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.