “perhaps the most rising place in the U.S.” By the 1850s, the city was rivaled only by New Bedford (Massachusetts’ whaling center) in per capita wealth; and like any economic boomtown, it had its share of vice, centered in the infamous Buzzards Roost neighborhood. The Civil War, about which more in a moment, changed the city’s trajectory as it did so much of the South’s (although manufacturing continued throughout the postwar period)—but it’s certainly interesting to imagine an alternative Gilded Age history with Lynchburg as an icon of wealth.
2) A Civil War capital, briefly: Compared to other Virginia locales, Lynchburg saw a minimal amount of action during the war: principally the June 18, 1864 Battle of Lynchburg, during which Confederate forces under the command of General Jubal Early (aided, the legend goes, by local prostitutes, hopefully operating out of Buzzard’s Roost for blog paragraph continuity) repulsed Union troops led by General David Hunter. Because the city did not fall at that time, nor indeed was ever taken during the course of the war, it had the somewhat dubious honor of serving as Virginia’s (and thus, in some meaningful ways, the Confederacy’s, although Danville was the official post-Richmond choice) final wartime capital after the evacuation of Richmond, holding that title from April 6-10. On the 10th, Robert E. Lee surrended to Ulysses S. Grant at nearby Appomattox Courthouse, ending both the war and Lynchburg’s brief stint with political fame.
3) A shameful practice: For nearly 50 years, from the early 20th century through the 1970s, Lynchburg (or rather its suburb of Madison Heights) was home to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, site of more than 8000 forced sterilizations carried out in the name of eugenics. The most famous of those thousands of victims was Carrie Buck, an 18 year old girl sterilized in 1924 for being “feeble-minded” and the plaintiff in Buck v. Bell (1927), the case in which the Supreme Court shamefully sided (in an overwhelming 8-1 decision, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. writing for the majority) with Virginia’s compulsory sterilization statute (ruling that it did not violate the victims’ 14th Amendment rights). The sterilizations were only stopped in 1972, making this shameful period of Lynchburg’s (and Virginia’s) history at least as long as its era of economic dominance. But that’s the yin and yang of Virginian places and histories, as this week’s series will illustrate time and again.
Next VA place tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Interesting places (in any state) you’d highlight?
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