Edward A. Pollard
Edward A. Pollard
Born February 27, 1831
Albemarle County, Virginia
Died December 12, 1872
Editor of the Richmond Examiner
Early historian of the Confederacy
"Morning broke on a scene never to be forgotten. . . . The smoke and glare of fire mingled with the golden beams of the rising sun. . . ."
Edward A. Pollard emerged as one of the South's best known commentators on Confederate leadership and military strategy during the Civil War. As the editorial page editor of the Richmond Examiner, Pollard's harsh criticism of Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) and other political leaders turned him into one of the South's most controversial writers. In addition, he published an annual series of books during the Civil War in which he provided his own interpretations of the war's progress. These volumes, which also attracted a lot of attention, made Pollard one of the first historians of the Confederacy.
Born into Virginia aristocracy
Edward Alfred Pollard was born in February 1831 in Albemarle County, Virginia. His parents were members of the state's planter (plantation owner) aristocracy (a privileged and influential class of people with distinguished ancestors). Unlike most other members of that group, however, Pollard's parents were not wealthy. The farmland that they owned was not very fertile, and Pollard's father, Richard Pollard, had lost a lot of money in bad business deals. As a result, young Edward and his eight brothers and sisters knew that they would have to find careers for themselves.
Fortunately for Edward, the generosity of several relatives enabled him to gain admittance into the region's finest schools, including the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary. By the time Pollard left William and Mary in 1850, he had excellent writing skills and a growing knowledge of the law. But he never earned a degree, in part because he spent a lot of his time gambling and engaging in other distracting activities.
Pollard spent much of the 1850s wandering around the globe. He spent the first part of the decade in Europe, where he supported himself as a writer for newspapers and magazines. He then moved on to California and Mexico before landing in the Central American country of Nicaragua. Once he arrived in Nicaragua, he allied himself with slaveowners who were trying to expand slavery into the region. "The path of our destiny on this continent lies in . . . tropical America [where] we may see an empire as powerful and gorgeous as ever was pictured in our dreams of history," Pollard wrote in 1859. "An empire . . . representing the noble peculiarities of Southern civilization. . . . The destiny of Southern civilization is to be consummated [completed] in a glory brighter even than that of old." In the end, however, these efforts to establish Southern-style slavery in Nicaragua failed.
Defender of slavery
During the late 1850s, Pollard watched the growing tensions between America's Northern and Southern regions with great interest. The main issue dividing the two regions was slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played an important role in the South's economy and culture. As a result, most white Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
Pollard strongly supported the South's point of view regarding slavery. He believed that blacks were terribly inferior to whites, and saw nothing wrong with keeping blacks enslaved. As a result, Northern claims that slavery was an immoral system angered and frustrated him. These feelings led Pollard to write and publish a book called Black Diamonds Gathered in the Darkey Homes of the South in 1859. Using his own childhood memories as the foundation for his book, Pollard portrayed slaves as being happy in their captivity and characterized all slaveowners as kind and gentle masters. "In these sketches," wrote historian Jon L. Wakelyn, "Pollard had created a fantasy world of old Virginia, a world he believed worth preserving."
Writing in Richmond
In early 1861, relations between the North and South became so bad that a group of Southern states decided to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders would not let the Southern states leave the Union without a fight. By April it was clear that the differences between the two regions were going to be settled through warfare.
As the two sides prepared for war, Pollard established himself as one of the Confederacy's most vocal defenders. In addition to helping his brother Henry Rives Pollard edit a strongly pro-Southern newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, he completed a book called Letters of a Southern Spy. This collection of essays, published in the spring of 1861, viciously attacked President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) and all Northerners as cowardly and dishonest people who wanted to stir up a race war in the South.
Letters of a Southern Spy angered many people who lived in and around Baltimore. After all, the city, which was located only thirty miles from the Federal capital of Washington, D.C., was home to many people who opposed slavery and remained loyal to the Union. As threats against Pollard poured in, he hurriedly left town and relocated to the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Once Pollard arrived in Richmond, he joined the staff of John M. Daniel's Richmond Examiner as the editor of its editorial page. During his first weeks in Richmond, Pollard wrote many editorials praising the Confederate people and their civilian leaders, such as President Jefferson Davis. He also expressed great confidence in the South's military leaders. As time passed, however, Pollard grew more critical of Davis and other civilian authorities. Statements of hopefulness about the Confederacy gradually gave way to nasty, gossipy attacks on Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens (1812–1883; see entry), and many other rebel (Confederate) leaders. The only group of Confederate leaders toward which Pollard remained friendly was the military command. Eventually, however, even some military leaders felt the sting of Pollard's critical editorials. Today, many historians point to Pollard's harsh words as prime examples of the sort of attacks that Davis was forced to endure throughout the course of the war. These attacks, they agree, hindered Davis's ability to lead and unify the Confederacy.
Pollard's criticism of Southern leaders finally became so strong that he lost the support of Daniel, the owner of the Examiner. As a result, Pollard resigned from the newspaper and boarded a ship for England, where he hoped to resume his writing career. The ship upon which he was traveling, however, was stopped by a Union ship that was part of a Northern blockade (a military operation designed to cut an enemy area off from outside supplies or communications) of the entire East Coast. When the Union sailors discovered Pollard's identity, they immediately arrested him as a spy.
Pollard was sent to prison in Boston, Massachusetts. His jailers let him go when they determined that he was not really a spy. But when he was released, he attempted to resume his anti-Northern writings in New York. His activities angered the Union authorities, who arrested him again and threw him in jail.
Pollard finally won his release from jail in January 1865. He promptly returned to Richmond and returned to the staff of the Examiner. But by this time, Union armies were marching to victory throughout the South. As the war drew to a close, many of Pollard's editorials reflected shock and sadness at the Confederacy's collapse.
Historian of the Confederacy
Pollard's work as a wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner brought him considerable attention. In the years immediately after the war, however, he became best known as one of the first people to provide a historical account of the Confederacy's brief existence.
Pollard's work as a historian actually began during the war, when he published annual volumes devoted to summarizing the previous year's events. As with his editorials for the Examiner, these volumes praised the actions of General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) and other rebel generals and attacked President Davis as incompetent and stubborn. According to historian Jon L. Wakelyn, these volumes "probably [did] more than any other of the early histories to fix the reputations of Confederate leaders for the future."
Pollard continued his work as a historian of the Confederacy during the postwar years. In 1866, he published The Lost Cause, a book that described the South's bid to leave the Union as a heroic effort that was undertaken to preserve Southern honor and virtue. In this and other works of the late 1860s he continued to criticize both the North and the Confederacy's civilian (nonmilitary) leaders, while simultaneously urging whites to maintain their superior social positions over blacks.
Pollard's writing output dwindled in the early 1870s, when his health began to decline. He died on December 12, 1872, in Lynchburg, Virginia, after a long illness.
Where to Learn More
Maddex, Jack P., Jr. The Reconstruction of Edward A. Pollard: A Rebel's Conversion to Postbellum Unionism. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1974.
Pollard, Edward A. Letters of a Southern Spy. E. W. Ayres, 1861.
Pollard, Edward A. The Lost Cause. New York: E. B. Treat, 1866. Reprint, New York: Gramercy Press, 1994.
Wakelyn, Jon L. "Edward Alfred Pollard" in Leaders of the American CivilWar. Edited by Jon L. Wakelyn and Charles F. Ritter. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Pollard Describes the Fall of Richmond
In early April 1865, the Confederate defense of the capital city of Richmond finally crumbled. As General Robert E. Lee evacuated his army from the city, the atmosphere on Richmond's streets became scary and chaotic. Writing for the Richmond Examiner, Edward Pollard described the scene with a heavy heart:
As the day wore on, clatter and bustle in the streets denoted the progress of the evacuation and convinced those who had been incredulous [doubtful] of its reality. The disorder increased each hour. The streets were thronged [crowded] with fugitives making their way to the railroad depots [stations]; pale women and little shoeless children struggled in the crowd; oaths and blasphemous shouts [swearing] smote [struck] the air. . . .
When it was finally announced by the Army that . . . the evacuation of Richmond was a foregone [unavoidable] conclusion, it was proposed to maintain order in the city by two regiments of militia [army composed of citizens]; to destroy every drop of liquor in the warehouses and stores; and to establish a patrol through the night. But the militia ran through the fingers of their officers . . . and in a short while the whole city was plunged into mad confusion and indescribable horrors.
It was an extraordinary night; disorder, pillage [looting], shouts, mad revelry. . . . In the now dimly lighted city could be seen black masses of people crowded around some object of excitement . . . swaying to and fro in whatever momentary passion possessed them. The gutters ran with a liquor freshet [overflow], and the fumes filled the air. Some of the straggling soldiers . . . easily managed to get hold of quantities of the liquor. Confusion became worse confounded; the sidewalks were encumbered [littered] with broken glass; stores were entered at pleasure and stripped from top to bottom; yells of drunken men, shouts of roving pillagers [robbers], wild cries of distress filled the air and made night hideous.
But a new horror was to appear upon the scene and take possession of the community. To the rear-guard of the Confederate force . . . had been left the duty of blowing up the iron-clad vessels in the James [River] and destroying the bridges across the river. . . . The work of destruction might well have ended here. But the four principal tobacco warehouses of the city were fired; the flames seized on the neighboring buildings and soon involved a wide and widening area; the conflagration [fire] passed rapidly beyond control. And in this mad fire, this wild, unnecessary destruction of their property, the citizens of Richmond had a fitting souvenir of the imprudence [lacking in judgment] and recklessness of the departing Administration.
Morning broke on a scene never to be forgotten. . . . The smoke and glare of fire mingled with the golden beams of the rising sun. . . . The fire was reaching to whole blocks of buildings. . . . Its roar sounded in the ears; it leaped from street to street. Pillagers were busy at their vocation, and in the hot breath of the fire were figures as of demons contending [fighting] for prey.