Back before the giant shipyard, before the spider web of train tracks, the t reserve ships and the open-air coal pier, there was a quiet, bucolic and very southern place known as Newport News.
|Gloomy scene on James River is all that's left of West farm after|
the war. From Harper's Weekly. From Marshall Rouse McClure.
Especially Newport News Point, the end of land where the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel touches down. It’s hard to believe there was a plantation here and a pre-Civil War lifestyle that might have been part of Gone with the Wind.
That’s what is striking about After the Gunboats Landed, a newly republished memoir by one of the last of the cast of characters that trod the stage of that bygone era, George Benjamin West.
The memoir, originally published as When the Yankees Came, was edited by the late Parke Rouse Jr., a one-time columnist for the Daily Press and prolific writer on the history of the Peninsula. It’s been re-published, along with numerous illustrations, by Parke Press of Norfolk, owned by his daughter, Marshall Rouse McClure.
West grew up partly on the sprawling family farm at Newport News Point and partly in Hampton. He wrote about the idle pleasures of boyhood, including coon hunting, sailing and visiting with friends.
All the while there were threats of war, but not enough to distract from daily life. ”Though the times were threatening and the political clouds black and gloomy . . . yet in our house all was joy, peace, and happiness, and we gave up ourselves to the pleasure of the season,” he wrote. “Forgetting all things save the present, we were entirely engrossed in the continual round of gaieties and amusements of the neighborhood.”
This would come to an abrupt end in the spring of 1861 when Virginia voted to secede from the Union. West was then at the University of Virginia and almost couldn’t get home because gunboats had already arrived on the James River.
There followed a series of moves as the West family fled by horse cart to Williamsburg and then to Richmond, where they witnessed the horrors of war.
“The whole city was filled with the sick and the wounded,” he wrote, “every available place a hospital, and a great many private homes with some loved one or acquaintance. The hearses were busy all the day and did not take only one body but as many as could be put in.”
They fled again to Lynchburg and, then, as the war ended, returned to Newport News, not realizing that much of the family property had been confiscated or sold. He would spend years trying to get it back.
It isn’teasy to work up much sympathy for West, who grew up in the lap of luxury and scarcely did a lick of work, what with slaves always around to do his bidding. It seems he was sickly and, probably like his father, a bit corpulent. He did not join the Confederate army – except for a stint in local defense forces around Richmond – but spent much of the war as a civilian supplying uniforms and whatnot for the army.
He held conventional southern views about slavery and a dislike for the “Yankees” who invaded their land. It was galling to have to scrape out a living in whatever way he could. A cousin allowed him to cut wood on his land, “and borrowing a cart, I hauled it to Hampton and sold it to eat groceries. This was the most humiliating business I ever did – to haul wood around town and sell it to negroes.”
He was forced to plow his own fields, and eventually put by enough money to buy back some of the family land. Then more and more, and finally, when railroad magnate Collis Huntington discovered Newport News Point, made a tidy sum selling it to him – even though he hated doing business with this rich Yankee.
He got into banking and left a permanent mark on the city, donating $10,000 in 1916 to create what became Riverside Hospital. At his death the following year he left the bulk of his estate to pay for needy patients in its outpatient clinic.
There was not much left of the old Newport News, although, as Rouse wrote in an epilogue, “something of the character of horse-and-buggy Virginia survived amid the noise and traffic of the new age. . . .The ex-Confederate would have been pleased at that.”