Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Jacob H. Bechtel Papers, 1858-1862

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, September 1989

Summary Information
Title: Jacob H. Bechtel papers
Creator: Bechtel, Jacob H.
Inclusive dates: 1858-1862
Extent: 20 items
Abstract:
The Jacob H. Bechtel papers contain 20 letters written by Jacob H. Bechtel to his brother George that reflect the thoughts and experiences of a moderate in Virginia during the Civil War.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu


Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1989. M-2468.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.

Copyright:

No copyright restrictions.

Preferred Citation:

Jacob H. Bechtel Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Biography

In the late 1850's and early 1860's, Jacob H. Bechtel was employed as a bookkeeper in Richmond, Va., at A. Morris Bookseller, Stationer & Publisher. Though born and raised in Philadelphia, Bechtel had acquired a range of Southern mannerisms and attitudes during his years in Richmond, even while maintaining close ties with his relatives in the North, and he and his family seem to have been contented with their adopted home. However as the series of events that culminated in the Civil War transpired, Bechtel found himself increasingly torn between his Northern roots and his new Southern home.

As the crisis came to a head, Bechtel became critical of what he saw as extremism on both sides of the sectional divide. While he was terrified by the direct action of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, he scorned the pointless confrontations of the fire-eating secessionists, and could never accept their use of the politics of force. His opinions shifted increasingly toward a passive sympathy with the secession movement, particularly after John Brown's raid and the election of Lincoln in 1860, and he chose to remain in Virginia as the nation dissolved, though not without misgivings. Ultimately, the decision of which side he would support was made for him when he was trapped in Richmond by the imposition of the federal blockade of southern ports. By the middle of 1861, he felt forced into silence on all political matters because of the suspicion aroused against him by virtue of his northern origins. His fate during the war is unknown.


Collection Scope and Content Note

The Jacob H. Bechtel papers contains 20 letters written by Jacob H. Bechtel to his brother, George, and represents a microcosm of the civilian Civil War experience in Virginia. Not only was the man's family divided, but the man himself was as well.

The collection provides a detailed and emotionally-charged account of social and political events from the time of John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 to the outbreak of war in 1861. In the earliest letters in this collection, Bechtel freely recorded his opinions on the rhetorical extremes of both those whom he regarded as radical secessionists or fanatical unionists. While he seemed to sympathize more with the Southern cause, Bechtel did not readily swing to either extreme. Instead, he considered the tragedy unfolding in front of him both unnecessary and avoidable, with both sides being led to ruin by the actions of extremists. After the Union blockade of Southern ports and the possibility of leaving for "home" (the North) was eliminated, Bechtel was left with no choice but to side with the Southern cause. The series of correspondence ends with a brief, sanitized note written during a cease fire, probably early in 1862, informing George that he and his family are well.

Among other important events discussed in the Bechtel letters are the John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry, the secession conventions of the various southern states, the intimidation tactics used by Virginia secessionists to generate support (and quell dissent), the Crittenden Compromise, and the federal blockade of Richmond and its effects on the people and economy. Bechtel's letters provide a strongly worded, personally-felt record of the swings in public opinion in Richmond as perceived by a somewhat atypical resident.

Subject Terms

    Subjects:
    • Abolitionists.
    • Confederate States of America.
    • Insurance, Life.
    • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
    • Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- )
    • Richmond (Va.)--Description and travel.
    • Secession Southern States--Public opinion.
    • Secession--Virginia.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • Virginia--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • Virginia--Politics and government--1861-1865.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1, Small Collections  
    Jacob H. Bechtel papers,  1858-1862 [series]
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    Abolitionists
    • 3, 6, 7, 9, 12
    African-Americans--Virginia
    • 16
    Banks and banking--Virginia
    • 7
    Bechtel family
    • 14
    Booksellers and bookselling--Virginia
    • 4
    Border Slave State Convention
    • 12, 13
    Brown, John, 1800-1859
    • 3, 6
    Business
    • 7
    Censorship
    • 8, 19, 20
    Confederate States of America
    • 10, 19
    Confederate States of America--Politics and government
    • 11, 14
    Confederate States of America. Army
    • 16
    Crittenden Compromise, 1861
    • 9
    Davis, Jefferson, 1808-1889
    • 16
    Death
    • 7
    Democratic Party
    • 5
    Draft
    • 19
    Elections--United States--1858
    • 1
    Finance, Personal
    • 11, 12
    Freedom of speech
    • 16
    Harper's Ferry (W.Va.)--John Brown's Raid, 1859
    • 3, 6
    Insurance, Life
    • 11-13, 15, 19
    Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865
    • 5, 13-15, 17
    Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Public opinion
    • 6, 10, 16
    Marketing
    • 2
    Merrimac (Vessel)
    • 16
    Militarism
    • 3, 13, 16
    Missouri Compromise
    • 12
    Politicians
    • 12
    Presidents--United States--Election--1860
    • 5
    Presidents--United States--Inaugural addresses
    • 14
    Republican Party
    • 5, 6
    Republican Party--Public opinion
    • 7, 9, 10, 14
    Richmond (Va.)--Description
    • 3, 16
    Richmond (Va.)--Economic conditions
    • 6, 15, 17, 18, 20
    Scuttling of ships
    • 16
    Secession
    • 10
    Secession--Arkansas
    • 19
    Secession--North Carolina
    • 19
    Secession--Public opinion
    • 5-7, 10, 14, 15, 19
    Secession--Tennessee
    • 19
    Secession--Virginia
    • 9-15, 16, 19
    Selling--Lamps
    • 2
    Sick children
    • 6, 7
    Slavery
    • 7
    Slavery--Anti-slavery movements
    • 3, 7, 12
    Slavery--Virginia
    • 3
    Slavery--Virginia--Public opinion
    • 9
    Southern States--Attitudes
    • 5
    State Rights
    • 9
    Truces
    • 8
    Unemployment
    • 7
    Union sympathizers--Virginia
    • 19, 20
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 16, 20
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Blockades
    • 16, 17, 18, 20
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Causes
    • 17
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Finance
    • 17, 18, 20
    United States--Politics and government
    • 9
    United States. Postal Service
    • 20
    Virginia
    • 11
    Virginia--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 8, 9 and passim
    Virginia--Politics and government--Civil War, 1861-1865
    • 14, 15 and passim
    War, Declaration of
    • 16
    Whig Party--Virginia
    • 5