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A Young Virginia Boatman Navigates the Civil War: The Journals of George Randolph Wood

edited by Will Molineux, University of Virginia Press, 2010, $30

FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD GEORGE Randolph Wood worked on the James River in Virginia with his father, an experienced river pilot, when the Civil War changed their world forever. Forty years later, Wood wrote down his adolescent memories, incorporating stories he heard from family, friends and old veterans living around his hometown of Hampton.

From five densely packed journals, Will Molineux has skillfully extracted and annotated some of Wood’s experiences. “Wood wrote during the first decade of the 20th century,” Molineux points out, “when Lost Cause sentiment, influenced by daily association with older veterans, worked to soften his memory of the harsh and harrowing events he witnessed.” Nevertheless, his recollections give a nautical perspective to the war in Tidewater Virginia.

Wood recalled witnessing the failure of Union Commander John Rogers to navigate his fleet past river obstacles and the Drewry’s Bluff defenses on May 15, 1862. “If he had had good pilots he could have gone up James River past the obstructions that evening and been in the rear of their batteries,” Wood recalled, noting that Richmond escaped capture “only for the want of a good pilot.”

The book is carefully edited and annotated. Maps and illustrations help ground Wood’s story in a unique time and place.


Originally published in the May 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here