William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan
Finding aid for
Finding aid created by
Jacob H. Bechtel Papers, 1858-1862
Rob S. Cox, September 1989
Jacob H. Bechtel papers
Bechtel, Jacob H.
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.
The material is in English
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu
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Jacob H. Bechtel Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan
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.
- 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.
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
- Virginia--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
- Virginia--Politics and government--1861-1865.
Additional Descriptive Data
AbolitionistsAfrican-Americans--VirginiaBanks and banking--VirginiaBechtel familyBooksellers and bookselling--VirginiaBorder Slave State ConventionBrown, John, 1800-1859BusinessCensorshipConfederate States of AmericaConfederate States of America--Politics and governmentConfederate States of America. ArmyCrittenden Compromise, 1861Davis, Jefferson, 1808-1889DeathDemocratic PartyDraftElections--United States--1858Finance, PersonalFreedom of speechHarper's Ferry (W.Va.)--John Brown's Raid, 1859Insurance, LifeLincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Public opinionMarketingMerrimac (Vessel)MilitarismMissouri CompromisePoliticiansPresidents--United States--Election--1860Presidents--United States--Inaugural addressesRepublican PartyRepublican Party--Public opinionRichmond (Va.)--DescriptionRichmond (Va.)--Economic conditionsScuttling of shipsSecessionSecession--ArkansasSecession--North CarolinaSecession--Public opinionSecession--TennesseeSecession--VirginiaSelling--LampsSick childrenSlaverySlavery--Anti-slavery movementsSlavery--VirginiaSlavery--Virginia--Public opinionSouthern States--AttitudesState RightsTrucesUnemploymentUnion sympathizers--VirginiaUnited States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--BlockadesUnited States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--CausesUnited States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--FinanceUnited States--Politics and governmentUnited States. Postal ServiceVirginiaVirginia--History--Civil War, 1861-1865Virginia--Politics and government--Civil War, 1861-1865War, Declaration ofWhig Party--Virginia