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A Young Virginia Boatman Navigates the Civil War

The Journals of George Randolph Wood
George Randolph Wood. Edited by Will Molineux. Introduction by Scott Nelson

BUY Cloth · 216 pp. · 6 × 8 · ISBN 9780813929033 · $35.00 · Oct 2010

George Randolph Wood filled several journal books with personal remembrances of life in nineteenth-century Hampton, Virginia; particularly of his experiences aboard river and canal boats transporting supplies for Confederate troops along the James River during the Civil War. Wood wrote about his experience because he thought it might interest his family, but his writing is of interest to a more general audience because of the scarcity of information about those who worked on river boats and supply barges during the war.

In his later life, Wood was a druggist by profession and his writing lacks the sentimentality often found in reminiscences, and his terse, non-flowery style is interspersed with wit and honest observations of wartime spent on the James River, its tributaries, and the canal above Richmond. The Wood family evacuated Hampton and initially found sanctuary in City Point. They tramped over the corpse-strewn Malvern Hill battlefield. They lived in Richmond where Wood’s oldest brother, Robert, was imprisoned as a Union sympathizer. And they found accommodations in a crowded mansion on the bank of the Appomattox River before returning through the lines to the ruins of Hampton. Wood watched artillery shells descend in his direction; attended scores of theatrical performances in Richmond; visited encampments of Hampton boys; twice saw Robert E. Lee; went hungry, yet sampled caviar; was detained at Fort Monroe; helped to build a house--and may have even cast a vote for Abraham Lincoln (in a mock presidential election).

Historian Scott Nelson has written an illuminating essay on how Wood captures the dilemma of people living along the James River trying to survive between the battle lines of Union and Confederate troops, and how this account provides new and valuable information for scholars and students alike.

Published in association with the Port Hampton History Foundation for the Library at the Mariners’ Museum


The links that tie us truly to the past are the memories of those who were there. This journal of a Confederate teenage canal boatman on the James River, on the very battle line between North and South in the Civil War, is a first-rate first person memory--a deftly written and meticulously annotated gem.

John C. Waugh, author of Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership between a President and his General

"George Randolph Wood, like his father and his grandfather before him, worked on the James River. And from the river he would watch the Civil War unfold. A river pilot must have an encyclopaedic memory of sandbars, rocks, and landing places. Young George’s knowledge of the twists and bends of the river, its sharp currents and dangerous places, made him invaluable when the war started. The sharp memory for detail that shows up in this memoir--catfish in canals, slick Union overcoats, a merchant’s name on a molasses barrel, soldiers asleep in wheat fields, the knee-high britches of a poor white teenager--make Wood’s memories of the Civil War hard to forget. Wood navigatd the water, the border between battlefield and homefront, the line between Southern Unionist and Confederate, and the shifting boundary between slavery and freedom. Because his father was "a Union man," George and his brother Robert B. would take different sides on the conflict. George, with his photographic eye for detail, appeared to capture it all."

Scott Nelson

About the Author(s): 

Will Molineux is the author of Williamsburg and Jamestown, both from the Image of America Series. Scott Nelson is Legum Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, and the coauthor of A People At War: Civilians and Solider’s in America’s Civil War, 1854-1877.

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